Connecting state and local government leaders
Our inaugural list recognizing local leaders who are tackling some of the most pressing issues facing cities.
The past year or so has been one of unprecedented challenges and fast-paced problem-solving for local governments, as they've weathered the pandemic and are now moving to recover from it. In the meantime, city leaders have also had to continue grappling with long-standing difficulties surrounding issues like homelessness, affordable housing shortages and aging infrastructure.
Here at Route Fifty, where we regularly cover these topics, we are recognizing a group of mayors who we think are worth paying special attention to given the innovative ways they have been tackling some of the most pressing challenges cities face, or because of how their work, or time in office, reflects interesting trends.
We’re calling the project Route Fifty’s 10 Mayors to Watch. It’s not a ranking, but rather a rundown of local elected leaders across the country who we think are notable for a variety of reasons.
The list was announced as part of Route Fifty's Future Cities event, which is being held this week. It's still possible to register for Future Cities. More information about the event can be found here.
Mayor Cyndy Andrus, Bozeman, Montana
Bozeman is among the small and mid-sized western cities that’s seen skyrocketing housing market demand and prices, and Andrus and her city commission colleagues are grappling with what to do about it. The mayor has been speaking up, urging Congress to help, not just with funding, but also with greater flexibility for existing programs. She’s backing local policies to address the issue also—including a ballot measure voters will decide this November that would allow for bumped-up property taxes to help pay for affordable housing programs. State lawmakers this year overrode a local inclusionary zoning ordinance. City officials have since turned to a smattering of other options to try to incentivize more affordable development.
Testifying before a U.S. Senate committee in June, Andrus pointed to statistics showing that the median home price in Bozeman was $660,000 in April 2021, a rise of about 50% in the median price for a single-family home in one year. She added that even employees with $75,000 to $100,000 salaries struggle to afford homes. “No Mayor or any other community member expects the government to construct new housing from the ground up, but we do expect you to act rather than sit on your hands in the middle of a crisis,” she told lawmakers.
What to watch: Can Andrus and other city leaders make progress addressing the city’s housing affordability crisis?
David Holt, Oklahoma City
Holt had big shoes to fill when he took office in 2018 to replace Mick Cornett, the city’s longest-serving mayor, who had developed a national profile and was credited with helping to guide a renaissance in the city. So far, Holt, who worked as Cornett’s chief of staff for five years, seems to be meeting the mark and governing in a similar mold as his former boss.
The youngest mayor elected in “OKC” since the 1920s and the first Native American to hold the post, Holt has helped shepherd through a tax initiative known as “MAPS 4” (a follow up to the MAPS 3 program championed by Cornett). The latest package will fund nearly $1 billion in projects across 16 priority areas, such as parks, youth centers, transit and street upgrades.
Holt previously served in the state Senate, worked for congressional lawmakers on Capitol Hill and did a stint in the George W. Bush White House. A moderate Republican, he has shown a willingness to work across party lines, joining Democrat state and local officials meeting with President Biden this month to voice support for federal infrastructure legislation. He backed the Democratic-led plan to funnel recovery funding to states and localities as well. And he didn’t equivocate in condemning the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.
Oklahoma City has a lot going for it: A growing population, relatively affordable living costs, an increasingly diversified economy, sterling triple AAA credit ratings. But the city is also dealing with problems familiar to other locales: homelessness, a lack of affordable apartments and rising rents, and reassessing police practices.
What to watch: Can Holt help keep the economic momentum Oklahoma City has seen in recent years rolling, while managing other challenges the city faces?
Farrah Khan, Irvine, California
Khan, a Democrat, hasn’t been mayor long. But, after winning a city council seat in 2018, she clinched the mayoral spot in November 2020, defeating incumbent Republican Christina Shea, who’d served on the city council for over two decades. Shea stirred controversy with her reaction to Black Lives Matter protests, and Khan, who is the first Muslim mayor of the city, said that was a key factor that spurred her to join the race.
There are signs Orange County, where Irvine is located, has been tilting more progressive in recent years and Shea chalked up her defeat, at least in part, to the shifting political landscape. Located southeast of Los Angeles, the city enjoys an economy powered by major employers like University of California, Irvine, which alone has about 25,000 employees, and a host of tech companies that specialize in areas ranging from video games to heart valves. Khan has said she’ll prioritize issues like the environment, climate change, homelessness and the Covid-19 recovery. Her term ends in 2022.
What to watch: To what extent will Khan execute on some of the progressive policy priorities she’s identified? And will her rise in city politics extend beyond her first mayoral term?
Rick Kriseman, St. Petersburg, Florida
Kriseman is nearing the end of his two-term run as mayor of St. Petersburg as he’s term-limited. During his time in office, he’s received praise for his track record on environmental and climate policy, although a major sewage spill crisis occurred early in his first term. After that, the city embarked on a major sewer system upgrade program under an agreement with the state and also reached a legal settlement with environmental advocates who filed a related lawsuit. The wastewater investments appear to be paying off, with the city reporting no overflows during a recent tropical storm.
