Only one politician who has served as mayor has ever been elected president in his own right: Grover Cleveland, the former mayor of Buffalo, who later served as governor of New York.
Other ex-mayors have tried and failed to win the presidency: Hubert Humphrey was mayor of Minneapolis before becoming a senator and vice president; Dennis Kucinich was mayor of Cleveland before becoming a congressman. However, no sitting mayor has ever been elected president, or even won his party’s nomination. Here are three big-city mayors who tried, and failed miserably.
William Hale Thompson, Chicago: Big Bill began his quest for the presidency in a very Chicago way: he built a campaign fund out of $3-a-month kickbacks from city drivers and inspectors. Thompson hoped to win the Republican nomination at the party’s 1928 convention in Kansas City, but without the support of Illinois Rep. Ruth Hanna McCormick -- a member of two political families -- he failed to win a single delegate. One likely problem: the Republicans were dedicated to Prohibition, and Thompson had won re-election as mayor in 1927 with a promise to re-open the saloons, and with financial support from Al Capone.
Sam Yorty, Los Angeles: Yorty ran for the 1972 presidential nomination as a pro-war Democrat, suggesting he would use nuclear weapons to end the war in Vietnam. Despite the support of the conservative Manchester Union-Leader, he won only six percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. The next year, he was defeated for re-election by Tom Bradley.
Rudy Giuliani, New York: Giuliani hoped to use his status as the hero of 9/11 to win the presidency. But national Republicans didn’t appreciate the liberal social stands necessary for a New York mayor: Giuliani supported abortion rights, and had lived with a gay couple after he was kicked out the mayoral mansion while divorcing his second wife. It was also revealed that he billed the city for security while visiting his mistress.
Why don’t mayors get elected president? They have as much responsibility as governors. Thompson, Yorty and Giuliani all oversaw cities more populous than Bill Clinton’s Arkansas.
The answer can be found, perhaps, in the ideals of the men who drafted the American constitution 300 years ago and administered the country’s earliest federal governments.
"I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1800 while he was vice-president and one year before being elected president. As president, Jefferson despised his political opponents because, in his words, "They all live in cities."
With few exceptions, Jefferson had little sympathy for the people who lived in cities. "The mobs of great cities add just so much to support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body," he wrote. Jefferson idealized the “virtuous” farmer and small artisan of rural America: “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural… When [people] get piled upon one another in large cities… they will become corrupt."
Jefferson and his contemporaries marked the ideological lines that still outline the lives and politics of Americans. The Republican Party in America has evolved into the anti-urban political party, cutting funding for cities and supporting polices detrimental to urban residents on key issues such as immigration, gun control, and tax cuts. Democrats, on the other hand, are seen as the champions of cities and the urban poor.
Cities, in other words, are central to the American worldview. They are not mere geographic locations, but potent symbols of the division in American society and the partisanship in American politics. Cities represent a certain positive level of culture, progress, dynamism and community, but also a value system that often contrasts with deeply-ingrained ideals of individual and civic virtue.
In other words, Rahm Emanuel isn’t going anywhere.