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.