10 women mayors to watch

Oct 12, 2018 · 9 min read

The large number of women currently running for office across the U.S. has many people saying 2018 could be the “Year of the Woman.”

That wave has already started to build in city halls: 26 of the 100 largest U.S. cities now have women as mayors — up from 20 at the start of this year. That’s a greater proportion of women running cities than you’ll currently find in the U.S. Senate (23 percent) or the U.S. House (19 percent), and way more than are running Fortune 500 companies (5 percent). Nearly all of these mayors are, in one way or another, cracking a glass ceiling in their communities.

Here are 10 female mayors to watch during what could be a historic year at the ballot box.


Vi Lyles, Charlotte, N.C. | Mayor since December, 2017

Among the newest U.S. mayors, Vi Lyles has to be among the most qualified for the job: She served long stints as Charlotte’s budget director and assistant city manager, plus two terms on the city council. As mayor, Lyles has made affordable housing her biggest priority, proposing to more than triple the city’s contribution to a trust fund that finances housing for people with low incomes. She’s also focused on rebuilding police-community relations following a 2016 police shooting of a black man that sparked protests. But Lyles has been around Charlotte’s “weak mayor” system long enough to know that she can’t succeed alone. That’s why she emphasizes collaboration and looking for partnerships with the community. “We have to figure out in this day and time, how do we engage the community?” she told the Charlotte Observer. “We have parts of the community who feel disenfranchised …. The mayor can reach out.”


Jenny Durkan, Seattle | Mayor since November, 2017

Not long after Jenny Durkan’s swearing-in last November, she earned a nickname in Seattle City Hall: “The impatient mayor.” It’s easy to see why. She wasted no time launching an ambitious agenda, which included a focus on Seattle’s youth: Early wins included a plan that offered free transit passes to all public high school students and free community college to all public high school graduates. While Amazon and other large businesses killed her plan to tax them to raise $47 million to address a growing homeless problem, Durkan has nevertheless boosted funding for affordable housing and increased shelter capacity. Now, Durkan is ramping up efforts to fight global warming in Seattle, which is one of the first winners of the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge. She’s boosting the availability of electric vehicle charging stations, slashing the size of the city’s car fleet, and studying a congestion charge that would toll drivers and put the proceeds toward transit improvements.


Muriel Bowser, Washington, D.C. | Mayor since January, 2015

Muriel Bowser understands the value of using data and evidence to drive local-government decision making. That’s why, in 2017, she launched the The Lab @ DC, a first-of-its-kind data science team within city hall. “The Lab @ DC allows us to know how well our policies and programs are working, and provides us the opportunity to learn while we act,” she said at the launch. It does so through the use of 21st-century innovation tools, such as behavioral research, data, resident feedback and other evidence. A recent Lab project, which studied the impact of body cameras on policing, found that cameras have no detectable, meaningful impact on the use of police force. The Lab also cooked up an event called “Form-a-palooza,” which engages residents in helping the city make government forms easier to use. These and other efforts made Washington, D.C., one of just nine cities to receive certification through What Works Cities, a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative that helps American cities ingrain data collection, analysis, and transparency into everything they do.

[Read: How “Form-a-Palooza” is helping Washington, D.C. simplify city government forms]


Betsy Price, Fort Worth, Texas | Mayor since July, 2011

Soon after Betsy Price became mayor, she started biking through different neighborhoods and talking to people in what she called a “rolling town hall.” She’s since expanded this casual outreach to include walking tours and meetings over coffee. “What better way to get out and engage people, catch them where they live, and take them to see different parts of the city,” Price told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “It has just been really successful.” The approach is emblematic of Price’s passion for community engagement and collaboration. Another example is FitWorth, a movement she launched in 2012 to tackle childhood obesity. Each year, Price challenges children to choose healthier foods and participate in outdoor events, and record both for four weeks. The campaign has reached more than 25,000 children and tracked more than 20 million minutes of physical activity. Another example is SteerFW, a platform that connects residents with volunteer opportunities and other ways of working to make their city a better place to live.


Catherine Pugh, Baltimore | Mayor since: December, 2016

When her city experienced a spike in homicides, Catherine Pugh didn’t just send more police officers into high-crime neighborhoods. She also sent in more street cleaners, stepped up job training, kept recreation centers open later, and boosted other city services. Cities across the country are watching to see if the mayor’s Violence Reduction Initiative works.

In a city still reeling from the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a black man who was fatally injured while in police custody, Pugh knows Baltimore can’t fix violence overnight. Pugh struck a deal with the U.S. Justice Department to have a court oversee reforms at the Baltimore Police Department after an investigation found patterns of civil rights violations. Meanwhile, the city’s innovation team — a group of in-house city hall consultants funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies — is working on new strategies to recruit a more diverse police force. As part of that effort, the city has, for example, revived an apprenticeship program for 18- to 20-year-old cadets and is offering potential recruits fitness training rather than turning them away if they’re unable to pass the fitness requirements to join the police force.

