7 Millennial mayors to watch

Clockwise from upper left: South Bend’s Pete Buttigieg; Stockton’s Michael Tubbs; Ithaca’s Svante Myrick; Cedar City’s Maile Wilson; Compton’s Aja Brown; Birmingham’s Randall Woodfin; and Dania Beach’s Tamara James.

The Millennial generation has made its mark on technology, entertainment, and many other industries in the United States. But this generation has yet to make substantial inroads into local government at the highest level.

According to a recent Bloomberg Cities analysis of more than 1,400 mayors representing U.S. cities with 30,000 people or more, just 6 percent are Millennials, defined as those born between 1981 and 1996. By contrast, more than three quarters of U.S. mayors are older than 50, and 30 percent are older than 65. The average age among mayors is 58.

That’s likely to change before long. As Millennials work their way up into leadership roles in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, more and more will see running for mayor as the best way to make a difference in their communities. In a growing number of cities, that’s already starting to happen. Here are seven mayors to watch from this first wave of ambitious young leaders rising to the top ranks of local government.

Svante Myrick, Ithaca, N.Y., 31

Svante Myrick already has six years as mayor under his belt — and he’s only 31. A graduate of Ithaca’s Cornell University, Myrick is reshaping this upstate New York college town by allowing more dense development and cutting back parking requirements. Those changes not only are making Ithaca more walkable but also strengthening its budget: Myrick closed a $3 million deficit he inherited in 2012, and by 2016 was able to actually cut taxes. Myrick, whose father struggled with drug addiction, has emerged as a leading advocate for a drug-treatment approach proven to work in Europe but untested in the United States. He wants to create a place where addicts can use drugs under medical supervision. The idea is to reduce the skyrocketing number of overdoses, while offering addicts a pathway into treatment services. As Ithaca awaits state approval for the concept, the city is testing various aspects of community acceptance for the idea as part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge.

Aja Brown, Compton, Calif., 36

When Aja Brown became mayor in 2013, Compton was struggling with an 18 percent unemployment rate, a spike in homicides, and a fiscal crisis that had almost driven the city into bankruptcy. Under Brown’s leadership, unemployment has dropped below 7 percent, murders have declined by more than half, and Compton is on a path to fiscal recovery. An urban planner by training, Brown tackled gang violence by meeting directly with gang members, deploying ex-members to stay in regular dialogue with them, and increasing employment opportunities. And she’s enlisted some of Compton’s most famous natives, from Dr. Dre to Venus and Serena Williams to Kendrick Lamar, to give back to their hometown and be part of its narrative of rebirth.

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Pete Buttigieg, South Bend, Ind., 36

These days, Pete Buttigieg gets so much attention on the national political scene that it’s easy to overlook all he’s accomplished as mayor. Elected in 2011, Buttigieg launched the city’s first 311 service for citizens to report complaints and turned it into a data tool for improving performance of city services. When citizens asked for more attention on blight, Buttigieg asked them to help gather data on vacant properties and set an ambitious goal of repairing or demolishing 1,000 of them in 1,000 days — a goal the city reached two months ahead of schedule. A lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserves, Buttigieg left city hall for a half-year tour in Afghanistan in 2014. The next year, he came out as gay and soon after won reelection with 80 percent of the vote. With a resume that includes Harvard and Oxford universities, deep Midwestern roots, and reputation as a pragmatic progressive, Buttigieg was recently named as one of three young veterans staking a “generational claim” on the Democratic Party by The New York Times.

Tamara James, Dania Beach, Fla., 33

Until a couple of years ago, Tamara James was best known in south Florida as a University of Miami basketball star who went on to play professionally — first in the WNBA and later in Israel. She made the jump to politics in 2016, after she’d returned to her hometown of Dania Beach to begin a career in community service, and found she didn’t like the way some city politicians talked to business owners and residents. “They wore their power in a way I thought was unfit for a leader in our community,” she told the Miami Times. James successfully ran for office and started as mayor last year. She’s focused on programming for youth and seniors and creating more recreational spaces in the city.

Randall Woodfin, Birmingham, Ala., 37

In last year’s mayoral race, Randall Woodfin used youth to his advantage in unseating a 68-year-old, two-term incumbent. Of the nearly 25,000 votes Woodfin received, more than 11,000 came from people who had never voted before in a municipal election — and 5,000 of those new voters were age 18 to 35. Now, the former school board president is embarking on an ambitious agenda to engage residents in policymaking using tools such as participatory budgeting, and to cut red tape for small businesses.

Maile Wilson, Cedar City, Utah, 32

It wasn’t enough for Maile Wilson at the age of 27 to graduate from law school and study for the bar exam. She also ran for mayor of her hometown, Cedar City — and won by a wide margin. That was in 2013. Since then, according to the Deseret News, “her public service has started a conversation about the influence of young people.” Wilson shepherded development of the first strategic plan the city of 30,000 has ever had, and focused on business growth. She’s also made making greater use of technology a priority, although she’s aware of its limits. “Technology is great,” she told Utah Business, “but an email or text does not go nearly as far in conflict resolution as actually being willing to sit down with somebody across a table and talk to work out a problem.”

Michael Tubbs, Stockton, Calif., 27

Some Silicon Valley futurists want government to pay people a “universal basic income” as an antidote to robots taking over human jobs. But it’s the present that has Michael Tubbs concerned. That’s because so many residents of his city a couple of hours east of Silicon Valley already are working two or three jobs just to get by. The 27-year old mayor plans to launch one of the first U.S. experiments with universal basic income, offering a few dozen families a no-strings-attached check for $500 a month. While critics say the payments will dissuade work, Tubbs believes residents will use it to pay off bills, buy food, or defray childcare costs. City leaders around the world are eager to find out how the experiment works. No city dollars are on the line because an outside party is paying for it.