In 2017, while I was serving as the mayor of Ithaca, New York, I was one of two dozen young officials from around the world who took part in the Brussels Forum Young Professionals Summit, and we met to discuss weighty topics of global importance–issues like the climate crisis, terrorism, and threats to emerging and established democracies. It was heady stuff. And in the middle of it all, I got a message that affected me deeply, and will remain with me forever.
A constituent back home had emailed to complain about an abandoned couch on his block. The couch had been sitting there for days. And the resident was mightily ticked off.
My first impulse was to shake my head at the incongruity of the couch problem asserting itself during a conference about world affairs. My second was to make it an absolute priority to remove that couch. After all, if constituents can’t trust elected officials to handle the little things, how can they possibly trust us to handle the big ones? My colleagues at the conference agreed, and by the end of our time there, #MovetheCouch became a hashtag and rallying cry.
I’ve thought about this again and again as we watch the federal government fail to deliver on promises large and small. Those of us who are past or present mayors see it as symptomatic of the yawning gap between the kind of accountability demanded of us and of elected officials in Washington. Unlike mayors, federal officials can shield themselves from accountability, but still be re-elected to their positions. It is all too easy for a member of Congress, for example, to abdicate responsibility by blaming inaction on the opposing party.
Mayors, however, cannot choose to be insulated from their constituents. They cannot hide from town hall meetings, and simply hope voters will support them based on TV ads purchased with special interest money. Mayors can’t run only in gerrymandered districts or court only swing states; they run to represent every neighborhood. And unlike the U.S. president, who has lost the popular vote multiple times, no mayor ever takes office after winning fewer votes than their opponent.
In general, mayors are more directly accountable to their constituents—and are therefore more successful in meeting their needs. The result is clear. Renowned political scientist Benjamin Barber points out in his viral TED talk “Why Mayors Should Rule the World,” Mayors generally have an approval rating of over 70 percent. The U.S. Congress? Eighteen percent.
Popularity is gratifying, especially for politicians. But the real issue here is the role of mayors, and cities, as frontline guardians of democracy. And that responsibility is only growing as national governments both fail to deliver on pressing needs and find themselves at risk from rising authoritarianism.
Earlier this summer, more than 50 mayors from around the world signed a joint Global Declaration of Mayors for Democracy. The declaration recognizes cities’ “regional role in driving innovation, economic growth, sustainable development, and welfare,” and “the responsibility of cities in protecting and promoting our common values of freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality, human and civil rights, rule of law, freedom of the media, social justice, tolerance, and cultural diversity.” The mayors made a commitment to “rebuild and reinforce democracy, stand as a bulwark against the erosion of the rule of law, and fight corruption, state capture, racism, and populist nationalism.”
The document is among the best summaries of the role mayors worldwide aspire to today. What it means in practice is that mayors are accountable for taking the steps they can, every day, toward realizing on a local level the goals that will contribute to improving the human condition.
Climate change is a global scourge with deeply inequitable impacts, but an effective global response has been elusive. The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change has not generated change at the pace we need and is subject to shifting political winds–as when former President Donald Trump yanked the United States out of the accord. Meanwhile, cities can and should act. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has pledged to make her city 100 percent bikeable by 2026. Her work to eliminate downtown parking spaces, create bike lanes, and turn city streets into pedestrian walkways has been aggressive and effective. The number of cyclists in Paris doubled between 2019 and 2020, and the city has cut carbon emissions by 20 percent under Hidalgo and her predecessor.
While federal governments fail to take meaningful action to prevent the worst of climate change, localities are left to create innovative solutions to adapt to the harsh new realities. For example, the Mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, created Africa’s first ever Chief Heat Officer position in her city. Warning that “climate change for Freetown means more frequent and dangerous extreme high temperatures for residents, especially our most vulnerable citizens,” Mayor Aki-Sawyerr tasked the new officer with implementing solutions that will “accelerate the protection of vulnerable people and implement cooling solutions for long-term health and well-being of the citizens of Freetown and ultimately, other cities in the African continent.” While the position is brand new, it already has big aims–including tree planting to combat urban heat and increasing waste collection efforts during heat waves.
Drug policy is another area in which mayors are taking the lead. In the United States, significant local control over drug policy allows cities to pursue harm reduction strategies that the federal government has been slow to adopt, in spite of recent progress by the Biden Administration. In Ithaca, we recognized that outdated and punitive drug policies were not only an assault on human dignity but were racist and anti-democratic at their core. These laws were racist because they targeted people of color for harassment and incarceration, and anti-democratic because they included provisions that stripped those convicted of the right to vote. We embraced harm reduction and stood up safe consumption sites. We worked toward economic development for at-risk communities and created an offramp for police to divert drug users to social services without having to first arrest them. Our program, launched in 2016, was one of the country’s first and got national recognition.
The situations in other countries are different; Europe as a whole is recognized for its more progressive approach to drug policies. But it’s worth noting that mayors in far less tolerant parts of the world are in the vanguard of drug policy reform. In the Philippines, where the Duterte regime has a medieval approach to drug policy–even executing drug users—Mayor Joy Belmonte of Quezon City has trusted the data about what works and stood up community-based treatment centers, in the process demonstrating courage and commitment to human rights.
