Campus & Community

Seasoned mayors give advice to new ones

3 min read
Thomas Menino, Susan Savage, Wellington Webb and Mark
Mayors Thomas Menino (left) Susan Savage, Wellington Webb, and Marc Morial offer candid advice to new mayors during the U.S. Conference of Mayors at the Kennedy School ARCO Forum on Nov. 14. (Staff photo by Rose Lincoln)

Faced with greater responsibilities in the aftermath of Sept. 11, four mayors from big cities around the country spoke in the ARCO Forum about local leadership during times of global crisis. The event was part of a three-day training program (beginning Nov. 14) for new mayors that has taken place every other year at the Kennedy School since 1973. It is co-sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Institute of Politics.

“Because of Sept. 11, we are reminded of just how critical the office of mayor can be,” said the Kennedy School’s David Gergen, who served as moderator for the event.

“This definitely is the toughest job in America right now,” added Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. “Sept. 11 placed an enormous burden on mayors. Each is on the front line and has to be responsible for emergency preparedness. Unfortunately, while the expectations of mayors have gone up, the downward spiral in the economy means the bottom has dropped out on resources. We’re facing a severe squeeze.”

Based on these changes, the seasoned panelists – each in her or his second or third term – offered advice to the new mayors, many in office for only a week.

Tulsa, Okla., Mayor Susan Savage, for instance, stressed maintaining a sense of humor and taking risks. “If you sit back and allow yourself to be led,” she said, “you’ll be mayor for as long as you want, but you’ll be wasting the job and people will ultimately ignore you.”

Denver Mayor Wellington Webb reminded the group that when things go wrong, the public looks at them first for answers. “You’re the grunts,” he said. “If there’s a riot or police shooting or schools don’t work, all eyes are on you, even if you don’t have the resources or jurisdiction. You are expected to have accountable results. You’re the one putting up stop signs or getting hospital beds ready during a crisis. At the end of the day, the buck stops with you.”

New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial echoed Webb. “This is why you need to surround yourself with a talented staff and come up with a solid plan of what you want to accomplish,” he advised, adding, “And don’t be afraid to take a day off.”

When asked by a Kennedy School student about what students can do to break into government at the local level, Morial told him to get involved in internships. Such involvement helps a person know his or her likes and dislikes, he said, adding that being a self-starter is critical.

Menino said the question alone was “music” to his ears. “It’s great to hear that young people want to get into government these days. Remember, it’s not about the money; it’s about making a difference.”

For more information about the U.S. Conference of Mayors, visit