Black Mayors in the U.S., Pt. 2 – The New School

Recently I did a post spurred on by a colleague of mine, sparked by a rather indepth Twitter convo.  When he asked how did I feel about Cory Booker and Adrian Fenty (mayors of Newark, NJ and Washington, D.C. respectively) my immediate response was that “they’re ontologically white” and therefore not a part of the conversation about black mayors.

Yes, I said that.

Granted that’s a highly loaded statement and a heavy charge to level against anyone, I felt that 140 characters was not nearly enough to fully discuss what I meant by that statement.  Hence this blog.  I will back off of the statement as it relates to the entirety of black mayors, however, I do stand that by in large Cory Booker and Adrian Fenty, and a few other black mayors have this dual knowledge of ontological whiteness that is a deviation from what we have historically recognized as the black politician in this country.  And both Booker and Fenty are not alone in their familiarity with white culture.

My friend automatically said I made that statement because they were light skinned and I said no, I really meant that.  Cory Booker grew up in an all white township in New Jersey and went to Stanford.  And Cory Booker grew up in Mount Pleasant in DC and went to a private Catholic high school.  Not saying that this makes them white, but clearly their understanding of growing up in the streets or coming from a family that was struggling to make it, climbing out of the depths of poverty is certainly not that of many of the mayors I mentioned in the other post.

Nonetheless, ontological and existential issues aside, this following list of mayors had to navigate a different minefield than their mayoral predecessors.  While yes many of these urban enclaves were plagued with crime and gang violence and “urban decay,” these mayors had to begin to address concerns of businessmen and financiers who were backing them and backing the move of whites back into urban populations.  Cities such as Atlanta and Chicago are seeing blacks move into the suburbs, both middle class and poor and seeing whites move back from the suburbs and ex-urban areas into city centers.  With changing demographics black mayors can no longer rely so heavily on black populations to carry them into office.  Especially with black middle classes growing and more blacks concerned about fiscal responsibility and issues surrounding their money, the old school image of a black mayoral candidate running solely on social justice issues doesn’t work!

I begin in 1995 with the election of Willie Brown in San Francisco as the beginning of the tide turning because of San Francisco’s diversity, Willie Brown could no longer be the archetypical “black politician” that a Marion Barry could afford to be.  (One could say this began with the election of Wellington Webb as Denver’s first black mayor, but I think Denver’s overwhelmingly white population doesn’t carry the same gravity as the example of San Francisco.)

Willie Brown, D-San Francisco (1996) — Willie Brown successfully campaigned and won two terms of one of the most culturally diverse cities in America.  By all accounts his mayoral term was a success.  He fulfilled his campaign promises of addressing the homeless population, he increased the city budget, meaning he balanced it and found more money for more programs, and even attempted to provide universal health care for San Francisco denizens, but it wasn’t quite enough money in the budget.

Brown did face FBI investigations for patronage from being a state representative through his tenure as mayor, but none of it has panned out.  And it did nothing to tarnish his image.  So much so that Gavin Newsum, the current mayor of San Francisco was out of Brown’s administration, meaning the city expected much of the same.

Brown being an older American was able to change with the times, and acts as an exemplar of what it means to be a politician who is black

Anthony Williams

Anthony Williams, D-Washington, D.C. (1999) — Williams, known for his bowties, came into office out of the Barry administration as well.  Regarded as a moderate, Williams helped oversea the same transition of blacks out of the city, namely into Prince George’s County and whites moving back into city.  Williams helped balance the budget coming out of the turmoil of Barry’s previous term, and sustained budget surpluses for his entire term in office.  He was elected twice, the second time despite what could have been a major hitch against Minister Willie F. Wilson (yes, the Willie Wilson of “lesbians ’bout to take over“).