[Get the latest innovation news from Bloomberg Cities! Subscribe to SPARK.]


Kathy Sheehan, Albany, N.Y. | Mayor since: January, 2014

Kathy Sheehan is both a champion of Albany’s arts scene and an advocate of putting the city’s many vacant buildings back to use. She put those two passions together in 2016 with “Breathing Lights, an art installation that lit up the windows of empty homes with a warm, pulsing glow. The idea, on which she teamed up with mayors of two nearby cities, was a winner in the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge. Sheehan didn’t stop there. This year, she ordered Albany’s first comprehensive count of its vacant buildings — it found 1,044 of them. Sheehan also launched a $1 million initiative that offers incentives for people to buy vacant buildings and rehab them. On this issue, the mayor is walking the walk: She and her husband recently purchased a two-story fixer-upper in an historic Albany neighborhood. “It’s something that we’ve really thought a lot about,” Sheehan told the Albany Times-Union. “We have a number of buildings that have fallen into disrepair and are going to require people to take that step and be willing to put in, not only the financial investment that it’s going to take, but the time and energy.”

[Read: How cities are taking a more strategic view toward public art]


Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta | Mayor since: January, 2018

Keisha Lance Bottoms has made building trust in city hall a priority in her first year. For example, she launched an “open checkbook” website where residents can see how taxpayer dollars are being spent, and created a role of “chief transparency officer” to facilitate open-records requests. The moves toward greater accountability are part of Bottoms’ One Atlanta agenda, which she said aims “to ensure equitable, open, and inclusive practices across all city departments and functions.” She’s established a new Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion to “shine a light on our forgotten communities and build a bridge towards greater inclusiveness across the entire city.”


Jackie Biskupski, Salt Lake City, Utah | Mayor since: January, 2016

Jackie Biskupski worked in the auto-insurance industry in Salt Lake City in 1995, when a local high school banned all clubs in order to prevent a Gay-Straight Alliance from meeting. The move put gay rights at the center of debate in a conservative state and it caused Biskupski to get political, first as a campaign manager, then as a candidate herself. After an unsuccessful bid for city council, she was elected state representative in 1998 and then mayor in 2016, where she barred official city travel to states with anti-LGBT laws. “I have to set an example,” she told the Salt Lake Tribune. “I have to make sure we are moving in the right direction as a city.” Her sense of justice showed particularly soon after she was elected mayor, when a 17-year old Somali refugee armed only with a metal stick, was shot and critically wounded; in partnership with What Works Cities, Biskupski worked with the police to publish departmental use-of-force data, which now shows a decreasing trend even as crime rates in the city have fallen.


Karen Freeman-Wilson, Gary, Ind. | Mayor since: January, 2012

You can often find Karen Freeman-Wilson mowing vacant lots, talking to the neighbors, and encouraging them to take care of other vacant lots. It’s typical of her approach. She demonstrates through her actions that even in a city with big challenges, local government is ready to work and be responsive. But she’s also being honest that city hall needs residents to help solve problems as well. This approach is just one of the ways Freeman-Wilson is turning Gary’s post-steel industry narrative from one of despair to can-do optimism. Another is ArtHouse, a project that turned an underutilized restaurant into a place for food, art, and workforce training: Kitchen classes help people learn how to start cooking and catering businesses. The project was a winner in the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge in 2015.


Marian Orr, Cheyenne, Wyo. | Mayor since: January, 2017

Wyoming was the first state to allow women to vote and elected the nation’s first female governor. But it wasn’t until last year that its largest city elected its first female mayor. Marion Orr pledged to focus on the basics — fix streets, improve public safety, and clean up blight. It was her focus on blight that spurred an idea that propelled Cheyenne into the field of 35 Champion Cities in the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge: to fill vacant downtown commercial spaces by creating a Tinder-like matchmaking service for entrepreneurs and landlords. As Orr and her team worked with design coaches to test prototypes of the idea, she said they discovered a new, nimble way of building solutions to government problems. They called it “Bloomberging.”

[Read: Unleashing the power of public prototyping]

“I’d never heard the words ‘testing’ and ‘prototyping’ in government,” Orr said. “It brought a new level of exploration to us.” Orr’s team has since applied these design tools to other tasks, such as developing a performance evaluation system for city employees. She’s also talking with a housing developer about “Bloomberging” his plans for a new 500-rooftop community. “Rather than the developer just taking off and thinking he knows what is good for the community regarding the housing and parks and amenities,” Orr said, “we’re going to bring the community in and test and prototype, and listen to the neighbors — the end users — as far as what amenities they want to see.”

Bloomberg Cities

Written by

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade