A Brief History
On November 7, 1933, Fiorello La Guardia was first elected Mayor of the City of New York, an office he would hold until December 31, 1945. As any mayor of New York City is automatically well known to all of America, so was La Guardia, but in his case perhaps a lot more famous than usual. Heck, a major airport is named after him! Also on November 7 (1967 this time), Carl Stokes of Cleveland became the first African American man elected as mayor of a major American city. Since it is way too hard for our humble abilities to list the subjective 10 Greatest Mayors, we will do our best to list 10 of the most famous and the reader can decide which ones were great, and which ones were infamous. (Dishonorable Mention to the late Canadian Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford. Sorry, we are only listing Americans today!)
1. Fiorello La Guardia, New York, 1934-1945.
Elected 3 times to the office as a Republican, La Guardia had previously served as a US Representative from New York and as a New York City Alderman. La Guardia was a supporter of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies despite crossing party lines to do so, and was a reformer that tried to stamp out corruption in city government. Doing his work during The Great Depression and then World War II, La Guardia made considerable progress for the people of New York and was a champion of minorities and immigrants. Even without the fame and the notoriety brought by the naming of LaGuardia Airport and several other schools and places (often spelled LaGuardia), this man would have to be considered one of the greatest mayors in US History, not just one of the most famous. Of course, he has appeared on a US postage stamp. A 1993 poll of scientists and historians ranked La Guardia #1 as the best mayor in US History. Only 5 feet 2 inches tall, La Guardia died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 64 in 1947.
2. Carl Stokes, Cleveland, 1968-1971.
Having previously served as a State Representative in the Ohio House of Representatives, Stokes made Worldwide news when he won the Cleveland mayoral election, the first time a Black man had won election to the top job in a major American city. (Back then, Cleveland was still a “major American city,” #8 in the US in 1960 and #10 in 1970.) Stokes was born (1927) and raised in Cleveland, dropping out of high school and joining the Army in 1945 where he served until 1946, later getting his GED. He continued his education, earning a BA from the University of Minnesota and his Law Degree from the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law (now Cleveland State University). An amazing aspect (for the times) of Stokes’ election (he won reelection once) was that Cleveland at the time was a majority White city, with a Black population of only 37%. When Stokes later appointed former Air Force General Benjamin O. Davis as city Safety Director, Davis soon resigned due to his assessment of Stokes and his city government as “an enemy of law enforcement.” Stokes was crushed by this announcement and tearfully addressed the situation on television, his legacy greatly damaged. Rumors of Stokes misusing or stealing Cleveland Now funds circulated. Stokes went on to work as a newscaster in New York and then as a municipal judge in Cleveland, before becoming US Ambassador to the Seychelles. He died of esophageal cancer in 1996 at the age of 68. (His brother, Louis, was also an Ohio congressman for 28 years.) In honor of his momentous position in the Civil Rights Era, Stokes has numerous places named after him, including a Federal Court House.
3. Richard Daley, Chicago, 1955-1976.
As the mayor of America’s “Second City,” especially for over 20 years, anyone would have to become quite familiar to the American public. The events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention held in Chicago, with accusations that the Chicago Police, acting on instructions from the mayor, cracked down criminally hard on protesters, creating a “police riot.” Daley’s tenure as mayor was generally positive, with Chicago not experiencing as drastic a decline as some other major Mid-Western cities (Detroit, Cleveland, et al), and although many in his administrations were convicted or accused of corruption, Daley escaped personal legal liability throughout his terms of office. It is often speculated that Daley’s corrupt influence on the 1960 Presidential election delivered the votes needed to give John F. Kennedy an 8000 vote victory in Illinois, a pivotal state. Daley achieved notoriety after the Martin Luther King, Jr. murder in 1968, when he ordered police to “shoot to kill” any rioter with a Molotov cocktail and to “shoot to maim or cripple” any looters. He died in 1976 at the age of 74 from a heart attack. His son, Richard Daley, Jr. later became mayor of Chicago, serving from 1989 to 2011. It has been reported that Richard II wielded more power in office than even his famous father! Daley was voted as the #6 US mayor in history. Several buildings, parks and the like are named in honor of Daley, and he is frequently referred to in cultural allusions.
