Why Biden has filled his administration with mayors
When Labor Secretary Marty Walsh runs into Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg or Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during Biden administration meetings and events, they’ll greet one another as “mayor.”
When Vice President Harris spots Walsh, she’ll refer to him as “mayor.”
“Mayors in this administration, we can handle a whole bunch of issues,” Walsh, the former mayor of Boston, said in an interview.
President Biden has stocked his administration with former mayors.
Buttigieg is the former mayor of South Bend, Ind. Marcia Fudge, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), served eight years as mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, before running for Congress.
Vilsack was mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa before eventually becoming governor. Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, is now Biden’s infrastructure czar. And Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, is Biden’s ambassador to Japan.
Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms will become the latest mayor to join the ranks of the Biden administration when she joins the West Wing as a senior adviser to the president and head of the Office of Public Engagement in the coming days.
Officials say Biden, a former county council member, values the experience of mayors, who are forced to deal directly with the granular problems Americans face every day and who can communicate plainly to the public.
“He wants to know how people feel on the ground. Mayors are the kind of people who have cut their teeth on exactly those kinds of problems,” Landrieu said in an interview.
It’s not uncommon for a former mayor to serve in a president’s Cabinet. Julian Castro served as mayor of San Antonio before joining the Obama administration as HUD secretary.
But Biden seems to have a particular affinity for bringing former city leaders into his administration.
“I think it has everything to do with him wanting to solve problems,” Landrieu said.
The former New Orleans mayor argued mayors are well equipped to execute plans and implement policy since the job of leading a city requires delivering results. He also argued the variety of positions held by former mayors reflects the versatility required of a mayor, who might have to deal with public safety one day, road closures another day and promote a small business the next day.
Frank Scott, Jr, mayor of Little Rock, Ark., and president of the African American Mayors Association, argued mayors are particularly familiar with many of the issues that happen to be most pressing for the Biden administration as it enters the summer, including infrastructure and day-to-day issues like high prices.
“We’re close to the ground, whether in the barber shop, the beauty salon, the grocery store, gas station, church. They’re going to ask questions. They’re going to want to know the answer,” Scott said. “We can’t run away from the people. So oftentimes we are able to have a greater understanding and temperature of the climate that may be brewing.”
Walsh, who left his role as Boston mayor to join the Biden administration, cited the urgency that comes with being mayor as a particularly useful skill in the federal government.
That urgency stands in contrast to the pace of Washington, D.C., Walsh said, where things are often tied up in the process of legislating and rule-making.
“I think the president acknowledges that mayors don’t have time to sit down and ponder about the issue,” Walsh said. “They have to respond instantly. Whether it’s on homelessness, or schools, or policing, or fire or public works. A snowstorm isn’t going to wait five days for us to get our act together.”
Biden’s admiration for mayors has come through during his meetings with city leaders since being elected president. During the presidential transition, Biden held a virtual meeting with members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pledge his support during a bleak period in the coronavirus pandemic.
The president spoke in January at the Conference of Mayors annual gathering in Washington, D.C., where he credited city leaders with carrying “the quality of the people’s lives on your shoulders.”
Biden served two years on the New Castle, Del., County Council before running for Senate. He often jokes with mayors and other local officials that he ran for federal office because being a local politician was “too hard” because people “know where you live.”
But those who work with Biden in the White House believe he’s retained his appreciation for the details that affect people’s day-to-day lives.
Landrieu recalled talking with Biden about infrastructure investments in trains. Biden would mention how the tracks curve in a particular town in Delaware, Landrieu said, and ask for specific updates about what kind of machinery is needed for a project and how train service can best be sped up in that part of town.
“People tease him about being just regular Joe,” Landrieu said. “He is in fact exactly who he says he is. He wants to be able to communicate on the ground, and mayors are forced to do that every day.”