Progressive City Leaders

Progressive City Leaders

Some progressive municipal officials have jumped beyond the boundaries of their communities to address state and national issues.


The ranks of progressive officials at the municipal level are growing, as activists run for and win mayoralties and City Council seats. Here are eight local leaders who have already jumped beyond the boundaries of their communities to address state and national issues. They’ve done so with an effectiveness that has drawn attention and talk about their seeking higher office.

Antonio Villaraigosa: Mayor, Los Angeles

The first time Antonio Villaraigosa ran for mayor of America’s second-largest city, in 2001, he did so as the candidate of a progressive coalition of Latinos, labor and white lefties. But a key element of the coalition was missing: African-Americans, most of whom backed Villaraigosa’s opponent, James Hahn, a moderate Democrat, who won the election. Over the next four years Villaraigosa worked to earn the confidence and the endorsements of key players in the African-American community, such as Representative Maxine Waters, who had supported Hahn in 2001, and City Councilman Bernard Parks, the firing of whom as police chief soured many African-American voters on Hahn. On May 17 Villaraigosa ousted Hahn, and already he’s planning to toss lobbyists off city boards and commissions; implement the LA-Rx prescription-drug discount program, which he initiated while serving on the City Council; and promote a massive initiative to develop affordable housing in a city with one of the lowest home ownership rates in the country. Villaraigosa’s experience at the local and state levels of government (he’s a former speaker of the State Assembly) and at the street level (he’s also a former union organizer) holds out the prospect that he will emerge not just as the country’s most recognizable Latino mayor but also as its most prominent spokesman for progressive ideas about governing.

Rocky Anderson: Mayor, Salt Lake City

Angered by the Bush Administration’s refusal to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson committed in 2002 to have city operations abide by the treaty’s greenhouse gas reduction goals. “In the face of the failure of national leadership in the United States on this issue, local and state governments throughout our nation have an especially important role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to reverse the dangerous trend toward global warming,” Anderson says. The initial plan was to meet the goals by 2012, but Anderson’s moves to purchase wind power, convert the city fleet to alternative-fuel vehicles and dramatically increase recycling mean that the city could be in accord with the protocol by later this year. Anderson, a former president of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, is showing how a progressive can thrive even in an overwhelmingly conservative state. (Utah gave George W. Bush 71 percent of its 2004 presidential vote, the highest percentage nationwide.) After reflecting on the fact that he had won 55 percent of the Salt Lake City vote in a losing run for Congress in 1996, Anderson adjusted his focus and has since won two races for mayor. But he hasn’t trimmed his political sails. He speaks out against English-only legislation and for gay rights, he’s launched living-wage initiatives and he’s successfully campaigned for a transit sales tax increase to fund commuter- and light-rail transportation schemes that are making Salt Lake City greener.

Pegeen Hanrahan: Mayor, Gainesville, FL

After 38-year-old Pegeen Hanrahan easily beat the chairman of the southern division of CNB National Bank for mayor of Gainesville in 2004, reporters wondered how a vegetarian, bike-riding environmentalist had trumped the city’s business and political elites. Hanrahan, a Gainesville native who started volunteering in political campaigns as a teenager and was elected to the city commission at age 29, explained: “You can’t underestimate the value of having people who’ve known you ever since you were in their Girl Scout troop.” Hanrahan–who counts among her most cherished possessions a button that reads “WWWD: What Would (Paul) Wellstone Do?”–is, like her political hero, a good-humored, self-deprecating populist. An environmental engineer who made a name for herself as an advocate for cleaning up a contaminated site in one of the city’s oldest African-American neighborhoods, she has worked as mayor to discourage sprawl in a city of 117,000 that, like so many college towns, is experiencing rapid growth. She’s also got a flair for publicity; after Donald Trump scored a hit with The Apprentice, Hanrahan invited local community-college students to participate in “The Intern”–a community-service competition that awarded the winner a chance to work with the mayor.

Elaine Fleming: Mayor, Cass Lake, MN

Big cities aren’t the only ones with big problems. In 2003, when Elaine Fleming became the first Native American to serve as mayor of tiny Cass Lake, a city located within the reservation boundaries of the Leech Lake Band of the Ojibwe tribe of northern Minnesota, she took charge of a community that had been a Superfund toxic waste site for almost two decades, the result of the St. Regis Paper Company’s dumping of chemicals into the city’s ponds and landfills. The chemicals are blamed for many illnesses; Fleming lost a sister to lupus and a brother to cancer, and she herself has been diagnosed with thyroid disease. Fleming, a professor at Leech Lake Tribal College, started talking tough, referring to environmental racism as “terrorism in our communities” and decrying the Bush Administration’s moves to undermine the Superfund program. She’s getting results: State and federal officials have been testing soil and developing remediation plans, with Fleming pressing them every step of the way. The Green Party-aligned mayor is also teaching others–particularly young people–to flex their political muscle. During the 2004 presidential campaign she helped organize “Rock the Vote–Rez Style,” a campaign to register voters, get them to the polls and turn Minnesota’s indigenous people into a voting bloc powerful enough to swing close local and state races.

