We Don’t Need a Cool Mayor

Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of "The City: A Global History," just published by Modern Library.

Many of the hopes -- and fears -- about Antonio Villaraigosa revolve around the notion that he represents the ascendancy of a new, radical, labor-led Latino alliance. But Villaraigosa’s political campaign suggests a very different aspiration. He did not beat James K. Hahn by being further to the left, or by being “ethnic,” but by being, for lack of a better word, “cooler” than the dour (some even said dull) man from San Pedro.

In listening to the mayor-elect and his supporters, one hears repeatedly that he will be “active,” “exciting,” “visionary,” a fittingly charismatic representative for what is, after all, the home of Hollywood.

In this respect, Villaraigosa represents the latest trend in big-city mayors: the cool chief executive. The world is now filled with such characters, usually handsome and telegenic, who often seem more like celebrity endorsers for their cities than tough-minded chief executives.

For the most part, the media love these mayors, who, after all, generally share their often stridently secular and multicultural worldview.


In many places, these new chief executives represent cities that peg their future to their coolness.

In Europe, there is the example of Paris Mayor Bertand Delanoe, who sees the City of Light as the capital of cool.

Even more glaringly evident of the new trend is Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin. Like Delanoe, he embraces tourism and cultivated bohemianism as the source of the city’s future greatness. The city, with high unemployment and a stagnant economy, sells itself as an adorable waif -- “poor but sexy,” as Wowereit describes it.

Hip, cool mayors are also proliferating in North America. Some of the most celebrated of the newest crop are engaging media figures who were elected, like Villaraigosa, more for their style than their substance.

Detroit’s Kwame Kilpatrick, for instance, was elected in part because he sold himself as “the hip-hop mayor” who would turn the Motor City into the next “cool city.” Kilpatrick’s recent missteps -- such as having family members use a luxury SUV leased at public expense -- have somewhat tarnished his appeal. The city’s continuing descent into the later stages of municipal collapse has not helped. But other “cool” mayors are still getting good reviews, from the media and, in many places, from voters as well. Indeed, several of these -- Denver’s John Hickenlooper, Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley and San Francisco’s Gavin Newsom -- were recently among Time magazine’s top U.S. mayors.

Villaraigosa, like these showboating executives, appeals to traditional Democrats, especially upscale social liberals. He has won strong support from environmentalists, ACLU activists and most of the Hollywood parlor left-wingers, who never could relate to the boring Hahn.

To be fair, being cool does not necessarily make a bad mayor. Hickenlooper, a former brewpub owner, has been reasonably effective. He also has benefited from a region that’s booming economically and from the legacy of two effective predecessors.

On the other hand, neither O’Malley nor Newsom has been able so far to rescue his city from continuing economic decline. O’Malley’s strategy in crimeinfested Baltimore -- based on attracting gays and bohemians -- strikes some as slightly superficial. What’s the point of being hip and cool if you’re being mugged? Newsom’s showboat approach -- highlighted by the mass gay marriages at City Hall -- has not seemed so out of place. With its high concentration of educated people and well-funded nonprofits, Disneyland by the Bay can lose jobs and companies and still feel good about itself.

It also helps that San Francisco is increasingly inhabited by liberal-minded trustifarians (trust fund babies); the left-wing bastion has the highest percentage of people living on rental income and interest dividends of any large urban area.

Here’s where the problem lies for Villaraigosa. Los Angeles may not be a basket case on Baltimore’s seamy level, but it is also not a largely childless liberal boutique city like San Francisco.

Los Angeles remains largely a blue-collar town, with a huge manufacturing base, North America’s biggest port and a large immigrant working class. Fixing the ports, roads, airports and transit lines are more important to most Angelenos (Hollywood excepted) than building convention hotels, creating new art museums or, for that matter, letting gays get married at City Hall.

A charming, articulate mayor won’t hurt L.A., but what we really need is a tough taskmaster, even a bit of a tyrant. We need less a Latino Gavin Newsom, and more a Rudy Giuliani, who rescued New York from economic and social decline, or someone like Bob Lanier, who resuscitated Houston in the 1990s by doggedly fixing the city infrastructure, neighborhood by neighborhood. If we had a hereditary mayoralty, I’d even consider having the city annexed to Chicago’s Duchy of Daley.

Villaraigosa has shown us only that he can be ecumenical and charming. Now it’s time for him to show us he’s got backbone and stick-to-itiveness.