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The politics of African American mayors in 21st Century America

Practical Politics

David L. Horne, PH.D. | 9/24/2020, midnight

In the United States, municipal mayors are commonly seen as the elected chief executive of a city, although different jurisdictions have mayors with different powers and responsibilities. For example, in Los Angeles, based on the L.A. City Charter (which is the city’s “constitution”), the mayor has real, not just ceremonial, authority. Inglewood, a next-door city, on the other hand, has a weak authority mayor—strong city council form of government (which partially explains why the new, grand, football stadium in the middle of Inglewood is called the Los Angeles So-Fi Stadium, instead of the Inglewood So-Fi Stadium).

Los Angeles has what is called a moderate mayor—city council form of government, which means the mayor has the authority to appoint general managers and city commissioners, summarily remove (some) officials (although not the police chief or the head of the Housing Authority) from the standard 35 city departments and the mayor proposes the annual city budget. Most of the mayor’s appointments and proposals (including the budget) are subject to approval by the 15-member L.A. City Council, but the mayor also has the power of veto or approval of regular City Council legislation. By contrast, the city of San Francisco has the strong mayor form which allows the mayor to hire and fire virtually any city official (including the police chief) and other singular authority.

The point is, the mayor’s position in the USA is an excellent front-line authority position which can most accurately reflect the wishes and needs of the municipality’s citizens. At the 1972 Black Power Conference (held after the 1967 ground-breaking election of Carl Stokes in Cleveland and Richard Hatcher in Gary, Ind.), and other succeeding confabs, the lack of African-Americans in such positions throughout the country was a major point of contention and commitment. Today, one can see firm results from the 120-year effort to change that statistic. 

Currently, of America’s top-100 cities (in population) more than one third have African-American mayors (35 in all), including many Black women. Among the best know are Lori Lightfoot (Chicago), London Breed (San Francisco), Keisha Lance Bottoms (Atlanta) and Muriel Bowser (Washington, DC). The first black woman mayor of a large US city was Jessie Rattley, who was elected mayor of Newport News (Virginia) in 1986 and she served four years in that position.

According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, currently there are 131 African-American mayors in the U.S., including cities with a Black-majority  population, and those without, like Youngstown (Ohio), Dallas (Texas), Stockton (Ca), Buffalo (NY), Denver (CO), Chicago (Ill), and Little Rock (Ark). It has now become relatively commonplace to see a Black American mayor of a U.S. municipality.

Finally, there is an African-American mayor in Ferguson, Mo., Ella Jones. The mayor in that city has the authority to hire and fire the police chief, and to have a hand in deciding how the police force will look. Though the city also needs some more city council members for such decisions, we should at least not expect any more Michael Brown incidents in this majority Black American city now. Have Mercy!!

But though we can clearly chart the progress in electing mayors of U.S. cities, that’s not the case with governors (only two in known history), senators (only six), or even members of the U.S. House of Representatives (152 starting in the 1870s). This still means converting public protest to public policy will continue being a very uphill battle for the foreseeable future.

Change is sometimes very slow—political change slowest of all. But discernible progress there has been. We must acknowledge it and continue it.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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