White progressive leaders from blue states have been receiving widespread praise for their handling of the novel coronavirus. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has received raves in the media for being the first governor to call for a statewide shelter-in-place order. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s poll numbers have surged as he emerges as one of the most trusted and well-liked leaders during the crisis. The national praise, justified in some cases more than others, has been heavily directed toward white leaders in blue states, as well as a few Republican governors bucking their party line of downplaying the pandemic’s severity. These governors aren’t the only ones doing the hard work to flatten the curve and keep communities safe, but they’ve been getting most of the credit.
Even though white governors are the ones scoring most of the political points, many mayors of color—who tend to represent large demographics of people most affected by the virus—have stepped up to protect their communities during the current crisis. Their tireless work, especially within red states, has seldom been acknowledged at the national level. Black and brown mayors in Republican-led states have been calling for additional resources and fighting for safety ordinances with limited guidance—and often outright hostility—from the state and federal officials.
Below is a list of elected leaders of color living in red and purple states who have shown notable leadership or offered aggressive pushback of Republican leadership during the pandemic.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (Atlanta, Georgia)
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has been one of Gov. Brian Kemp’s most vocal critics. Atlanta has one of the highest asthma rates in the country, making residents with the condition more at risk for the coronavirus. Bottoms has repeatedly drawn attention to that fact after initial calls to reopen the state.
When state leadership floundered and didn’t take immediate action to address the seriousness of the virus, Bottoms leaned on other mayors for guidance, modeling her own stay-at-home order after city leaders like San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin. In March, Bottoms called for every state to issue a stay-at-home order. To help those experiencing economic hardship, Bottoms issued an executive order ensuring front-line workers received hazard pay.
“My mom was a hairstylist for 25 years, so I understand the economic pull on this,” Bottoms said during a CNN interview. “This would have been devastating to my family [and] her business to have to shut down her business for weeks on end, but you have to live to be able to fight another day.”
Bottoms has received backlash for her stance on reopening the local economy—in April, she and her 12-year-old son received a text message from a stranger that included a racial epithet and demanded she reopen Atlanta. Still, Bottoms has stuck to her guns, encouraging business leaders to delay reopening if possible and asking people to stay home despite the governor’s decision to lift the stay-at-home orders.
Mayor Hardie Davis (Augusta, Georgia)
At a time when unemployment insurance claims have skyrocketed in Augusta by 778%, Mayor Hardie Davis has worked to be a calming voice, giving regular updates about the conditions of the city, quickly addressing business owners’ concerns when the outbreak began, and pushing back on the governor’s plan to reopen the state at a time when the city had not even reached its peak for COVID-19 cases.
“I think we’re woefully behind […] and it’s impractical for us to be open in the state at this early stage,” Davis told NPR. Davis had already initially spoken out against Kemp for making Georgia one of the last states to issue shelter-in-place orders. Upon the state’s reopening, Davis has urged caution from business owners preparing to reopen. Davis has called for additional testing, contact tracing, and treatment before the area can safely reopen.
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (Jackson, Mississippi)
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has been making some of the loudest noise in the South during the pandemic. In recent weeks, Lumumba has expanded the city’s efforts to fight the coronavirus, purchasing tests and masks that were then distributed to first responders and inmates at the county jail. In addition, he has twice extended Jackson’s stay-at-home order, this time through May 15. Mississippi’s stay-at-home order expired on April 27.
Lumumba has also used the current crisis as an opportunity to address ongoing problems in the city. In addition to his coronavirus relief efforts, Lumumba has received a wave of backlash following his decision to issue an executive order to briefly suspend open carry laws during the pandemic. The decision came after a wave of deadly gun violence in the city.
“In this moment of great distress and economic tension it is important that we eliminate the ability for illegal weapons to inflict irreparable harm on our city. I want to make it clear that I have no principal disagreement with the Second Amendment right to bear arms, but all rights must be balanced by reasonable regulations,” Lumumba said in his statement.
