Almost-for-Life Mayors Keep Hanging Onto Office

<i> Neal R. Peirce writes for the National Journal</i>

Marion Barry: Resign. Ed Koch: Abdicate. Tom Bradley: Retire. Coleman Young: Go.

Of course it sounds raw. But four of America’s top mayors, each after more than a decade in office, might serve their cities best by exiting City Hall. Each, in his time, served his city well.

Marion Barry fought Congress’ plantation-like white rule of black Washington, ousted a caretaker administration in 1978, brought energy to District government and instituted some of the country’s first minority contracting programs.

Ed Koch got tough with municipal unions, cut fat out of New York’s bloated budgets and exuded a kind of never-say-die chutzpah that restored the Big Apple’s self-confidence after its disastrous fiscal crisis and “down years” of the ‘70s.


Tom Bradley, a quiet and unassuming ex-cop, not only proved a black could get elected in a polyglot, non-black town, but presided over Los Angeles’ maturation into one of the world’s great cities.

Coleman Young, fiery civil-rights radical who fought for union rights against the big auto companies in the ‘30s, inherited a Detroit in an advanced stage of urban rot in 1973. He made early alliances with a Republican Gov. William Milliken and Henry Ford II to pull public aid and private investment into his recession-racked city.

But now, Koch and Barry are marshaling their tired political troops to run for unprecedented fourth terms; Bradley and Young for equally unprecedented fifth terms.

Washington, New York, Los Angeles and Detroit all face new, tough problems that none of the incumbents seem well-equipped to deal with. One looks in vain for any sense of vision, of mission for their their cities. Instead, their honors busy themselves putting out political fires. Once the personification of the solution for his town, each man looks suspiciously like the problem.


These incumbents might well heed the words of Charles Royer, who is voluntarily stepping down after 12 distinguished years as mayor of Seattle: “I don’t want to be a hanger-on who runs because there is an election.” What seems to motivate Barry, Koch, Bradley and Young is the thrill of the race--not gusto for attacking their cities’ mounting problems.

Barry, personally embroiled in rumors of drug use, presides over a city in the grip of terrifying drug wars and a spiraling, worst-in-the-nation murder rate. His bloated bureaucracy appears increasingly dysfunctional. Business supporters once enamored of Barry’s pro-development policies for downtown are jumping ship. There’s plausible argument that Barry should resign now, but he says the odds are 60-40 that he’ll run again next year.

Koch looked the other way as scandals of epic proportions permeated New York officialdom. The city’s finances are getting shaky again. There’s a growing, fearsome gap between New York’s ostentatious wealthy and its homeless, its underclass and just plain working poor. Koch’s own hot racial rhetoric has polarized the city. Polls show his support at an all-time low.

Bradley, now 71, is such a nice guy that many call him a Teflon mayor. Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky raised more than $1 million to challenge Bradley, but stepped back when polls showed the mayor virtually unbeatable.

Los Angeles was thus deprived, the California Journal reports, of a “tough debate about the leadership of a city that sometimes looks to be a palm-tree-lined swamp of drug dealers, street gangs, traffic congestion, smog, mini-malls and high-rises, sewage and unaffordable housing.”

Detroit has blocks of downtown emptiness reminiscent of many cities soon after the riots of the ‘60s--despite the infusion of billions. Its neighborhoods are grievously neglected: In 1988, not a single new house was built in all of Detroit. Polls show a majority of Detroiters think Young, now 70, should step down. But with a $4-million war chest, the old master still lusts for the fray.

Like the President, mayors should probably be limited to two--or at most three--four-year terms. After eight or 12 years, exhaustion, corruption, boredom, often times arrogance, come sneaking in, however brilliant the leader may have been.

We have a Congress full of nearly invincible incumbents, feeding off special-interest contributions. And now we may be threatened by almost-for-life mayors feeding off the huge contributions of developers and other interests with a big stake in city contracts and zoning.


Philadelphia, San Francisco, Dallas and Atlanta are lucky to be among the relatively few cities with limits on mayors’ terms. For other towns, the only solution may be for voters alert enough to say, “Thanks for the memories"--and then show their burnt-out incumbents the door.