I’m much more inclined to say that historically Williams’ administration isn’t going to be totally highly regarded.  While yes, he had a good administration, nothing about it was really great or groundbreaking.  Yes, residential and commercial interests went up, he still failed to buy a home within the District and he received some flak over bringing the Nationals MLB team to D.C.  Perhaps, tell-tale of his legacy was his endorsing of a candidate in the primary elections who never made it to the general elections.  He was succeeded by Adrian Fenty.

Kwame Kilpatrick, D-Detroit (2002) — Kwame Kilpatrick swooped into the Michigan state house at 26 following his mother Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick who was running for U.S. Representative for that district.  He was elected mayor at 31, the youngest ever for the city.  And frankly, from all accounts it was downhill from there.

Kwame Kilpatrick

Kilpatrick branded himself as the “hip-hop mayor” posing with Detroit’s own Marshall “Eminem” Mathers holding various hip hop conferences in the city.  Image wise he made sense to a younger generation from being aware of who Eminem was to rocking a diamond stud in one ear.  But, behind closed doors, Kilpatrick was racking up personal charges on behalf of the city to the tune of $200,000 in his first term, and chose to balance the city budget with not so popular options such as closing the city zoo.

His second term was filled with controversy from his initial re-election that many had said included voter fraud, his incendiary off the script State of the City address in 2008, and of course the resounding death knell being the whole text messaging scandal with an aide of his.  It revealed more than shady dealings going back to a house party during his first year as mayor, assault charges, and the subsequent death of a stripper.  Not to mention that the city council had given a near unanimous vote of no confidence (save the now indicted and jailed Monica Conyers).

Sitting in jail under new charges of not following the rules of his probation for an earlier sentencing stemming from perjury charges, mishandling city funds and obstruction of justice along with other fraud counts, Kilpatrick is a prime example of what NOT to do in office.  And we’re left wondering, young and old alike, what happened and what went wrong.

C. Ray Nagin

C. Ray Nagin, D-New Orleans (2002) — He was elected a few months prior to me moving to New Orleans.  From what I could tell, he was a personable mayor and frequently was seen at events on Dillard’s campus which is always a good thing to see the mayor out with people.  (His son, was in a couple of my classes and he shortly dropped off the face of the planet, we later found out why)  But, Nagin’s biggest issue was that he wasn’t endorsed by any of the political machines familiar to New Orleans, but he still overcame that hurdle and was elected.  His first term was rather uneventful, he addressed the city’s infamous “brake tag” issues (vehicle inspections) and everything else was par for the course.

His mayoral administration was defined by Hurricane Katrina, nothing else and nothing less.

I still stand by Nagin, even with his “chocolate city” speech. After living in New Orleans, I think Nagin got a bad wrap in the court of public opinion. People were expecting him to make bricks without straw–rebuild an entire city without support from the governor’s office and without federal dollars to fulfill the promise to bring New Orleans back to the city.  For me, Nagin was still able to address and handle city problems and still look out for black interests in a city with a black supermajority.

Shirley Franklin

Shirley Franklin, Atlanta (2002) — History will be a mixed bag with Shirley Franklin.  While she’ll be regarded as one of the first black female mayor of a major U.S. city, by her second term, her star had been diminished.  While she addressed the city’s water main problem (seriously, there was a water main break every other day when I first got to Atlanta in 2006), she had serious budget issues that she was not able to survive.  This stemmed from Mayor Bill Campbell’s crookedness combined with a severe downturn in the economy, having to squeeze and pinch pennies.

Franklin’s administration will be categorized by the economic downturn and mayors now having to cater to businesses and middle and upper class residents wanting to come into the city; the whole North Fulton county situation trying to secede from Fulton county and her administration’s wretched bookkeeping.  Not so much scandal with the books, just utterly bad bookkeeping.

Adrian Fenty

Adrian Fenty, D-Washington, D.C. (2007) — If I had to pick one mayor that I liked the best out of this bunch it would be Fenty.  Perhaps it’s my bias to all things Washington, D.C., but Fenty’s approach to education and crime certainly endeared me to him.  By restructuring city government and replacing the DCPS superintendent with a chancellor (much like Chicago’s CPS CEO) who reports to the mayor.  Perhaps asking District residents how they feel about Michelle Rhee would be better, because from what I’ve heard it’s certainly a mixed bag of reviews because she hasn’t necessarily been the shot in the arm DCPS needs so badly.

