In UChicago event, Black mayors reflect on 2020 and the challenges ahead

Harris hosts four mayors in discussion of race, politics and the need to build coalitions

To mark the start of Black History Month, four current and former Black mayors from across the country gathered in a University of Chicago event to reflect on 2020 and the challenges ahead—from the rise of domestic extremism to a broader discussion of race, politics and policy.

Hosted by the Harris School of Public Policy, the panelists were Karen Freeman-Wilson, the former mayor of Gary, Indiana; Michael A. Nutter, former mayor of Philadelphia and a senior fellow at Harris; Steven L. Reed, who became mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, in 2019; and Michael Tubbs, the former mayor of Stockton, California. 

The Feb. 1 virtual event—the first of several planned by Harris in honor of Black History Month—was moderated by Derek R.B. Douglas, who is the University of Chicago’s vice president for civic engagement and external affairs and led urban policy in President Barack Obama’s administration.

While the panel included a mix of current and former mayors, all continue to work on urban policy issues. Freeman-Wilson is now president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.

“Everybody likes to solve hard problems and to face difficult challenges and to assemble teams around them and to think about how to address them,” said Freeman-Wilson, who was mayor of Gary from 2012-19. “And I would suggest to you that the mayors that are now facing those issues, particularly the African American mayors, are in the best position to deal with that. That’s because they understand the critical nature of the challenges, of the racial injustice that we’ve faced for centuries, of the impact of the pandemic on Black and Brown communities.”

In those remarks, Freeman-Wilson touched on two issues raised repeatedly in the discussion: COVID-19, and the racial reckoning that followed the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans killed by police officers. Panelists also shared opinions on a range of other topics during their nearly hourlong exchange, including lessons from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Here is a look at the scope of their discussion:

Leading during a pandemic

Mayors have always had a difficult job, one that requires a mix of both visionary thinking and ensuring that potholes get filled. But in 2020, mayors had to contend with the repercussions of a worldwide pandemic, a recession, civil unrest, and a presidential election all at once.

“You see these mayors out here giving daily reports of how many people are sick and how many people died,” said Nutter, who led Philadelphia from 2008-16. “And people rely on them for that information because you’re getting madness out of the [Trump] White House. The only place you can really turn is to your local mayor, because the mayor is actually responsible for everything.”

That “everything” included often having to enact COVID-19 protocols at odds with state leaders. That was the case for Reed, whose stricter COVID-19 mitigation efforts were in opposition to those of Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey. Democratic mayors representing urban centers in conservative states, Reed said, have had to navigate from the perspective of, “Who do we represent?”

“Here in Montgomery, we are, most people know, in the heart of the deep red South—although Georgia changed that, thank God for them—and what we tried to do has been to really set the example,” Reed said. “And I think the example that we set has proven over the last year-plus to be the best example.”

Tubbs, whose 2016 election at the age of 26 made him the nation’s youngest mayor of a city with at least 100,000 residents, also directed COVID-19 efforts in Stockton last year. “As Mayor Reed can attest, 2020 was just a crazy year to be a mayor,” he said. “You weren’t just a mayor. You’re the public health commissioner, you were the board of supervisors. I was a procurement officer. I was trying to find masks in China. These were things I had to do on a daily basis.”

Coalition building

Panelists all spoke about the need to build coalitions and sustain personal relationships, including with fellow Black leaders, as central to their success—and the success of any city.

Coalitions were crucial for Reed as Montgomery charted its own path to lessen risk during the pandemic. For Tubbs, they have been essential in his signature effort to ensure a universal basic income.

“How do we make [guaranteed income] an issue that’s responsive to what we’re seeing with the economic deprivation of COVID-19, but also to the cries for racial justice?” said Tubbs. “Because folks ain’t just crying about ending police brutality. We need jobs. We need opportunity. We need a level playing field.”

Drawing on King’s legacy, Tubbs started Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, which, he said, now has support from 35 mayors. Tubbs lost his race for reelection in November, but as mayor, he spearheaded a program in which 125 residents in Stockton got $500 a month funded by a nonprofit. “It’s always been mayors who have been pushing the envelope,” he said.

Domestic extremism

For many Americans, the deadly pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was a wakeup call about the risk of domestic extremism. How, Douglas asked, are cities preparing for future threats?

“You've got to keep in mind that for me, this is somewhat history repeating itself,” Reed said. “So being in Montgomery where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s house was bombed with his family in it, I have to remind people that this isn’t new to people in the Black community in particular.”

How the government responds to those who were involved on Jan. 6 “is going to be important,” said Reed, “because what we try to do here in the city is, again, not live in the past but we always want to be mindful of it. You cannot be silent when these things are happening because you don't know how far people will go or how far people will push it.”

Nutter called the violence in Washington a “remix on voter suppression” and noted differences in the way rioters were treated. If Black Lives Matter protesters had talked about going up the stairs of the Capitol, he said, “folks would have been hurt, if not shot.”

There would have been, Freeman-Wilson added, “a fortress around it from the beginning.”

Black Lives Matter movement

Douglas asked the mayors to address how they have engaged with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Tubbs recalled his freshman year at Stanford University, when he was among the students who called for the firing of Palo Alto police chief Lynne Johnson for her comments encouraging officers to stop Black men. “That’s sort of the world view and background I come from,” he said. “But being mayor is different. … Our tactics have to be different. … I’m the mayor of the entire city.”

“I told Black Lives Matter protesters what you’re doing is important. You’re creating the air cover for me to push policy,” Tubbs continued. “But there’s no real value in me going out every day this month and protesting when I need to be in this room with this police chief. I also had a talk with organizers about the difference between a ‘moment’ and a ‘movement’—and that a protest is a tactic and not a strategy. So I would say, ‘Okay, we're protesting, but what's the strategy?’”

After each protest there should be a strategy/policy session, said Wilson-Freeman, speaking from the perspective of “someone who has been in the mayor’s seat and who’s now on the street protesting on occasion.”

“I’m always saying, ‘Okay, all right, got you on the protest. I’m going to make my sign,’” she said. “But when do we start creating policy and sitting down with the mayor, sitting down with the police superintendent, sitting down with other community-based organizations to create lasting change?”

Advice for future leaders

To close the discussion, Douglas asked the panel for advice for young leaders thinking about a career in politics—or specifically one in city hall. Advice included learning to lean on colleagues, being willing to lose an election to stand up for something deeply believed in, and relying on a rock-solid values system.

“I think it’s important that we understand—and young leaders understand—that you don’t have to have all the answers,” Reed said. “None of us do. You don't have to be perfect. None of us are. You just have to be committed and willing to make bold and courageous change for the people that you represent.”

—Adapted from a story first published by the Harris School of Public Policy.