In tribute to female mayors, taking the lead

Issue 136 — July 20, 2020

The passing of Civil Rights leader and legend Congressman John Lewis made me deeply sad. A wave of great lions and lionesses of the movement for racial equality is moving on just as the country is at the crossroads. Either we’ll make the systemic change that they visualized, that they risked their very lives for, or we’ll let the elements of xenophobia take us back to pre-Rosa Parks days. As tributes to Lewis fill the media, I became aware that his career in elective office started on the Atlanta City Council.

And I realized once again that a leader is someone who gets stuff done, starting from wherever he or she starts. The city level is often a fortuitous springboard. That’s why I am dedicating this column to a particular group of women who get exactly the stuff we need most done right now: female mayors.

I mean they are kicking butt and taking names and leading their cities to flatten the pandemic curve, often moving forward well before those in higher offices took the initiative to do so, and sometimes standing up to enormous pressure to ignore the best advice of public health officials. While there are also many exemplary male mayors during this time, the women seem to be particularly adept at handling this crisis, as we have seen those countries led by women leading the world in addressing COVID-19.

It’s tempting to say that women are so used to dealing with family crises large and small, and that we are excellent multitaskers because we have been socialized to do the proverbial I’m a W-O-M-A-N thing — you know, like “I can rub & scrub this old house til it’s shinin’ like a dime, feed the baby, grease the car, & powder my face at the same time…” Still, women do seem to be able to handle both racial unrest and coronavirus pandemics simultaneously with calmness and empathy, facing problems as they come and taking decisive action.

Mayor Kate Gallego of Phoenix, the fifth largest and fastest growing U.S. city’s second ever elected female mayor, gets stuff done in a particularly effective way. At a recent event where I heard her speak, she referred to the growing prevalence of “mom politics,” referring to the increase in the numbers of young mothers in political office whose vantage point is inclusive of the needs of women and children who are often left out of the equation.

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She is often seen including her preschool age son Michael in her events. You might have seen Mayor Gallego, 38, recently on any number of national news and public policy talk shows such as “Face the Nation” and the Washington Post Live. Her new media prominence is not for healthy reasons. She joined early in the pandemic with other female mayors in Arizona, including Mayors Coral Evans of Flagstaff and Regina Romero of Tucson to pressure Arizona Governor Doug Ducey to allow mayors to implement public health procedures such as closing nonessential businesses and requiring masks since he was not taking such actions.

Romero is the first woman and first Latina to be elected mayor of Tucson, as well as the only Latina mayor in the top 50 cities. Evans is finishing her second term as mayor of Flagstaff and is currently running for Arizona state legislature; she is Flagstaff’s first Black mayor.

All three women began their political careers as members of their city councils. Evans decided to run for mayor at the same time that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She decided to run for state legislature at the same time she was diagnosed with a recurrence of the cancer.

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From L to R: Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and moderator Megan Finnerty at our February Power Up Conference.

Again, not to say that women are naturally more collaborative than men, there are nevertheless other examples of female mayors working together, sharing information and supporting each other during difficult times. San Francisco Mayor London Breed helped Mayor Gallego to formulate a plan for housing homeless persons in hotels, which San Francisco had led the way in doing. Washington DC Mayor Muriel Bowser told ABC News, “[F]emale politicians are attacked more frequently, and more wrongly than anybody else. But I think that the difference that you’re seeing now is there’s a critical mass of us, and we are sticking together and working together.”

As Arizona zoomed to #1 in the increase in COVID-19 after Ducey reopened the state too quickly with few restrictions, Gallego increasingly used her media savvy and bully pulpit to keep the pressure on the governor for Arizona to follow public health advice. And because so many of the necessary resources to handle such crises flow from the Federal government, the mayors have also challenged President Trump to influence national policy, emphasizing that it should be based on the science rather than partisan politics and that “lives and livelihoods” can be simultaneously prioritized.

