Tom Menino was Mayor of Boston for 21 years, from 1993 to 2014. Unlike most of his predecessors and successors, he didn’t want to use the office as a steppingstone to some higher office. All he wanted was to be mayor of Boston.
He wasn’t in it for himself– politically or financially; he just wanted to do what he thought was right for his city. He wanted it to be safe, prosperous, and beautiful. Along the way, he embraced progressive causes like LGBTQ rights, green technology and gun control, and he played politics with these and other issues. So you might think conservatives wouldn’t have liked him. But they did. So did liberals. Boston thrived. He worked hard and became unbeatable. He probably would still be mayor today if he hadn’t died of cancer.
You might call this kind of mayor a “caregiver mayor” – one who cares only for his or her city, in both senses of the word “care.” This is the kind of mayor Atlanta desperately needs: one who wants to be mayor just in order to care for the city– and doesn’t want to get elected or appointed to anything else.
Atlanta used to have this kind of mayor. Shirley Franklin was the last one with the right instincts; at first she called herself “the pothole mayor.” But she was elected 20 years ago. By contrast, three of our last four mayors – Bill Campbell, Kasim Reed, Keisha Lance Bottoms – have cared mainly for themselves and their own personal futures, either politically or financially or both.
This focus produces bad outcomes for the city. For example, many people believe that Bottoms’ handling of the riots and the police force last summer was guided by her ambition to be President Joe Biden’s vice president or secretary of HUD, rather than by what was good for the city. The current crime wave is the result.
Other cities have had caregiver mayors too. They’re not perfect. Some have been accused of being dictators, bullies or crooks– or all three. Sometimes they were. But they cared about their cities and pretty much nothing else, worked hard, and as a result they achieved good outcomes for their cities and, perhaps ironically, for themselves too. They came to City Hall every day thinking about what their own cities needed, not what they needed. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about their state or their country. They did. But they realized that they were elected to take care of their own city, full stop, period.
Ed Lee in San Francisco was an example, and so was Richie Daley in Chicago. Daley lasted 22 years. Lee would still be mayor if he hadn’t died of a sudden heart attack in 2017, and San Francisco today would be much the better for it. Michael Bloomberg was this kind of mayor of New York for 12 years. Atlanta suburbs have had examples too: Max Bacon in Smyrna, and both Pug Mabry and Jere Wood in Roswell. So have other Georgia cities: John Rousakis in Savannah, and Lace Futch in Willacoochee, for instance. (All served for 20 or so years, and some a lot longer.)
A caregiver mayor doesn’t have to be a non-politician. Indeed, most of them are politicians to the core. They are very ambitious to be mayor, and to get re-elected. But it is city politics they care about, no other politics.
This is the kind of mayor we need in Atlanta. Will we get one this year, to save our city? Time, and the electorate, will tell. If we do, we should change the two-term limit so we can keep him or her for a long time.
A mayor like this, even no doubt with some drawbacks, is a precious asset for a city.
Atlanta businessman Bob Irvin was the GOP minority leader of the state House of Representatives from 1994-2000 and former board member of Common Cause Georgia.