After the announcement, Lumumba became at odds with the Jackson City Council, who symbolically voted against his open carry suspension.
Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza (Austin, Texas)
Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza has strived to address the needs of those most financially impacted by the pandemic. Garza drafted a $15 million emergency relief ordinance that was approved by the Austin City Council to help vulnerable communities during the pandemic. The money provides support for struggling businesses, expands unemployment benefits in the city, and funnels additional funds to nonprofits. Garza has said she wants to prioritize underserved groups, especially immigrants, who weren’t able to receive a $1,200 stimulus check from the IRS. Garza and other members of the city council also approved a $10 million utility relief bill to help residents with their water and electric bills.
Mayor Sylvester Turner (Houston, Texas)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott let the state’s stay-at-home order expire on April 30, but as the state begins to slowly reopen, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has been working to ensure people don’t get ahead of themselves too soon—and he isn’t messing around. After an adult entertainment club ignored the calls to remain closed and tried to open up too quickly, Turner forced it to close.
“It is important for the governor to clarify his order for the businesses that are starting up and inform them that he did not intend to include strip clubs in those businesses. Then the state attorney general needs to aggressively enforce his order. Otherwise, it opens the door for more and more people to attend these businesses,” Turner said in a statement.
Turner is continuing to remind residents to be mindful when going out in public and that the virus still has the ability to spread quickly. He has also called for people to maintain social distancing and called for local residents to wear face masks while out in public, even though the governor forbade cities from enforcing it.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell (New Orleans, Louisiana)
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has insisted she “will not be bullied” when it comes to lifting stay-at-home orders. The mayor’s staunch defense of her decision to extend the city’s stay-at-home order to mid-May came after a published letter from business owners asking for the economy to reopen, citing financial concerns.
“The data will drive us and not a specific date,” Cantrell said during a press conference.
To help the community stay afloat during the crisis, Cantrell has suggested borrowing $100 million, which she says can help keep basic services running properly. This month, the city also received more than $10 million from the state in housing grants to respond to the outbreak. The city has shifted the funds to rental assistance programs and shelter assistance for the local homeless population.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg (San Antonio, Texas)
As an independent, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg has toed the line between adhering to the Republican governor’s newly relaxed restrictions and ensuring vulnerable populations are as protected as possible—and the slowdown in COVID-19 cases in his city shows it may be working.
San Antonio health officials recently announced the city had “flattened the curve” of COVID-19 cases thanks to fast-acting restrictions on businesses and gatherings. Nirenberg has been keeping track of noncompliant businesses and issuing citations to those who break the rules. Nirenberg has also been addressing the homeless population in the city by implementing “homeless hubs” that help people get warm meals, health screenings, masks, and sanitation kits. Nirenberg and the San Antonio City Council voted to extend the city’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order through May 19, which prohibits large gatherings and limits the capacity of dine-in restaurants and businesses. The guidelines fall in line with the governor’s orders. Similar to the mayors in Houston and Austin, Nirenberg has called on the public to wear protective face masks while out in public, although the law is unable to be enforced.
Mayor Randall Woodfin (Birmingham, Alabama)
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin has been forced to defend his decision to issue a nightly curfew for Birmingham residents between 10 PM and 5 AM. After Woodfin issued an ordinance requiring locals to wear face coverings in public, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall sent him a letter asking him to reconsider enforcing it. Still, Woodfin stood his ground and responded with his own letter, saying the ordinance is in line with recommendations by health officials.
“As we begin a slow and measured reopening [of] retail statewide, it is important to remember the risks of this pandemic still remain with us. These actions are not designed to restrict, but to support this reopening,” Woodfin said during a press conference.
In addition to his ordinances, Woodfin has used his platform to draw attention to the burden of stay-at-home orders for vulnerable groups, especially those experiencing domestic violence and people in dangerous home situations.