Women are rising in local politics that are not always as visible as those at the state and national level. But those who are running and winning seats on local school boards, county offices, city councils, and as mayors often have much more impact on your daily life than those who get the most media attention. Of the 50 largest U.S. cities, 13 have women currently serving as their mayors, including a record number of Black women.

Because police departments are typically city entities, mayors are the key players in addressing the fact that Black Americans are three times more likely than others to be killed by police. Working with the Black Lives Matter movement, the response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, city governments are and will be the key to implementing sustainable solutions. They are close to the daily lives of citizens, dealing with everything from whether your garbage gets picked up to managing traffic lights to economic development and urban design in addition to law enforcement.

The City Mayors Society notes that cities are in the forefront of fighting poverty, an underlying cause of the schisms between police and citizens and of the health care disparities that disproportionately affect communities of color. The latter has been laid bare by the equally disproportionate rates of illness and death from COVID-19. So even though many cities don’t have health departments, cities’ economic health impacts on the overall health of the population.

When leaders don’t lead or when they lead in a harmful direction, then it falls to us as individuals and as a people collectively to take the lead. That’s what’s happening in the streets right now. Each of us plays a part by our actions, or by our inactions. Leadership is never easy and leadership in elective office can be especially challenging. Yet with that challenge comes many rewards.

Just before coronavirus took over our lives, Take The Lead’s February 28–29 Power Up Conference held in Scottsdale, Arizona was keynoted by Mayors Evans and Gallego discussing the rise of women mayors and why that is important. As Gallego said, recounting her own journey, “Leadership comes in different forms and sometimes at the most difficult times in your life. But you’ve got to step up and take the lead.”

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If you are interested in public service, here are my tips:

  1. Start by knowing your purpose and your power. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has been spoken of as a potential vice presidential candidate observes to ABC News: “I think so often we [women] are the last ones to see the power within ourselves. … We don’t always even know that the name of that is leadership…You see us leading and organizing our communities, you see us in our churches, and in the workplace, and you see us doing it in our sororities — we’re doing it, each and every day, not always recognizing that those same qualities are the qualities that allowed you to lead cities and states and on a national level.”
  2. If you are interested in politics, learn the ropes. There are many organizations whose specific purpose is to help encourage and prepare women to run for office. They range from nonpartisan such as Vote Run Lead and the Yale Campaign School, to Republican such as the Republican Women for Progress and the National Federation of Republican Women, to Democratic such as Emerge and Emily’s List. There are groups like Higher Heights for Women that support Black Women who want to run and groups that focus on younger women.
  3. Start local and build. School boards and city councils are often great springboards to higher office, while they are rewarding in and of themselves. You can build your networks and base of support by participating in the political party of your choice’s organizational structure. These vary state to state but all have many roles where you can have an impact. Here is Kerry Giangobbe’s story of how she decided to run for city council while in my 9 Leadership Power Tools to Advance Your Career online course several years ago. She didn’t win but it led her to become involved in her local and state Republican party, and she says she will eventually run again.
  4. Don’t just do the work. Take credit for the work you do. Where there are no obvious leaders and a job to be done, step right up. Don’t hesitate. That’s your opportunity to lead. Don’t wait for someone else to take the issue on. If you are passionate about it and willing to do the work, you have every right to put your own hat into the ring. I mean, why not you? After all, a leader isn’t some magical being. She’s someone who gets stuff done.

Bonus Resource: Follow free streaming on AndSheCouldBeNext.com until August 29, 2020. Check out the companion PowerPack, which includes a discussion guide, signature drink recipes, coloring pages, @Spotify playlists and more. You’ll follow the inspiring stories of a number of women of color who ran for Congress in 2018. Some won, others didn’t, and that is part of the process. Ava Duvernay is executive producer and Jyoti Sarda, I proudly say is a graduate of Take The Lead’s 50 Women Can Change the World in Media and Entertainment is the producer. You can read more about it on our blog too.

P.S. Here’s my podcast discussing some of these questions. Please share it and this article with anyone whom you think they might help. Listen, subscribe, and let me know how it goes for you.

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