The Difference Between a Mayor & a State Rep? Executive Leadership Skills
Does a State Representative who’s thinking of running for Mayor know what they’re getting into?
State Representative? Mayor?
Political roles are pretty much the same, right? Wrong.
Let’s compare these two public servant positions.
(Note: each role is described in layman’s terms to provide a basic understanding. They are not legal definitions and don’t include all aspects)
A State Representative:
- represents a specific district of the state (usually 3–5 cities or towns)
- is a legislator who sponsors and/or supports bills that may become law
- serves on committees considering legislation and overseeing state agencies
- procures funds for the communities they represent
- helps constituents with problems dealing with state agencies
- participates and speaks at community meetings and events, giving citations from the State House of Representatives to local individuals and groups deserving recognition
A State Rep often stays in office for years easily getting re-elected because much of their job is identical to campaigning — out in the community attending events, speaking, and meeting people. They get known and appreciated for the state funds they secure for towns in their district.
What’s not to love? Not much. It’s a desirable political role.
As a State Representative, you not only don’t have many enemies but are often seen as a hero for simply doing your job. You get plenty of name recognition and rarely have to do things that your constituents would oppose. They might oppose how you vote on state bills but not many people know how to follow pending legislation. Those in your district might be aware of your constituent services but are unlikely to be familiar with your voting record unless you take measures to keep them informed.
You don’t have big decisions to make — at least not decisions that have immediate impact or that are publicized.
How is the Role of Mayor Different from a State Rep?
Let’s first look at what a State Representative does not do that a Mayor does.
State Reps Are Not in a CEO Position
A State Rep Doesn’t Run a City or Have That Level of Responsibility
- A State Rep doesn’t need to immediately develop a comprehensive plan for keeping residents safe and assisting businesses when surprised by a deadly pandemic. They aren’t in the spotlight with tens of thousands of people watching to see how they handle the crisis.
- A State Rep doesn’t need to take calls at a moment's notice on a Sunday afternoon from reporters who want a statement about the boy who was pulled out of the lake by the Police and Fire department.
- A State Rep doesn’t need to understand, develop, negotiate and oversee a multi-million dollar budget.
- A State Rep doesn’t oversee all city departments with the department heads reporting to them.
- A State Rep doesn’t have to deal with complaints about how the city invests its revenue.
- A State Rep doesn’t get blamed for every pothole or crumbling sidewalk.
- A State Rep doesn’t get trashed on social media by residents who don’t understand why their tax bill went up.
- A State Rep isn’t responsible for the management of a city.
But There Must be Transferable Skills?
Not many — only the basics of constituent services and an understanding of the legislative process.
A Mayor is the City’s CEO & Requires Strong Leadership Skills
Mayor is a leadership position that requires a whole different skill set from that of a state legislator.
A Mayor Needs Business Acumen
As the city’s CEO, a mayor must fully understand the complex workings of their city. They need good judgment as well as insight and the discernment skills required for effective decision-making. A mayor must be a creative thinker and problem-solver, with the confidence to take quick decisive action when it’s needed.
Financial literacy is also required since the mayor develops the city budget. They must have the ability to assess the financial needs of the city each year, put together a budget, and defend their budget decisions in negotiations with the city council.
A Mayor Needs Leadership Skills
A mayor has a high level of responsibility. They are the manager of the city government which is often the largest employer in the city. A mayor oversees all city departments and supervises the department heads.
As department heads the Police Chief and the Fire Chief report to the mayor. One of the responsibilities of the mayor is union contract negotiations with those departments.
Another significant duty of a mayor is their role as Chair of the School Committee. It’s a time-consuming, important role, full of unique challenges. Usually, around 50% of a city’s revenue is invested in its educational system. The school budget process is complicated and emotional. A successful process each year requires the ability to work collaboratively with all who are involved.
People Skills — The Often Overlooked Proficiency of a Great Leader
As described, leadership has many facets. But an often disregarded skill is a mayor’s ability to manage the people working under them. An effective mayor has adult relational skills that make them not only decisive but compassionate. They know how to manage their emotions, and they function as a skilled communicator — they are assertive (but not aggressive) and they use verbal and written communication in a clear and direct manner, always being respectful. They are firm when they need to be, but their maturity and confidence eliminates the need to bully anyone.
Vision — Not a Necessity But the Best Mayors Have It
Many mayors have a lot on their plate and they deal only with what’s in front of them. That doesn’t mean they don’t do a good job. They often do.
But the visionary mayors are the ones who transform their cities. They are the forward-thinking ones who look into the future with a passion and desire to make their city the best it can be. If they are also a good implementer they will take action along with their city council and preferably after getting input from residents and will begin the process of turning plans into reality.
A Mayor Has a Ton of Responsibility
The responsibility that rests on the shoulders of a mayor doesn’t get to take time off. Sure, mayors take vacations now and then but like a president they can’t be missing in action if a crisis arises. They are always on-call.
One More Quality — An Ability to Not Take Things Personally
This one’s also not a necessity but it overlaps with other qualities. Some refer to this as having thick skin. That's one way to describe it but mayors (and other politicians) who have the confidence to ignore or even feel empathy for the complainers will have far less stress in their job.
I will never forget a conversation I had with a City Councilor a number of years ago. We were chatting about issues that were impacting our city and I asked him “Why don’t you run for mayor?”
He responded without hesitation, “Because I don’t want to be hated by half the city!”
My eyes widened. I was stunned by his response. I had worked as a staffer on a mayoral campaign a few years earlier and had seen nasty comments on the local Facebook Group so it didn’t take me long to get it. I think I still held the belief that a good mayor could make almost everyone happy but his succinct statement helped me accept the fact that it’s often true.
If you thought one political role was the same as another — think again. They are not interchangeable.
Being a Mayor is far more difficult than being a State Representative.
The role of a Mayor, like that of a President or a Governor, is a complex management position with many levels of responsibility — and that role requires a unique set of skills that few candidates possess.
State Representatives Work Hard
I don’t mean to belittle the job of a State Representative. They work hard and many of them do a fantastic job. Their job also has the complexity of roles that are dramatically different. Writing legislation and seeing a bill through the process of becoming law is quite different from providing constituent services where you interact directly and provide concrete assistance.
The Best Mayors Make Their Job Their Life
Show me someone who is considered an excellent mayor and I’ll show you a public servant who is on the job 24/7 and loves what they do. Not the location, or the salary, but serving the people. They wake up every day with the intention of improving the lives of the folks in their town — addressing short-term issues, while simultaneously taking the next steps to implement their long-term strategic plan.
One mayor I know, who is an innovative leader and accomplished a great deal this past year, was recently quoted in a newspaper article. Speaking of her job, she stated, “I love what I do. I wouldn’t call it a job. It’s a lifestyle.”