No sitting mayor has ever been elected U.S. president, a job that historically has been won by governors, vice presidents, senators or Cabinet secretaries. Some former mayors have become commander in chief, but only after serving in higher-profile positions.
None of that has deterred Suarez, who announced his campaign this past week by talking up his experience leading the city of about 450,000 residents. Being a two-term mayor of Miami, he said, has helped him understand and confront issues facing most Americans, such as crime and homelessness. In the video for his kickoff, Suarez went for a run past his childhood home and his high school and spoke of his record of cutting taxes and expanding Miami’s technology economy.
“In Miami, we stopped waiting for Washington to lead,” Suarez said.
The 45-year-old corporate and real estate lawyer, a former president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, is competing for the nomination against two other Florida residents — former President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis. They have consistently been first and second, respectively, in early primary polling, well ahead of the rest of the field.
That has so far made it difficult for other candidates to break through. Among them are former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, radio host Larry Elder and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.
Throughout U.S. history, just three presidents were former mayors, though each — Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge — held offices such as governor or vice president in between. And while this year’s primary field is crowded and the odds for a sitting mayor long, there is recent precedent both for a mayor to become a major candidate and for a person without government experience at all to become president.
Trump, a businessman and former reality television star, is the only person elected president without ever having served in public office or in the military.
In the 2020 election cycle, Pete Buttigieg — the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana — was the biggest surprise success story of the Democratic primary. Known during the campaign as “Mayor Pete,” he had a top finish in the leadoff Iowa caucuses and a close second-place finish in New Hampshire before flailing in more diverse states and dropping out to back Joe Biden.
When Biden won the presidency, he tapped Buttigieg to be his transportation secretary, and Buttigieg is now considered one of the party’s most promising future presidential candidates.
Buttigieg leaned heavily into his experience as mayor in his campaign, including his own work to turn around a Rust Belt city that was once described as “dying” because of the shutdown of manufacturing. He liked to tell voters that Washington should run more like the best U.S. cities.
Voters appreciated that being a mayor is a hands-on job and that mayors are accountable to voters in a way that senators and governors are not, said Lis Smith, a senior adviser to Buttigieg’s campaign who shaped his communications from the start. One of Buttigieg’s favorite lines while campaigning was about how he frequently ran into his constituents at the grocery store. The fact that Buttigieg was not a product of Washington also “was very, very appealing to voters,” Smith said.
“Republican and Democratic voters don’t have a lot in common these days, but I think that one thing they do share is their distaste for Washington politics and Washington politicians,” Smith said.
But Smith also warned that while mayors get to claim credit for all of the things that go right in their community, they also carry the responsibility for things that go wrong.
Buttigieg experienced that when a white South Bend police officer fatally shot a Black man, prompting the mayor to step away from campaigning so he could respond not just to the shooting but also to questions about racial inequality and tensions between Black residents and police in South Bend. That, Smith said, “by far was the toughest part” of his candidacy.
Suarez, the son of Miami’s first Cuban-born mayor and the only Hispanic candidate in the race, believes he can help the party better appeal to Hispanic voters. He also promotes his relative youth compared with the rest of the field — most of whom range in age from their 50s to 70s — saying he represents “generational change” that America needs.
“It’s time for a leader who can connect with segments of our country that Republicans have historically lost,” Suarez said during a speech about his presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Library in California on Thursday night.
Then, briefly repeating his credentials as Miami’s leader, he slipped for a moment into mayoral mode.
“I believe this city needs more than a shouter or a fighter,” Suarez said, apparently substituting “city” for “country.”
“I believe it needs a servant. It needs a mayor.”