4. Jimmy Walker, New York, 1926–1932.
Not many real life mayors in US History have had major motion pictures made about their life, by Jimmy Walker did! In 1957 Bob Hope starred as the flamboyant Walker in the film, Beau James. Initially quite popular, Walker became the target of reform minded Fiorello La Guardia in the 1929 election, with reports and accusations of bribery and corruption tainting Walker. Still, Walker won his own reelection, but by 1932 had fallen out of favor with the public, his admissions of accepting bribes and other corruption forcing his resignation and ending his political career. Walker headed to Europe with his mistress to avoid prosecution in the US. He died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 65 in 1946.
5. William Thompson, Chicago, 1915-1923, 1927-1931.
Also known as “Big Bill” or even “Kaiser Bill” (because of his support for Germany during World War I), Thompson was one of the infamous, rather than famous mayors, seen as a puppet of Al Capone. Probably one of the most corrupt big city mayors in US History, Big Bill was the archetype for the big city Boss type of corrupt mayor in charge of a political machine. After his death in 1944, almost $2 million in cash was found in bank deposit boxes in his name. Thompson was the last Republican to serve as Mayor of Chicago. His funeral was reported to have an incredibly limited number of people attending and no flower arrangements, testament to the disdain he had acquired toward himself over the years.
6. Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia, 1972-1980.
Prior to election as mayor, Rizzo served as the Philadelphia Police Commissioner from 1968 to 1972, having been a city police officer prior to that post. As Commissioner, Rizzo battled with the Mayor and City Hall, fiercely sticking up for the Police Department and railing against criminals, demonstrators, and anyone else he did not like. Rizzo developed a reputation as being particularly hard on and critical of African Americans, and did not tolerate demonstrations or riotous behavior. While Police Commissioner, Black recruitment into the Police Department plummeted. The poor relationship with the Black community continued with Rizzo as mayor, with the police referred to as “Rizzo’s Raiders.” Despite being a Democrat as mayor, Rizzo endorsed Richard Nixon for President and switched to the Republican party after he left office. While mayor, Rizzo got into a feud with the Democratic Chairman in Philadelphia, agreeing to a lie detector test to see which man was telling the truth! The test showed Rizzo to be lying, and Peter Camiel to be telling the truth. This very public embarrassment cost Rizzo a chance to run for governor of Pennsylvania. Although Rizzo won a second term as mayor, he was prohibited from running again by term limits law. His time in office was tumultuous, with may lawsuits and allegations over racial discrimination and a fiery relationship with the press. The Rizzo administrations were known for the patronage system and other shady practices. In 1991, Rizzo won the nomination of the Republican Party to once more run for mayor, but he died of a heart attack during the campaign.
7. Grover Cleveland, Buffalo, 1882.
Actually named Stephen Grover Cleveland, this Buffalo attorney served as mayor for less than a year, but established himself as an incorruptible reformer during that time. He previously served as Erie County Sheriff, and later served as Governor of New York, and then served 2 terms as President of the United States, the only city mayor to become President. He is the only President to serve 2 non-consecutive terms, having lost the 1888 election to Benjamin Harrison. A curious bit of trivia about Cleveland is that he paid a Polish American man $150 to serve in his stead during the Civil War, a common practice at the time. During his second term as President, Cleveland was operated on for cancer in his mouth, having part of his upper jaw and hard palate removed and replaced by prosthetic devices, under total secrecy! The true story was not made public until 1917, 9 years after Cleveland had died of a heart attack at the age of 71. Cleveland has appeared on US postage and on the $1000 bill.