The environmental challenges St. Petersburg and Florida are up against have been front and center this summer. Hundreds of tons of dead fish and other marine life washed ashore in July in the St. Petersburg area amid a red tide outbreak.
Kriseman also drew notice for the city’s approach to economic development, prioritizing areas like job training and apprenticeships and bolstering existing businesses. During his time in office, the city also completed a $92 million pier project, a major local attraction that was one of the mayor's priorities. Eight candidates are vying to replace Kriseman, with a primary in August. A pending 86-acre downtown redevelopment project that will possibly include a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays is a major issue hanging over the race, and the rest of Kriseman’s term.
What to watch: Kriseman served previously on the city council and in the state legislature. What’s next for his political career? And what will St. Petersburg's next mayor prioritize?
Quinton Lucas, Kansas City, Missouri
The Kansas City Star editorial board recently summed up Lucas’ first two years in office this way: “We endorsed Lucas in 2019, and we don’t regret the decision. … The mayor has succeeded more times than not, even when faced with the enormous, unforeseen challenges of a pandemic and racial unrest after George Floyd was murdered.”
Lucas has a notable personal story, as someone who grew up with a single mom and experienced homelessness as a child, but went on to Cornell Law School. As mayor of Kansas City, he is in the thick of trying to handle some of the toughest problems facing American cities, such as homelessness, affordable housing shortages and gun violence. He successfully backed an ordinance meant to keep guns from domestic abusers, while also lamenting that Missouri state lawmakers have largely blocked cities from writing firearm safety policies.
Lucas also successfully supported a tenants' rights package, and a zero-fare transit program. During his time on the city council, he pushed legislation to create a housing trust fund. It went unfunded, but the city is now planning to funnel $12.5 million of federal aid into the account. Also on the housing front, Lucas co-sponsored a measure approved this year that sets affordable housing requirements for residential developers who receive tax incentives.
More recently, the mayor has defended the shift of about $42 million in police funding to a “community services and prevention fund.” Lucas and others say the move isn’t intended as a cut, but rather to give city leaders outside the police department greater sway over how that money is spent.
What to watch: Lucas’ term is off to a promising start. How far will he be able to go delivering on his policy goals in areas like housing and law enforcement?
Jon Mitchell, New Bedford, Massachusetts
Mitchell has embraced the idea that offshore wind energy development presents a major economic opportunity for his town, a city that has long been a top commercial fishing hub. The nation’s first large-scale, offshore wind project, approved by the Biden administration in May, is planned nearby, in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard. The city and local investors have active plans to develop waterfront staging facilities in the city to support the region’s emerging wind power industry. “We're really good at what we do on the water. And we want to parlay those skills and the infrastructure into offshore wind and other maritime industries that allow us to continue to grow and create jobs,” Mitchell recently told PBS NewsHour.
The mayor, first elected in 2011 and re-elected four times, has supported planting hundreds of trees on the city’s streets and released a climate action and resilience plan that sets goals like diverting 100% of waste going to landfills by 2050 and moving to renewable energy sources.
The city last year was seen as a leader in adopting Covid-19 safety measures for workers in fish-processing facilities.
New Bedford, with about 95,000 residents, is not without challenges on the economic front. For instance, about 20% of its population lives in poverty and median household incomes are around $46,000, compared with the state median of about $81,000.
What to watch: Will the mayor’s bet on offshore wind pay off and give the city an economic boost? And will the city meet its ambitious climate and resiliency goals?
Steven Reed, Montgomery, Alabama
Elected in 2019, Reed became the first African-American mayor of Montgomery, a city where over half the population is Black, and a place where the legacy of racism and landmark moments in the civil rights movement loom large. The way Reed tells it, he’d planned to pursue a business career, but a mix of frustration over the lack of progress in Montgomery and a stirring speech by former president and then-U.S. senator Barack Obama drove him to dive into local politics in his hometown. He won a seat as a county probate judge before running for mayor.
Reed describes his mayoral agenda as broadly focused on building equity and opportunity in areas like education, the economy and health. Earlier this year, he notched a policy win when the city council voted in favor of a $50 million community investment initiative he put forward which featured cost savings from debt restructuring, and will cover projects like a new fire station, a community center and electric buses. Under his tenure, the city adopted its first new comprehensive plan in over 50 years.
Reed has pushed education initiatives as well. He was instrumental in bringing together a coalition in support of a school tax increase voters approved last year, which the mayor frames as crucial for the city’s future. He also helped launch a new education tech initiative dubbed MGM codes.
Reed has made clear that he views Montgomery as a burgeoning leader in the “New South” and—in line with his business-oriented past—seems to be eyeing strategic investments to make the city more competitive among its peers. “We have a lot of potential in this community that has not been tapped,” he said during an Aspen Institute event. “We want to grow, we want to bring in outside partners, we want to use best practices to address the problems and issues that we have.”