Also bringing in new police chief Cathy Lanier garnered national attention and didn’t exactly endear him to resident, but it wasn’t a move that backfired on him.  By all accounts Fenty has been nothing but positive news for all of DC residents, black and white, Latino and Asian. Crime is down and perhaps education woes are just par for the course when dealing big cities.  The Washington Post endorse him for the Democratic primary in a few weeks, and so do I.

Cory Booker

Cory Booker, D-Newark (2006) — It seems that Booker either decided to align himself with the black cause, or he truly saw himself identified as black and therefore felt it was his moral duty to do something.  Truly going over and above what many persons do, Booker endeared himself to the residents of Newark by living in public housing projects, camping out in open-air drug markets, and going on a hunger strike.  By the time he ran for office the first time, it still wasn’t enough and issues of his “blackness” were at stake.  He ran again in 2006 and won.

Booker has been credited with balancing the city budget, but most of all with bringing the crime rate way down.  Newark saw it’s lowest murder rate since 1959 and just earlier this year the month of March saw no murders in the entire city.

This “new black politician” image is what makes him work.  With an unemployment rate higher than national average and nearly a quarter of resident under the poverty line, Booker is a testament to what can be done in an urban center and still come out on top.  This is to say that invoking a social justice platform that seems out of a Marion Barry playbook for 1979 isn’t the only way that a black politician can win.

Booker was re-elected for a second term earlier this year.

Michael Nutter

Michael Nutter, D-Philadelphia (2008) — Nutter is currently the black mayor with the largest city population currently.  He was recently elected in 2007.  No longer facing the intense racial problems that his predecessors had to wade through, Nutter’s main problem is the budget.  He’s not alone many cities are facing budget shortfalls due to the economy and mayors across the country are scrambling day and night to find ways to raise funding without raising taxes.  This results in the closing of non-essential facilities such as parks and recreation, and for Nutter this includes the libraries as well.

Nutter also has to deal with Philadelphia crime rates that have gained Philly the name of Killa-delphia.  I predict that if Nutter fails to get a handle on the crime in Philly, he’ll be forgotten just like a fart in a high wind.

And yes, that was him holding the Bible in “Law Abiding Citizen” when Jamie Foxx’s character got sworn in by the mayor played by Viola Davis.

Kasim Reed

Kasim Reed, Atlanta (2010) — Let me be perfectly clear, I don’t like this Negro.  This is why: he’s still out of the Maynard Jackson political machine.  He was Shirley Franklin’s former campaign manager, and for me that’s enough to connect the two.  Since I wasn’t a registered voter of Atlanta (I still had my residency in Chicago) I never came out officially for a candidate.  But certainly as t

he weeks ran down, I was sad to see Lisa Border go in the runoff and for some reason, I just wasn’t impressed withthe “black” candidate.

It’s not that Reed has done anything wrong, but he’s just the type that you’re Negro spidey senses go off when you see him.  I wouldn’t be shocked if Atlanta has another Bill Campbell in the making on their hands.  (To my ATL-iens, how is Kasim Reed doing down there?  Hit the comment box to let us know what’s the deal.)

Honorable Mention: Baltimore former Mayor Shelia Dixon and current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake; Houston former Mayor Lee P. Brown;


What my analysis showed me is that the premier problem facing most black mayors is really just a mayoral problem across the board: how to balance the budget in an economic downturn.  With many of the cities listed above seeing an increase in the tax base and seeing more and more middle class persons moving back within city limits, residents are more worried about crime and where are tax dollars going.  Figuring if we’re going to pay more to live in the city, we’re going to be more concerned about where the money is going.

