MANY MAYORS plan exit, cite covid burnout.
Pandemic response demanded too much, left them drained, they maintain
NEWBURYPORT, Mass. — Mayors are hands-on officials in the best of times, barraged with criticism and individual pleas for help. Over the past year, they found themselves weighing matters of life or death — devastating local businesses by prolonging shutdowns, canceling gatherings treasured by voters, unable to provide comfort by being there in person.
And this spring, many American mayors are explaining their decision to leave office with the same reason: that the pandemic response demanded so much that they could not both campaign and perform their duties or that the work had become so stressful that their families had recommended that they step away.
“They are just spent,” said Katharine Lusk, executive director of Boston University’s Initiative on Cities, which carries out an annual survey of mayors. Mayors surveyed last summer expressed deep anxiety about the effects of lost tax revenue on their budgets as they juggled the pandemic, economic recovery and their core responsibilities.
Meanwhile, Lusk said, the positive aspects of the job were stripped away.
“They will tell you it’s the most personal job in politics,” she said. “If you can’t interact with the community, all of the things that sort of fuel mayors — the inputs that build up that reservoir of energy — that aspect of the job has been taken from them.”
There is little national data on local elections, so it is impossible to say whether this year’s turnover of mayors is unusual. In Massachusetts, nearly one-fifth of the state’s mayors have announced they will not run again, as CommonWealth, a politics journal, reported, but that is not an unusual portion, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
Decisions to step down are rarely made for one reason, and the year has increased pressure on leaders on many fronts, including conflicts over policing and racial justice. Among those who have offered an explanation, however, covid fatigue comes up a lot. Michelle De La Isla, the mayor of Topeka, Kan., told The Topeka Capital-Journal that campaigning would make her workload unmanageable, and “there was no way I was going to be able to do this at the same time” as heading coronavirus response.
Mayor Grover C. Robinson IV of Pensacola, Fla., said he decided not to run out of frustration with the politicized reaction to health directives after returning from a vacation and attending yet another contentious meeting. Similar explanations have come from the mayors of Highland, Ill.; Pascagoula, Miss.; and Seattle, among others.
Thomas M. McGee, the mayor of Lynn, Mass. — a large, blue-collar city north of Boston — described parts of last year as “a blur” as the virus raced through crowded neighborhoods that were home to multiple generations of families.
McGee, a Democrat, ran for mayor of Lynn, his hometown, in 2016, after 22 years in the state Legislature. But nothing, he said, prepared him for the intensity of being a mayor last year.
“After 27 years and this, in some ways, lost year,” he said, “my family was like, ‘You’re stressed. It’s really had a substantial impact on you. And we’ll support you 100% whatever you want to do. But we think you should consider making a step back.’”
McGee’s account of the past year is laced with frustration at the federal government, which he said left local officials to cope with a fast-moving public health emergency, while former President Donald Trump contradicted basic messaging about safety.
“It became apparent, and I’d say it on calls and while we were making decisions, ‘You know, we’re on our own here,’” he said. “They left a lot of us in the lurch, and we were left to really kind of navigate this on our own.”
His frustration was echoed by Joseph A. Curtatone, 54, the mayor of Somerville, Mass., a city of 81,000, who is leaving office after nearly 18 years, amid speculation that he will run for governor.
Mayors, Curtatone said, were forced to coordinate policies on such grave matters as shutdowns and school closings among themselves, putting collective pressure on the state government to follow their lead.
“Trump pushed it onto the states, and they pushed it onto the cities and towns,” he said.
Nearly two-thirds of bigcity mayors are Democrats, many in Republican-controlled states whose leaders were more skeptical of shutdowns and mask mandates.
That tension has exacerbated mayors’ “sense of being embattled,” even as coronavirus case numbers decline, said Lusk.
“I think the cyclicality of the pandemic meant they’ve never been able to let their guard down, they’ve never been out of the woods,” she said.
Mayor Grover C. Robinson IV of Pensacola, Fla., said he decided not to run out of frustration with the politicized reaction to health directives after returning from a vacation and attending yet another contentious meeting.