What to watch: Reed has achieved some key policy goals. What will the implementation and results look like? Will his enthusiasm for Montgomery translate into concrete gains for the city?
Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake City, Utah
Mendenhall began her mayoral term on Jan. 6, 2020. For any local leader, in any town, a difficult year would’ve been ahead with the Covid-19 health crisis and the economic turmoil it caused. But, on top of that, Salt Lake last March was hit by a 5.7 magnitude earthquake, later a powerful windstorm blew down hundreds of trees and knocked out power. Like other parts of the country, the city last year saw extensive protests over law enforcement practices and racism, including a controversial police shooting. Some demonstrations turned destructive and violent. Mendenhall at one point received threats that police deemed “credible.”
A recap of her first year in the Deseret News notes, “Mendenhall has seen more crises hit Utah’s capital than one mayor has seen probably ever … Through it all, Mendenhall has aimed to lead with a steady hand and a calm tenor—a demeanor she’s appeared to maintain throughout each crisis.”
Homelessness is a major issue for Salt Lake City that Mendenhall is trying to tackle. One of the options she has pursued in partnership with a nonprofit is a “tiny home village,” similar to a Texas project. The mayor’s path into politics centered on her concerns about air quality, an acute problem with Salt Lake’s troubling “inversions,” which trap pollution around the city.
Since taking office, Mendenhall worked with the council to adopt a resolution that includes goals for electrifying the city’s municipal vehicle fleet. And in July she and the council declared racism a public health crisis in the city, one that leads to disparate mental and physical health outcomes. “This is an important declaration for us to make as a City. Not only are we publicly acknowledging the existence of a grave inequity that many in our community have known and experienced for so long, we are also committing ourselves to the creation of policies and ordinances that are anti-racist,” the mayor said.
What to watch: Mendenhall has spent much of the early part of her time in office handling crises. What sort of headway will she be able to make in other priority areas, like addressing homelessness, as her term goes on and the pandemic wanes?
John Suthers, Colorado Springs, Colorado
A lifelong Colorado Springs resident, Suthers has made infrastructure and economic development top priorities since he was first elected mayor of this military town six years ago.
Suthers, a former U.S. Attorney for Colorado, has been fighting to keep the U.S. Space Command headquarters in Colorado Springs. It has been there temporarily since 2019. The city has a significant military presence, with five institutions that employ about a fifth of the workforce. The city offered about $130 million in public-private incentives and 1,500 acres of city-owned land, but the Air Force announced in March Space Command would move to Huntsville, Alabama. Suthers and others say the decision was politically motivated, made by former president Donald Trump to reward the Republican state. The mayor, who has served in government for more than 20 years, called the situation “absolutely comical.” Suthers and the state hope to get the White House involved in order to have the decision overturned.
With infrastructure, the city’s stormwater system has been a major issue during Suthers’ time in office. Colorado Springs entered into a pact with Pueblo County in which the city will spend $460 million on a 20-year program to upgrade the system. In recent years, the city also moved ahead with a major development program known as City for Champions, to build out new sports and cultural facilities, including a downtown stadium project. Suthers has described this as “one of the most transformative initiatives in the history of our city.” In recent weeks, the mayor proposed the idea of asking voters to let the city keep additional tax revenue that would help to cover the cost of wildfire mitigation efforts.
What to watch: Will Suthers and the city be able to convince the federal government to keep Space Command in town? And will the City for Champions investments pay off?
Acquanetta Warren, Fontana, California
Warren has been mayor of this mid-size city in California’s Inland Empire region, east of Los Angeles, for more than a decade. She was first elected in 2010 and again in 2014 and 2018 and is the first Black person and woman elected to the mayorship in the city. Two of her main priorities have been economic development and healthy living.
Fontana, with a population that is about 70% Latino, is known for its booming warehousing and logistics sector. The industry provides a boost for the city's economy, but has also left some people upset about the air and noise pollution and quality of life issues for residents living nearby facilities and the truck traffic that they bring. Warren, sometimes called “Warehouse Warren'' because of the number of industrial projects that have been built since she has been in office, has defended the development, saying that the projects have increased property values and added thousands of job opportunities. In 2017, she created the Mayor's Manufacturing Council to facilitate dialogue between the manufacturing sector and Fontana city leadership, with the hope of promoting pathways for residents to highly skilled manufacturing jobs.
During her eight years on the city council, Warren launched Healthy Fontana, a program that promotes active lifestyle and good nutrition. As mayor, she remains strongly committed to the program. As part of the related Fontana Walks! initiative, launched in 2017, residents have reportedly recorded 9 billion steps, or 4.4 million miles. For these sorts of public health efforts, the city was recognized by the U.S. Conference of Mayors as a leader for childhood obesity prevention.
What to watch: How will Warren and her city balance the economic development benefits of the warehouse sector with the environmental and public health challenges that arise from it?
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