Can Strong Mayors Empower Weak Cities?: On the Power of Local Executives in a Federal System
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
This Paper considers the historic weakness of the American mayoralty and recent reform efforts designed to strengthen it. The mayoralty's weakness has two grounds. First, the office's lack of power is a product of elite skepticism of urban democracy. That skepticism manifested itself in Progressive-era reforms that almost entirely eliminated the mayor's office in favor of a city council and professional city manager; the mayoralty continues to be a ceremonial office in most small and medium-sized cities. Second, the mayoralty's weakness is a result of a federal system that devalues city — and by extension, mayoral — power. American-style federalism privileges regional governments rather than local ones: states, not cities, are the salient sites for constitutionally-protected "local" governance. This structural fact has political consequences: The city's limited capacity to make effective policy reinforces the parochialism of its leaders; their parochialism, in turn, reinforces the city's subordinate status. The challenge for urban reformers is to alter this "constitutional" weakness of the mayoralty. I argue that the strong mayoralty is a potential instrument for democratic self-government to the extent that it is able to amass power on behalf of the city.