New mayors to watch: Women continue gains in city halls

Some of America’s newest mayors, clockwise from upper left: Eric Genrich of Green Bay, Wis.; Lori Lightfoot of Chicago; Leirion Gaylor Baird of Lincoln, Neb.; Satya Rhodes-Conway of Madison, Wis.; Breea Clark of Norman, Okla.; Nick Gradisar of Pueblo, Colo.; Keith James of West Palm Beach, Fla.; Kate Gallego of Phoenix; and Jane Castor of Tampa, Fla.

If 2018 was the “Year of the Woman” in U.S. elections, the trend toward women winning political office appears to be continuing — at least at the local level. Some of the most closely watched mayoral races so far this year, in Chicago, Phoenix, and Tampa, Fla., resulted in women taking hold of offices that had previously been held by men.

To stay updated on some of the most notable new people leading America’s cities, here is Bloomberg Cities’ latest installment of our regular series, New Mayors to Watch.

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Making history and making progress go hand in hand for Jane Castor. In 2009, when she became Tampa’s chief of police — after serving more than 30 years in the department — she became the first woman and first out lesbian to do so. Then, under her leadership, the city experienced a 72-percent reduction in crime. Now, the 59-year-old is the city’s first openly gay mayor — she was inaugurated May 1 — and hopes that this history-making move will be followed by an equal measure of wins for her city’s residents. As mayor, Castor said she hopes to apply the leadership skills she honed as chief to pursue a variety of policies meant to strengthen Tampa’s neighborhoods and expand public transportation options. “My years of service to our incredible community, whether walking the streets as an officer, or as the first woman police chief in this city’s history, have given me the experience and skills to lead Tampa into a brighter future,” she said.

At the University of Oklahoma, Breea Clark runs a program focused on developing business students’ leadership skills. Soon, she’ll have a chance to put her own leadership skills to the test as Norman’s next mayor. Clark, 36, stresses that for her, that will mean strengthening the city’s strained partnerships with the university, Chamber of Commerce, and surrounding communities. As a member of the city council, Clark pushed to make Norman the first city in Oklahoma to commit to an eventual switchover to renewable energy. Clark is also pledging bold action around the city’s frequent troubles with flooding, which she thinks ultimately will require creating a stormwater utility.

[Read: 7 Millennial mayors to watch]

Kate Gallego has had her eye on Phoenix’s future ever since she moved there after college 15 years ago. “As I drove into the valley on the I-17, I was filled with a sense of optimism of what was in store,” she said recently. For her, that past decade and a half has included work with the Salt River Project utility, where she focused on local economic development, and five years on the city council, where she zeroed in on closing the compensation gap between genders. Last November, when then-Mayor Greg Stanton was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, she decided to leave the council and run for mayor. Sworn into office in March, the 37-year-old now faces a number of issues that come with Phoenix’s population rebound — it recently overtook Philadelphia as the fifth largest city in the country. And she says she will do so with the city’s newest and future residents in mind. “I’m going to always be thinking long-term [and about] what kind of city we want to leave for our children,” she said.

A city councilwoman since 2013, 45-year-old Leirion Gaylor Baird prides herself for being a great partner in creating policy and bipartisanship. And now Gaylor Baird, who was just elected mayor of Lincoln last week, said she intends to bring that same collaborative energy to her new role. “That’s my style: Slow down and collaborate and get things to where they need to be,” Gaylor Baird told the Lincoln Journal Star. “I want to continue to build the partnerships from City Hall that help make this a better place to live and work and play.” Gaylor Baird also has a track record of supporting sustainability policies — having backed the 2018 Lincoln Environmental Action Plan during her time on the city council — and made environmental issues one of her focus points during her campaign. Specifically, she aims to reduce emissions from the city’s vehicle fleet by replacing current police cruisers with newer, hybrid models. “Not only is this good for our environment, this is good for the city’s bottom line,” she said. “We can mitigate the risks climate change poses to our economy, environment, and quality of life, and now is the time to act.”

