Donna Holaday is the type of mayor who usually doesn’t turn down an invitation.
She attends opening ceremonies for small businesses, such as Radiant U Esthetics Spa and Angry Donut Pastry. Watch small parades that go three or four blocks from the beach. Funerals, charity events, student medal ceremonies – she does it all.
In four terms as mayor of Newburyport, a seaside town of 17,000 people in the state of Massachusetts (on the east coast of the United States), Holaday learned he could always cheer himself up on a podium and fire the vibration he received from a full audience. But that’s not what happened last year.
“There is nothing on my agenda, nothing. It’s been like this for a year, ”said the mayor, who is 66 years old. While everything was closed, she insisted on spending her days inside the empty town hall, if only so that people could see the light in her office.
But there were long days when, she said, “you took care of one problem just to see 15 more show up.” And the calls she answered weren’t about normal issues, like garbage collection or snow removal, but issues of deep suffering: a loved one forced to die alone or families running out of food.
“It was so traumatic. People called us crying, distressed, ”said Holaday, who announced he would not be running for a fifth term. “I was sitting in my office feeling very lonely.”
It has been a grueling season for American mayors.
Even in the best of circumstances, mayors often receive an avalanche of criticism and requests for individual help. Over the past year, they have had to make decisions on life and death matters – extending lockdowns that have devastated local businesses, canceling meetings with voters, failing to provide support by going in person .
Today this spring (which runs from March to May in the northern hemisphere), many American mayors explain their decision to resign using the same argument: that the response to the pandemic has demanded so much that they did not complete their homework. and time to campaign, otherwise your job has become so stressful that your family members have recommended they leave.
“They’re exhausted, that’s all,” said Katharine Lusk, executive director of the Boston University Cities Initiative, which conducts annual surveys of mayors.
Mayors surveyed last summer (June to August in the northern hemisphere) expressed deep concern about the effects of lost tax revenue on their budgets, as they struggled to coordinate the economic recovery from the pandemic with their main responsibilities.
In the meantime, Lusk said, the positive aspects of the work of mayors have faded.
“They often say that being mayor is the most personal political post there is,” she said. “If a mayor is unable to interact with the community, then all the things that energize and animate him are removed.”
There is not much national data on local elections, so it is impossible to say if the turnover of mayors observed this year is unusual. As the CommonWealth political newspaper reported, nearly a fifth of Massachusetts mayors have announced they will not stand for re-election. But that’s not an unusual payout, according to the Massachusetts Association of Municipalities.
Decisions by mayors to resign from office are rarely made for one reason alone, and over the past year the pressure on them on many fronts has increased, including conflicts over the police and the government. racial justice.
But, among the mayors who explained what motivated them not to continue, Covid fatigue is a widely cited reason. Topeka, Kansas Mayor Michelle De La Isla told Topeka Capital-Journal that if she were to campaign, her workload would go too far. “There is no way I can do this at the same time” than to command the response to the coronavirus, she explained.
After returning from vacation and attending another meeting marked by polarized discussions, Pensacola, Fla. Mayor Grover C. Robinson said he decided not to show up because he was frustrated with the politicization reactions to health policies. Similar explanations have been given by the mayors of Highland (Illinois), Pascagoula (Mississippi) and Seattle (Washington state), among others.
Thomas M. McGee is the mayor of Lynn, Massachusetts, a large working-class town north of Boston. He described parts of the past year as “a blur” in which the virus has spread like wildfire through densely populated neighborhoods with multi-generation families.
A Democrat, McGee ran for mayor in Lynn, his hometown, in 2016, after 22 years in the state legislature. But he said nothing prepared him for the intense pressures of being mayor last year.
“After 27 years and this year, which in some ways was a wasted year, my family said to me, ‘You are stressed. It all had a big impact on you. We will support you 100% on anything you want to do. But we think you should think about taking a step back. ”
McGee’s description of last year is marked by frustration with the federal government, which he said left city officials alone in the face of a rapidly progressing public health emergency, while the former President Donald Trump was contradicting basic security messages.
“It became clear that we were alone, and I said that on phone calls and when we were making decisions,” he said. “They left a lot of us out of control. We had to fend for ourselves in the midst of it all.
His frustration was echoed by Joseph A. Curtatone, 54, mayor of Somerville, Massachusetts, a city of 81,000 people. Curtatone is leaving town after nearly 18 years in power, amid speculation he would run for governor.
“We mayors are the first to know when someone loses a loved one. We are the first to be called when a person is deported and has nowhere to go, ”he said. Jokingly, he commented that his moments of rest were when he could talk about snowstorms.
According to Curtatone, mayors have been forced to coordinate policies on issues of major importance, such as school and business closings, collective pressure on the state government to follow their example.
“Trump has transferred responsibility to states, and states passed it to cities,” he said.
Nearly two-thirds of major city mayors are Democrats, many in Republican-controlled states, whose leaders were more skeptical of shutting down businesses and imposing masks.
This tension has exacerbated the feeling that mayors are “fighting a battle” even now, as the number of coronavirus cases has declined, said Lusk of the Boston University Initiative for Cities.
“I think that due to the cyclical nature of the pandemic, mayors have never been able to let their guard down. At no time could they say that the danger was behind us, ”she said.