8. Rudolph Giuliani, New York, 1994-2001.
A political Chamaeleon, Rudy started out as a Democrat, then turned to an Independent, and finally became a Republican. As the US Attorney in New York, he prosecuted cases against the Mafia, gaining fame and credit for his efforts. As mayor of New York, Giuliani was known to be tough on crime, encouraging police to crack down on even minor offenses. His efforts paid off, and New York’s crime rate went down under his administration. Rudy gained international and national fame after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, in which he was constantly seen on television appearing to take charge of the situation, while the President and Vice President were being kept out of sight. Giuliani got the nickname, “America’s Mayor,” and tried to use his new found fame to leverage a change in New York City law to allow him another term as mayor. That effort failed, as did his attempts to win the Republican nomination for President, though those campaigns certainly kept him in the limelight. Rudy was the Time Magazine Person of the Year for 2001, another notch in his fame folder. Married 3 times, Giuliani was hurt in his bid for a Presidential run when information came out about his using city police on overtime to transport him to trysts with a mistress. His 9/11 credentials were also damaged when it was revealed he insisted on putting the city’s Critical Incident Command Center in the World Trade Center although he was strongly advised to put it elsewhere. Of course, during the crisis following the terror attacks of 9/11, the loss of the Command Center hurt his ability to effectively lead recovery efforts.
9. Dianne Feinstein, San Francisco, 1978-1988.
Feinstein gained national attention in 1978 when she replaced mayor George Moscone who along with Harvey Milk, was murdered by an irate ex-county employee (in the famous “Twinkie Defense” case). Previously, Diane had been on the county Board of Supervisors and had graduated from Stanford with a BA in History. Serving as mayor for 10 years, she used her position in the limelight to good effect as the first female mayor of San Francisco, rebuilding the cable car system and hosting the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Feinstein angered some voters by refusing to march in the Gay Pride parade and by trying to ban handguns entirely in San Francisco. She faced a recall election in 1988, spearheaded by the White Panther Party, though she won that challenge. Feinstein was elected to the US Senate in 1992, becoming the first female Senator from California. In 2012 she claimed 7.75 million votes for her Senate reelection, the most votes ever won by any US Senate candidate. Currently 84 years old, Feinstein has voiced her intention of running for reelection in 2018! She is famous (or infamous!) for her virulently anti-gun stance.
10. Tom Johnson, Cleveland, 1901-1909.
Boasting only 1 single year of formal education, Johnson was nonetheless a keen intellect, working his way up in business and patenting several inventions, including an improved street car rail and the familiar glass sided farebox found on many mass transit applications. Born in 1854 in Kentucky, Johnson’s father fought for the Confederacy, losing his family plantations in the war. Johnson grew up in several Southern states, and when his business fortunes took off, he bought a controlling share of the Indianapolis street car business and also bought into street car lines in Cleveland and other big cities, later expanding into the steel making business. In 1883 Johnson moved to Cleveland, where he became aware of the writings of Henry George, a political philosopher that advocated taxing land, but not labor or commerce. In 1890 Tom won a seat in the US House of Representatives, where he served for 4 years. In spite of his wealth, Johnson became a critic of the wealthy, especially those controlling monopolies, and divested himself of much of his businesses in order to spend his money on social change. As mayor of Cleveland, Tom put the good of the public before the profits of the rich, developing city projects to the benefit of the population, such as the famous West Side Market, which is today still a major open market in Cleveland. Johnson was the founder of Municipal Light and Electric Power in Cleveland, providing a massive city owned utility that brought bargain rate electric power to the masses. (It is still in existence as Cleveland Public Power.) Johnson’s honesty and reforms made him famous across the United States, and helped Cleveland grow from 381,768 people in 1900 to 560,663 in 1910, making Cleveland the 6th most populous city in the US. In 1999 Johnson was voted by historians and social scientists as the 2nd best mayor in US History, behind only Fiorello La Guardia.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who is the most famous mayor in US History? Please feel free to give us your opinions in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Jeffers, H. Paul. The Napoleon of New York: Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Wiley, 2002.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of La Guardia and Franklin D. Roosevelt, is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code. This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 196764.