No longer are these black mayors’ base the black demographic.  By in large many of these black mayors are capetbaggers in the sense that many of them didn’t grow up in black neighborhoods nor attend black schools for high school or college.  Many of the black mayors of past came out of the neighborhoods that supported them and can easily point to them as their base.  For Adrian Fenty his base is somewhere in Northwest DC.  Even in the case of the cities with supermajority black populations such as New Orleans, Detroit and Atlanta, in order for these cities to progress into the 21st century the mayors will have to have a working relationship with the business elites.

Detroit being a prime example of what not to do.

I’d like to hear your comments or hear some names I haven’t heard of.  So leave your thoughts in the comment section.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

10 thoughts on “Black Mayors in the U.S., Pt. 2 – The New School

  1. We’re doing a theatre piece on LA history….sort of……pio pico and sam yorty. Its been tricky trying to get a handle on Bradley. He is a very mixed bag kind of guy….but he was there at a time when his first campaign against yorty, which he lost, was totally mediated by race and yorty’s overt racism.

    Id love to hear more thoughts from your readers on tom bradley.

  2. If I was listening to Meet The Press and I heard someone say I don’t like this Negro, I know it would be you before I even looked up…ha ha. Get this information into the hands of the voters quick!!! Where is your review for the mayor of Charlotte…or did I miss it.

    1. @ Citizen Ojo

      I realised some of my reviews were biased in the sense, I only picked mayors that I kind of had a base for and had heard of, or had made some kind of national news. That being said, I knew NOTHING about Charlotte’s mayor or anything about Charlotte in general.

      And FYI, I think this just has to do with my general dislike for all things North Carolina. Meh, I know that’s homestate for you, it’s nothing personal, but North Carolina does NOTHING for my shondo.

  3. The current mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing, has a good working relationship with business elites, he is part of the local business elite. But that doesn’t change the impact that de facto segregation, massive deindustrialization, bad schools, sprawl, crime and broken families have on the city.

    Given the fractious relationship between the city and suburbs and the paranoia among city residents (justified or not) about how “THEY” want to take over the city, Bing has a fine line to walk in trying to keep good relations with mostly white business leaders while not opening himself up to charges that he’s a sellout.

    1. @ Shady_Grady

      That’s always an issue about worrying about “THEY” and not coming off as a sellout. I got in a Twitter convo last night with someone about those issues with Cory Booker as well because of my charge about “ontological whiteness.”

  4. I was wondering where Ron Dellums (Oakland, 2006) would fall, in the old (he’s in his seventies) or the young (he was first elected mayor in 2006). But he hasn’t appeared. Simply put, he’s been a sad disappointment as mayor. His heart was in the right place as he definitely fell into the old-school, social justice category. But his autocratic style, his secrecy, his fear of criticism, and his reticence to speak publicly or to the press undermined what he could have done and underplayed what he did do.

    The most telling thing is that he announced his decision not to seek reelection in a private meeting open only to his aides and close friends. That in a nutshell summed up his time as mayor of Oakland.

    1. @ gar in oaktown

      What I realized as I started this miniseries was that a) There was a LONG list of black mayors. So much so that just me blogging was NOT going to cover them all if I wanted to be relatively thorough. B) I tried to pick mayors that were enough in the national public sphere. Granted I left one or two out still: I still didn’t cover Stokes (on purpose) or the mayor of Gary, Indiana or old school Coleman Young. Also, I realized, there was no online list available of black mayors except the first black mayors of major cities. That being said, some of these smaller cities have black mayors, but since I hadn’t heard of them there was no way to really know.

      1. Yes, I understand. Makes sense. Dellums is an interesting case because he was the congressman for Berkeley/Oakland for 27 years and was a product of the anti-Vietnam War era. It was on those coattails that he was drafted, really, into becoming mayor of Oakland when it looked like there were no viable progressive alternatives. And no, he was not the first black mayor of Oakland (that would be Lionel Wilson, 1977). But his background makes him an interesting study.

        Though, as you say, there are lots of black mayors all over the country.

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