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Black Women Mayors: A Rising Force in Major American Cities

Then-New Orleans mayoral candidate LaToya Cantrell listens to donors at the home of Robert Ripley in New Orleans on Sept. 22, 2017. (Sophia Germer / The Advocate via AP file)
By Janell Ross
NBC News

NEW ORLEANS — When Mayor LaToya Cantrell — the first woman to lead Crescent City — took office earlier this year, she saw an intricate form of injustice.

Thanks to a Louisiana law from the 1960s, New Orleans has reaped just nine cents for every dollar the city generated in hospitality taxes, according to the state’s budget. With the perennial tourist destination expected to generate almost $200 million in hospitality tax revenue this year alone, Cantrell set about brokering a deal that gave her flood-prone city’s coffers cash to address issues such as infrastructure and drainage.

Cantrell, who is black, is part of a historic cohort of women of color who now lead major U.S. cities. At Essence Fest here this weekend, many converged to discuss the complicated challenges their cities face — and the solutions they’ve offered.

As recently as 2013, there was only one black woman leading a major city. Now, for the first time in the nation’s history, women of color lead 10 of the nation’s 100 largest cities, serving in many cases as the first female mayors of communities around the country. In seven cities — Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Charlotte, North Carolina, San Francisco and Chicago — black women have climbed from city council seats and municipal boards into the mayor’s office.

“What’s happening is that black women are demonstrating the ability to lead on city councils,” said Glenda C. Carr, president and CEO of Higher Heights, a national political organization working to harness the power of black women’s votes and black female elected officials to advance progressive policies.

Since 2017, Higher Heights said, it has seen almost 2,000 black women participate in the online training that the organization offers to women curious about public office.

“What’s amazing is these women are catapulting themselves to city leadership despite the fact that our research has shown they are the most likely to be actively discouraged from running,” Carr said. “So, we’re very interested in this pattern and supporting and expanding this pipeline, really challenging and changing the face of what leadership — all the way to the White House — looks like.”

At Essence Fest, Cantrell’s mention of returning the cash generated by New Orleans’ “culture bearers” back to the city — wedged between the vote-seeking speeches of two presidential candidates — set off an extended round of applause in a setting better known for concerts and beauty product sales rather than conversations about political power and public revenue.

“The idea that we in New Orleans, and our culture bearers, should go on generating so much of the money that comes into this state but reap so few of the receipts was about as upside down, inside out as I could imagine. It had to change,” Cantrell told the audience of several hundred people, mostly black women, on Saturday.

In May, Cantrell struck a deal with state officials which will this year give New Orleans a one-time $50 million payout in hospitality tax revenue and more than $25 million in annual, recurring hospitality tax revenue. The Bureau of Government Research, a New Orleans-based government watchdog agency, described it as a crowning achievement for a mayor in office one year.

Tracey Ross, associate director of the All-In Cities Initiative at PolicyLink, a think tank focused on racial and economic equity, said that while black women voters are a critical voting bloc, “electing black women to office is also, absolutely critical.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks at the ESSENCE Festival in New Orleans on July 6, 2019. (Paras Griffin / Getty Images for ESSENCE)

Ross, who also spoke at Essence Fest’s political idea forum over the weekend, pointed to the success of Keisha Lance Bottoms, a black woman who became Atlanta’s mayor in 2018, making a straight-faced joke layered with cultural meaning.

“In Atlanta we got a mayor named Keisha,” Ross said, prompting an otherwise serious room to burst into laughter.

Ross was referring to a common notion as well as research showing that certain names, like Keisha, are generally associated with black people and racist stereotypes which can sometimes limit opportunity. Voter confidence that Bottoms could lead one of the nation’s largest cities defies both those faulty assumptions and suggestions.

Bottoms took the helm of one of just a few cities where electing a black female mayor did not make history. As mayor of Atlanta, a city that is 52 percent black, Bottoms is also influential. Joe Biden’s campaign announced that Bottoms had endorsed the former vice president in late June, as controversy about his record on busing as a means of desegregating schools loomed.

Outside the closely watched drama of the 2020 presidential race, in which Biden has also been criticized for his part in the 1994 crime bill, which experts say contributed significantly to mass incarceration, Bottoms has implemented criminal justice reforms once thought impractical. In February 2018, when she had been Atlanta’s mayor about a month, Bottoms stopped the city’s courts from requiring low-level and nonviolent offenders to pay bail to avoid jail while avoiding trial.

It was the Bottoms administration’s first big initiative. Critics, including people connected to the city’s bail bonds industry, have said the change boosted the number of people who fail to appear for court hearings. Advocates of the change say one of America’s blackest cities has also become one of its most just ones. People too poor to pay bail no longer have to sit in jail, risking the loss of much needed jobs and apartments and leaving children in the care of relatives or the state.

In June 2018, Bottoms signed an executive order barring the city jail from housing immigrant detainees picked up by federal agents. Then, in May, the Atlanta City Council voted to close the city’s jail which incarcerated an average of 70 people each day, mostly on traffic charges. (The surrounding county continues to operate a jail.)

“So much of what we do, what I’m trying to prioritize,” Bottoms said at Essence Fest, “has come from grassroots groups, the priorities they have identified. But it also put us at the forefront of these issues that deeply affect our entire country.”

In several other cities, black female mayors have focused on reducing the hardship of fines and fees, such as parking tickets, code enforcement violations and library fines. Though these payments have become an increasingly critical source of revenue to cities, critics argue that this type of funding tends to overburden nonwhite and poor residents more likely to be tracked, cited and penalized by police and code enforcement agencies.

The U.S. Department of Justice cited over-reliance on fines and fees as a seemingly race-neutral driver of unjust policing in Ferguson, Missouri, for example.

Cantrell in New Orleans and Sharon Weston Broome in Baton Rouge,Louisiana, have implemented fine and fee amnesty programs which reduce penalties for outstanding parking tickets and other citations. And in Chicago, another black female mayor, Lori Lightfoot, the first black woman to lead the city, has expressed support for fine and fee reform.

“I have found so much of the work we have to do is really the work of restoring faith in government, faith in the idea that government can be just, that it can be a force for good,” Karen Freeman-Wilson, the mayor of Gary, Indiana, said at Essence Fest on Saturday.

In 2011, Freeman-Wilson became that city’s first female mayor. In May, she lost her bid for a third term to a black man.

Carr, the Higher Heights executive working to elect more black women to office, said that while the recent uptick in black women leading major cities is encouraging, there is still much more to be done.

Unlike the black men who began winning mayors’ offices in the late 1960s, black women mayors have not yet gone on to statewide or federal office. In 2019, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., was an at-large city council member in Boston before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Right now, there are only four black women serving as elected attorneys general in New York, New Jersey, Kentucky and Illinois. In 2018, only one, New York Attorney General Tish James won an independent election unattached to a ticket. James began her political career on the New York City Council.