An exhausting year takes toll on nation's mayors

Almost a year and a half after the first person in the United States tested positive for the coronavirus in her backyard, and eight months after protesters showed up outside her home on Halloween, Cassie Franklin is running for a second term as mayor of Everett, Wash.

But before she filed her paperwork, she had to think about whether she still wanted the job.

In text message conversations with her fellow mayors, Franklin says she has seen the worst of the harassment and threats leveled by their own constituents in recent months, a cavalcade of frustration and hate taken out on local elected officials who have become the face of coronavirus lockdowns and the establishment against which social justice activists are protesting.

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“I feel like we’ve all gone back to grade school schoolyard bullying. Everyone knows it’s not okay to bully kids, but somehow it’s okay to bully local electeds,” Franklin said in an interview this week. “You can’t believe the stories. They get sexist, racist comments all the time, sending them rude, lewd images.”

Across the country, mayors have endured a year of hell. They fought a pandemic, in many cases in the face of opposition to health-imposed restrictions from state and federal leaders. They felt the rage of protests against police brutality, even if they had advocated for social justice themselves. And they faced the potential for economic meltdowns that, before Congress passed relief funding, threatened to bankrupt their cities.

The cumulative effects of a chaotic year were enough to force many to choose between doing the job for which they were elected and running for another term. Several of the nation’s most prominent mayors — Seattle’s Jenny DurkanJenny DurkanWashington governor orders vaccines for state employees, health care workers Angst grips America's most liberal city An exhausting year takes toll on nation's mayors MORE, Atlanta’s Keisha Lance BottomsKeisha Lance BottomsEverytown recruiting gun violence survivors to run for office An exhausting year takes toll on nation's mayors Why won't the national media cover the story Americans care about most? MORE and Steve Benjamin, of Columbia, S.C. — have opted against running again, cutting short once-promising political careers.

“I knew how great the challenges were that remained,” Durkan said of her mindset in December, when she announced she would not seek a second term. “I could not do what I needed to do for the city and run for mayor. I could either do the job I was elected to do or I could run for mayor, but I couldn’t do both.”

The mayors retiring now join a handful of other prominent city leaders who are leaving, either for jobs in the Biden administration or because term limits will force them out of office. By the end of the year, the nation’s two largest cities — New York and Los Angeles — will have new mayors. Boston Mayor Marty WalshMarty WalshBoston set to elect first female mayor Democrat Michelle Wu advances in Boston mayoral election Biden steps into legal fight with vaccine mandates MORE quit to take over the Labor Department under President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE. The mayors of Fort Worth, El Paso, Fresno, Honolulu, San Diego and St. Louis have all been on the job for less than a year.

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“There’s certainly a number of mayors who are tired. For so many of us, for the vast majority of the pandemic and the social justice summer of the movement, we had no help from state governments and no help from the federal government. If anything, they made our jobs more difficult,” said Rick Kriseman, the outgoing mayor of St. Petersburg, Fla. “It’s been more exhausting than any other time in my almost eight years of service as mayor, no question.”

The demands of the coronavirus pandemic have taken a particular toll, reshuffling the typical job description of a position once oriented to urban planning and transportation toward public health and procurement of personal protective equipment and hospital beds. The overwhelming focus on the pandemic has shelved other pressing priorities that are now critical, like a burgeoning wave of violent crime sweeping American cities.

“If you are a mayor or a local leader with responsibilities for COVID right now, the question is, how do you transition away from COVID? We’ve been doing this for 15 months. Can you successfully transition to public safety and start talking about murders?” asked Lee Harris, the mayor of Shelby County, Tenn., home of Memphis. “The even more tricky transition is, how do you transition to doing a fundraiser?”

“You can’t do COVID and do politics. That doesn’t match, that doesn’t work,” Harris said. “When you start to really think it through, practically speaking, some folks have concluded they don’t have a lot of options.”

Several mayors described the protests that had descended on their homes, and on the homes of local public health officials who have been unaccustomed to the public spotlight. At times, those mayors have been asked to answer for policies implemented or rescinded by state, county or federal authorities.

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“We actually don’t have any power. The power rests in the governor’s office, in the federal level where we were getting zero leadership whatsoever, and in the health districts. But the community looks to the mayor’s office to lead,” Franklin said. “You’re held to this standard of perfection which you can’t meet. Because if you were making the right call safety-wise, you weren’t making the right call for the economy.”

The mayoral brain drain comes as state governments are increasingly flexing their own muscles, preempting city authority over everything from mask mandates to environmental ordinances and texting-while-driving bans. The clash is especially stark in states led by Republican governors and the largely Democratic big cities that drive their local economies.

“We saw the discorded politics of conservatives at the state level playing out national conservative issues and pushing them down to the local level,” said Brooks Rainwater, the director of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities. “We’re going to lose a lot of talented mayors that have led large American cities.”