When national politicians and bureaucracies fail, it often falls to mayors to be accountable for the real changes that democratic systems are designed to deliver for citizens.
There are few arenas in which U.S. mayors have more potential to exercise their power for positive change than that of public safety. Public safety, including gun violence and police violence, are national problems that defy federal solutions. There are common and differing reasons for this, but both suffer from a lack of political will to do anything meaningful at the federal level. Police reform legislation died in the Senate, and the gun violence prevention legislation that got through Congress this past summer falls far short of what is needed. Meanwhile, addressing police violence is just far more feasible at the local level, because public safety is the responsibility of local governments. Mayors are directly responsible for policing in their cities, and mayors who fail to keep residents safe—from crime and from police officers themselves—see their careers cut short.
Mayors around the country are turning to a full range of options to reduce easy access to dangerous weapons, including buyback programs and local regulations such as safe storage laws and bans on large-capacity magazines. Gun violence is a stubborn and multifaceted problem, and while solutions are imperfect, these programs have promise.
Police violence and systemic racism in policing have been killing and maiming Americans for centuries, but they only forced a real national reckoning after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. This violence is a true cancer on our democracy that mayors and cities have a unique power to address. In Ithaca, we started years ago with a psychological screening to root out police department applicants with strong authoritarian tendencies. In 2021, our City Council approved the Ithaca Public Safety Model, a groundbreaking proposal to eliminate our traditional police department and create a civilian-led department of public safety, with armed and unarmed responders. Other cities around the country have experimented with alternatives to traditional policing; in Eugene, Oregon, the decades-old CAHOOTS program deploys mental-health workers—not armed cops—to calls involving mental health crises, drastically reducing the risk of violent confrontations. Albuquerque, New Mexico; Camden, New Jersey; and Berkeley, California are among cities that have taken major steps to transform how public safety is delivered.
I am especially excited about the potential for the Ithaca Public Safety Model to be adopted in other cities around the United States. In Berkeley, Mayor Jesse Arreguín has been a trailblazer for public safety transformation, and he is now in the process of adapting key components of the Ithaca plan to create a better public safety system for his own city.
As mayors, we have a direct hand in creating a life for residents that offers equity, dignity and freedom from fear, when we address public safety. Those conditions are prerequisites for a successful democracy.
When mayors do things that are visible and helpful to constituents, they chip away at cynicism about government and collective action. It’s really that simple.
Sometimes these are big things, like structural overhauls of public safety systems. Sometimes they are smaller things that are still hugely important to individual residents. I’m thinking again about my time in Ithaca, when as an eager 23-year-old candidate I knocked on the door of every single constituent in the city. It was then that I met a young family who had a very specific concern: the existing sidewalk in their neighborhood was not contiguous between their house and their child’s school, and that complicated the daily walks to school and back. They’d lobbied several mayors and council members to no effect. They told me their problem but had the air of resigned indifference—they’d given up on the possibility that government could solve their problem. Two years later, when I received pictures of those parents holding hands with their children as they walked to school–the accompanying note about their renewed faith in collective action made my heart swell.
A simple sidewalk.
These examples may seem small—and individually they are small. But each successful local government initiative, when piled one on top of another, undermines the far right-wing argument that government is a hindrance, something unwieldy to be shrunk until it’s small enough—in Grover Norquist’s infamous words—to be drowned in a bathtub.
This is also how we build that bulwark against the erosion of democratic principles and the rise of corruption and authoritarianism that the Global Declaration of Mayors for Democracy warned against. As mayors, we are alarmed by the looming risk of authoritarianism, and we are keenly aware that we are on the forefront of the effort to preserve people’s faith in democracy. We work to improve people’s lives because it is the right thing to do. But we also know that when people feel ignored or abused by politicians and institutions, they reject those institutions. They may drop out or break the law. They may look for answers in extremist groups or under destructive leaders. Mayors represent many people’s most immediate connection to and experience with democracy. We need to make that experience a good one.
This has never been more important than it is right now, when confidence in our federal government is faltering. Some of this is deserved. The unparalleled corruption and ill intent of the Trump Administration did a lot to undermine that confidence. The cynicism, dishonesty, and destructiveness of the current minority party in Congress is stopping much-needed legislation from passing. The efforts of the previous administration and its Senate allies to stack the courts with far-right extremists is giving us Supreme Court decisions that are rolling back decades of progress on civil and human rights. This is all terrible, and we can’t ignore it.
But our cities can still be those laboratories of democracy where progress can flourish. We can elect people and pass laws that protect health and safety, fight racism and bigotry, give sanctuary to immigrants, resist abortion bans, house and feed people in need, and so much more. As mayors who are accountable every minute to our neighbors, we can inspire and lead. We can reinforce democracy with everything we do, because as the late Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis said, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.”
And yes: We can #MovetheCouch.