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Across The U.S., Mayors Are Stepping Down After A Rough 2020 And 2021

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

2020 was a year of crisis for many cities across the U.S., from the pandemic to protests against police brutality to an intensely polarized election climate. In places like Seattle and St. Louis, mayors have opted not to run for reelection, citing the toll the last year has taken on them and their families. The latest is Atlanta's Keisha Lance Bottoms, a rising star in the Democratic Party who now says it's time to move on. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler reports.

STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Keisha Lance Bottoms has faced many challenges running Atlanta, from a major cyberattack that crippled services three months after taking office in 2018 to an ongoing federal investigation into her predecessor's administration. And there were plenty of clashes with Republicans in the White House and the Georgia governor's mansion. But 2020 was something else.

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KEISHA LANCE BOTTOMS: There was a pandemic. There was a social justice movement. And at every turn and every opportunity, this city rose above.

FOWLER: Like many urban areas, Atlanta was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, and the summer was rife with protests over police shootings both here and across the U.S. Bottoms' decision to walk away stunned people in Atlanta and beyond, but she's far from the only leader who was worn weary by last year's turmoil. Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan announced last December she would not seek another term. Former St. Louis mayor Lyda Krewson retired in April instead of running again. And CommonWealth Magazine reports that nearly 1 in 5 mayors in Massachusetts is stepping down. Harvard professor Juliette Kayyem led crisis management training for mayors at the start of the pandemic and isn't surprised many are moving on.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: It was a burden that really had no precedent. And so it doesn't shock me that many of them woke up and just thought, what do I want next or am I able to be effective in the future?

FOWLER: Ambassador Andrew Young was mayor of Atlanta for most of the 1980s. He says leading a big city nowadays is one of the most thankless jobs in politics.

ANDREW YOUNG: Oh (laughter), it's worse than that. You're not only not thanked, you're blamed for everything that goes wrong.

FOWLER: So take the normal everyday issues that plague a city like inequality, crime and policing, add on a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, and you might see why mayors could be burned out.

YOUNG: The question is, how prepared is anybody to run a city in 2021?

FOWLER: From Atlanta to Columbia, S.C., to Pascagoula, Miss., a generation of local leadership is going away. But Juliette Kayyem says that's not necessarily a bad thing.

KAYYEM: This year and the last year also galvanized a younger generation about what government ought to do and what the American public should expect from governments.

FOWLER: Despite the challenging circumstances 2020 dumped into the laps of mayors with already difficult jobs, there has been no shortage of new volunteers seeking to lead cities into the future. That's certainly true in Atlanta, where several candidates have already put their names in the hat to tackle issues like rising crime rates, income inequality and other challenges that face an ever-growing city.

For NPR News, I'm Stephen Fowler in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "WANT SOMETHING DONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.