Ross Mirkarimi: City Supervisor, San Francisco

Ross Mirkarimi used to run campaigns: to make San Francisco a nuclear-free zone, to replace the Pacific Gas & Electric monopoly with a municipal power utility, to elect Green Matt Gonzalez as mayor. Now, as an elected member of the Board of Supervisors, he’s helping to run the city. “I finally decided that if I was going to keep telling activists to run, I had better be willing to do so myself,” says the 43-year-old co-founder of the California Green Party. At the heart of that calculation was the understanding that holding elected office did not preclude him from being an activist. Since his election last November he’s campaigned to expand rent control to apply to domestic partners, pushed to set aside housing for artists and challenged the scapegoating of the homeless. And he’s emerging as a champion of small businesses that are struggling as chains expand into San Francisco’s neighborhoods. Mirkarimi has clashed with Mayor Gavin Newsom, a liberal hero nationally for his decision to permit same-sex marriages but an ally of business interests on the local level. And there’s already talk that Mirkarimi might be the first Green mayor of a major US city.

JoAnn Watson: Council member, Detroit

Big cities often face budget crises, and they are usually resolved by reducing services for the poor. But when Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick proposed laying off public employees and reducing bus service earlier this year, City Council member JoAnn Watson countered with a plan to roll back all city salaries in excess of $100,000, freeze non-emergency contracts with private-sector firms and take other cost-cutting steps designed to preserve city services. Noting that the Mayor’s moves came during the week when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth was celebrated, Watson, the former Detroit NAACP director, said, “We would dishonor Dr. King’s legacy if we balance the city budget on the backs of poor people and those with the least.” Later, Watson took on the big banks–which also happen to be big campaign contributors–demanding “that bank bondholders and other corporate entities to whom the city is indebted voluntarily reduce the amounts owed by the city by 10 percent across the board.” Watson’s fights have put her at odds with some of the city establishment, but she is even more at odds with the Bush Administration. To mark the President’s new term, she sponsored a city resolution endorsing “Not One Damn Dime Day”–a campaign to boycott all forms of consumer spending on Bush’s inaugural day as a protest against the war in Iraq.

Bill Perkins: Council member, New York City

When the New York City Council was debating a resolution condemning the Patriot Act, Council member Bill Perkins, its sponsor, said it was essential for the city that had been attacked on September 11, 2001, to send a signal that “abandoning civil liberties will not make us safer.” Perkins, whose cousin was killed in the World Trade Center attack, was convincing: The Council backed the resolution, as it did another opposing the Bush Administration’s rush to war. “It was important that we, as the representatives of the people of New York, say ‘Not in Our Name,'” Perkins explained. The two-term Council member from Harlem gets excited talking about the local living-wage law he sponsored, measures to protect children from lead paint and landmark legislation to protect the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities. But he really takes off when the subject turns to rats, one of many issues that Perkins says “may not be sexy but are absolutely necessary if we are going to make our cities decent places to live.” If he’s elected this fall as Manhattan borough president, he’ll keep going after the rats in New York, but he also promises to talk about the rats in the White House and Congress. “Manhattan is what people think of when they think of urban America,” he says. “I want to use that bully pulpit to talk about what’s really happening on the streets of our cities, and about why our services are suffering because the federal government is sacrificing our tax dollars for a war that we did not need to fight.”

John Herrera: Alderman, Carrboro, NC

Two years after he finally became a US citizen, John Herrera, an immigrant from Costa Rica with a passion for progressive politics, was elected to the Carrboro Board of Aldermen in 2001. Now he’s fighting to open the door for other immigrants. “If you are already living here and paying taxes and doing things citizens do, the only thing you don’t have is the right to vote,” Herrera told the local paper as he launched his push for immigrant voting rights. Long active in Carrboro, a town of 16,000 near Chapel Hill, Herrera organized a popular local festival for the region’s burgeoning Hispanic community and served as vice president of Latino-Hispanic affairs for the Self-Help Credit Union in Durham before his election. As the first Latino immigrant elected to a municipal office in North Carolina, he’s been an advocate for his community, but he’s also been a leader in efforts to crack down on slumlords, an outspoken defender of civil liberties and the sponsor of a resolution that made Carrboro one of the first communities in the South to oppose the rush to war in Iraq.

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