The Benefits of Being a Mayor Between Separate Stints as Governor

Oakland City Hall

Oakland City Hall Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

Something that paved the way for the success of Jerry Brown’s second tour as California governor: His eight years at Oakland City Hall.

In the history of U.S. governors, there have been many state chief executives who have previously served as a city hall mayor. Some recent examples include Ed Rendell, who served two terms as Philadelphia’s mayor before two terms as Pennsylvania governor; Martin O’Malley, who served two terms as Baltimore mayor before two terms as Maryland’s governor; and John Hickenlooper, the former Denver mayor whose second term as Colorado’s governor is soon coming to a close.

And then there’s California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has the distinction of being a governor who previously served as governor with stints as state attorney general and the mayor of Oakland at points in between. Brown is leaving Sacramento in January after his second two-term stint as governor and a impressive economic recovery for a state once thought to be “ungovernable.”

As Todd S. Purdam of The Atlantic writes in a retrospective of the governor’s political career, observers of California state politics credit Brown’s successes during the past eight years to his previous eight years at Oakland City Hall.

Then came the late-life practical apprenticeship that most analysts agree paved the way for the success of his second tour in Sacramento: eight years as mayor of Oakland, from 1999 to 2007.

“He finally was far [enough] outside the bubble of state politics and the governorship to look at what he was doing,” says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a retired professor of public-policy communication at the University of Southern California who has watched Brown’s entire career. “He himself said at one point when he was mayor of Oakland that he was finally understanding that the regulations that he had implemented as governor were hamstringing localities. He had to deal with them as a practical reality.”

Using Brown’s atypical political career as a roadmap, one wonders how city hall experience wedged between terms as governors might change the perspectives of current governors like it did for Brown.

Would subway service in New York dramatically improve if Gov. Andrew Cuomo runs for mayor and then makes another run for governor after that? Would Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s view of local property taxes change if he became mayor of Houston before returning to the governor’s mansion?  

That’s hard to know for sure. But it presents an interesting question for today’s governors and legislative leaders: Would their tunes change if they ran for local elective office and had to deal with laws and policies they implemented at the state level?

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

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