[Read: 10 women mayors to watch]

Eric Genrich served three terms in the Wisconsin State Assembly, where he sat on the Committee on Urban and Local Affairs. And now that he’s been elected mayor of Green Bay — the city’s first new mayor in 16 years — one of his biggest urban and local affairs will be getting a handle on the city budget, which is so strained that, last year, police and emergency staffing levels were threatened. The 39-year-old said that one of the ways he’s looking to reform the budget process is to explore consolidated services with neighboring cities. Additional top priorities include “fixing our roads and investing in our infrastructure to strengthen neighborhoods in every corner of the city.” He also pledges to “end the bickering at city hall” and “foster civility, responsiveness, and openness in city government.”

For years, attorney Nick Gradisar has said Pueblo should move to a “strong mayor” form of local government, arguing the change would help the former steel town develop a more forceful economic development strategy. Two years ago, he convinced city voters to amend the city charter. And in January, Gradisar, 69, won Pueblo’s first mayoral election in more than a century. Gradisar’s early days have been occupied with setting up the machinery of a mayor’s office; before he could hire a chief of staff, he had to get the city council to create the position. Once he’s going full-strength, Gradisar intends to focus on finding ways for Pueblo to capture more of the growth in jobs and population that Colorado has been enjoying lately. “My vision,” he told CityLab recently, “is that every young person who wants to stay here can stay here and earn a living.”

[Read: 5 new mayors to watch (January, 2019)]

Keith James is no stranger to the city politics of West Palm Beach. He’s been a city commissioner since 2011 and twice served as that body’s president. The 61-year-old, who has just been elected mayor — and as the city’s first African-American strong mayor — says his experience on the city commission gave him a deep understanding and appreciation of the importance of collaboration and citizen engagement. His campaign reflected that. After collecting the names of 500 residents who would be interested in serving as neighborhood advisors, James developed his platform, including a plan to fight homelessness, based on what he heard from these people. “I have met with residents across our city and the growing homeless issue is on the top of everyone’s mind,” he said in February. “That’s why I have outlined a detailed plan to not only look at long-term solutions to the issue, but steps we can take on day one” to partner with community groups, nonprofits, and the private-sector to tackle the issue.

Chicago is known, among many things, for its political consistency — it had a mayor named Daley for 43 of the past 65 years, for example. But the city switched it up this spring with the election of Lori Lightfoot. The 56-year-old former federal prosecutor, who will be sworn in May 20, has never before held public office and will carry a string of firsts into City Hall with her: the first mayor in decades to be born outside of Chicago (she’s from Massillon, Ohio), the first African-American woman to be mayor of Chicago, and the first gay mayor of Chicago, which will now become the largest U.S. city with an out gay mayor. But Lightfoot has her eye on changes of a different sort. After sweeping all 75 of Chicago’s wards, she hopes to use her mandate to build trust in the police department, bolster faith in city government, and expand prosperity from the downtown core into the surrounding neighborhoods. “We’ll make Chicago a place where your ZIP code doesn’t determine your destiny,” she said during her acceptance speech. “We can, and we will, give our neighborhoods the same time and attention we give the downtown… and make sure all of our neighbors are invested in each other.”

[Read: 5 women mayors to watch for climate leadership]

Satya Rhodes-Conway is already a familiar face to many U.S. mayors. For 14 years, she’s managed the Mayors Innovation Project, a network for mayors to share policy ideas and lessons learned. Now the 47-year-old is bringing that insight into cities and how they work to Madison’s City Hall. She represents a big change for Madison. The previous mayor — whom Rhodes-Conway defeated decisively — had been in office, off and on, for 22 years. Rhodes-Conway, Madison’s first openly gay mayor, ran an upbeat campaign, knocking on countless doors to talk with residents. She promised to focus on creating more affordable housing, speeding up buses, and tackling what she called “structural racism” in the city’s institutions. “She’s disarming yet direct,” the Wisconsin State Journal wrote in its endorsement of her. “Rhodes-Conway would bring fresh eyes to stubborn challenges, and look for new opportunities.”

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