Today New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio announced his run for the presidency in 2020, becoming one of seemingly dozens of people running the Democratic nomination. If De Blasio succeeds, this will create a future political contest between two politicians born less than 20 miles from each other.
But is it possible for the leader of the biggest city in America to step up to the role of Commander In Chief?
Precedent tells us no. Not one New York City mayor in history who ever actively tried or hinted at being interested in the job ever got it. Indeed it’s difficult — especially in recent years — to even identify any genuine enthusiasm for such presidential runs.
The Road to the Presidency
This is rather unusual as the mayor of New York City has certain responsibilities akin to running an actual country. Our city has a diverse population the size of Austria with immense financial and cultural power. One might expect the job to be a natural stepping stone to the White House.
Mayors have become president in the past although that biographical detail is usually not a defining aspect of that candidate’s résumé. For instance, Calvin Coolidge tenure as mayor of Northhampton, Massachusetts, was but one of several offices the lawyer achieved on his way to the presidency.
Grover Cleveland was also a mayor (of Buffalo), but it’s his experience as Governor of New York which recommended him for the Office of the President.
Indeed the real road to power is through the office of New York state governor. Four former governors have become president (Cleveland, as well as Martin Van Buren, Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt), four more were vice president (George Clinton, Daniel Tompkins, Levi P. Morton and Nelson Rockefeller) and two have even become chief justice of the Supreme Court (John Jay and Charles Evans Hughes).
Even those governors who failed to become president did so in a dramatic and historic fashion, such as former governors Al Smith, Samuel Tilden and Thomas Dewey (of the particularly famous photo below).
Then you have Theodore Roosevelt who was the New York City police commissioner and eventual New York governor who became the Vice President and then the President of the United States — all in the span of less than seven years.
But Mayor of New York City? No.
New York City Mayors and the White House
The list of what-ifs and also-rans is long indeed:
Michael Bloomberg — The mayor from 2002-2013 has flirted many times with a presidential run but has never made the leap. Probably for the best. Since his first flirtation with a presidential bid, the political world has shifted greatly. The three-term Republican mayor changed his party affiliation to Democrat last year although he seems forever poised to run as a fiscally-minded centrist.
Rudy Giuliani — The mayor from 1994-2001 did run for President in 2008 but stumbled almost immediately after a major Florida miscalculation and never recovered, withdrawing on January 30, 2008.
John Lindsay didn’t fare much better than Rudy in his quest for the 1972 Democratic nomination. Starting out of the gate strong, like Rudy he stalled in Florida and eventually dropped out. Given the catastrophic changes to the city in the 1960s ad 70s, it’s not surprising that having ‘mayor of New York City’ on their political resume proved a stumbling block.
Robert F. Wagner (1954 to 1965) never ran for president but was short-listed to be Adlai Stevenson‘s vice president in 1956. Wagner was eventually beaten in balloting by Al Gore Sr. and John F Kennedy Jr. But, in the end, they were ALL beat for the spot by the clearly more popular, always reliable Estes Kefauver.)
Below: Robert Wagner meets Fidel Castro during his visit to New York in 1959.
New York City mayors before World War One were generally considered second tier, even props for political machines. Only a few were politically influential and that was often because of prior connections. You can read all our coverage of past New York City mayors here.
William Jay Gaynor (mayor 1910-1913) was widely considered a potential presidential hopeful, even with an assassin’s bullet lodged in his neck. Had he actually lived through his term as mayor, who knows?
George Brinton McClellan Jr (mayor 1904-1909) was never a presidential candidate but his father and Civil War icon George B. McClellan Sr most certainly was. The Union Army general ran in 1864 against Lincoln during his second term, promising to end the war in the South.
A Oakley Hall (mayor 1869 from 1872) (pictured at left) was as closely tied to the Boss Tweed Ring as a politico could be, but even he harbored presidential hopes. Considering he had to temporarily resign from mayor due to the Tweed scandal, I can’t imagine how much luck he would have had.
DeWitt Clinton (mayor for ten non-consecutive annual terms starting in 1803 ending 1815) collected political positions like postage stamps, but the one he could never lick was the presidency, defeated by incumbent James Madison in 1812. By June, Madison had declared war on England and later fled the White House when the Brits torched it.
How a Mayor gets to the White House
The closest a mayor ever got to a top federal job was Edward Livingston, who became Secretary of State to Andrew Jackson. Which is interesting, as Livingston was literally ran out of Manhattan after his stint as mayor several years previous due to debts and scandals.
For the most part, most politicians who become the mayor of New York City rarely achieve higher elected office. John T. Hoffman is the last individual to be both New York City mayor and then a higher elected position (New York governor in 1869)
This story has been revised from an article which ran on June 25, 2008)