Through the Looking Glass
Social Democrat among the pigeons at City Hall, since records began
Seventy-five years have passed since the first Socialdemokraterne mayor took office, during which time no other party has had a look-in
With the local elections fast approaching, what are the chances of witnessing the chain of office proudly emblazoning the chest of a brand new blue centre-right mayor? Absolutely no chance if the experiences of the last 75 years are anything to go by.
Up until 1938 there had been no official mayor of Copenhagen. There was, however, a governor appointed by royal decree who wielded the gavel at the meetings of the City Council. Constitutional reforms meant that the newly created post of mayor would be up for grabs. So it was, in March of the same year, that Socialdemokraterne (S) approved veteran local politician Viggo Christensen as its prime candidate for mayor of Copenhagen.
Three quarters of a century later and the good citizens of Copenhagen have never known anything other than a S mayor. Nine of them in total have managed to keep the seat warm in the finest office of the grand City Hall buildings.
Viggo ‘Crafty’ Christensen
With working class roots as the son of a butcher, Christensen, the first lord mayor, had already given the party 35 years of faithful service by the time he took office, but his path to power was by no means a straightforward one. It bore the classic hallmarks of political intrigue and infighting as the battle to become the inaugural mayor heated up – in no small part due to the handsome salary of 25,000 kroner a year. It was a tidy package that would make the victor the highest paid civil servant in the country.
On the starting grid were Christensen (the mayor for social affairs), PJ Pedersen (the mayor for roads and parks) and Peder Hedebøl (the mayor for finance), the candidate with the highest profile. During the campaign a scandal involving fraudulent activity in the meatpacking district of Kødbyen emerged. Questions were asked in the S newspaper, and fingers were pointed at the political administration and especially Pedersen. That the critical editor of the newspaper, HP Sørensen, was a close personal friend of Christensen may well be a coincidence, but Pedersen was forced to retire from both the campaign, and soon after politics. One down, one to go.
HP Sørensen was also active in the newspaper ‘Socialisten’, and during 1938 it published an increasing number of articles highlighting how badly the financial affairs of Copenhagen had been run in the past years. The articles had the required effect, and eventually the pressure on Hedebøl to step down from the campaign became too much. In his memoirs, a bitter Hedebøl noted that it was not the political opposition that put an end to his lofty ambitions, but high ranking party comrades. Hedebøl’s continued criticism of S would eventually lead to his exclusion from the party.
Christensen therefore became the unopposed lord mayor, although his eight years as Copenhagen’s figurehead were largely spent during the Nazi Occupation. His undoubted skills as a politician and diplomat were suited to the role of extreme pragmatism necessary for co-operation with the occupying German forces. He had to be seen as being tough. An example of this was his role in the nine-day public strike of 1944, during which he made lists of striking public servants and threatened to fire them should they not return to work.
HP ‘Socialite’ Sørensen
Copenhagen’s next mayor was none other than HP Sørensen, the journalist who had played a vital background role in the election of Christensen. In 1941, he had refused to publish pro-Nazi articles in the S newspaper and had been forced by the Germans to resign his post as editor. This is perhaps partly why he was suddenly accommodated into the political arena as mayor for traffic in 1943.
HP Sørensen’s ten-year tenure began in 1946. His trademark long whiskered beard made him a popular figure among photojournalists and cartoonists. A familiar face around town, Sørensen was not one to turn down an invitation to a party, and although his term of office is not remembered for new initiatives and outstanding achievements, he can certainly be described as Copenhagen’s most charismatic lord mayor. He was forced to retire in 1956 at the age of 70 – the age limit for a S politician.
‘Steady’ Sigvard Munk
Sigvard Munk’s 18 years as mayor for social affairs made him an ideal candidate to take over from the departing Sørensen. Munk has a place in Danish history for taking the initiative to save the precious Torah scriptures from German forces during an October 1943 round-up of Jewish citizens. He organised the smuggling of the scrolls out of the synagogue in Krystalgade in an ambulance. The documents were then held in safety at the nearby Trinitatus Church for the duration of the war.
Munk took firm control of the city’s finances and initially raised tax levels, but was able to gradually reduce the tax levels and Copenhagen’s debt levels as the nation entered into an era of recovery from the hard war years.
Urban ‘Housing’ Hansen
Next up was the aptly-named Urban Hansen, whose 14-year leadership was characterised by the redevelopment of the slum areas in the city. He went into the local elections with the rousing slogan “Boliger, boliger boliger” (“Housing, housing, housing”), and although his ambitious vision of 25,000 new residences for Copenhageners didn’t quite come to fruition, more than 4,500 new dwellings in Amager (Urbanplanen) and Bronshøj came some way to improving the city’s accommodation problems.
Arguably the spiritual architect of the current developments in Ørestad that began six years after his death in 1992, the Hansen administration will also be remembered for replacing the rickety old trams with a network of buses in the city.
Hansen also hit the headlines on April Fool’s Day in 1974 when he ordered a breastfeeding member of the city council, Tine Schmedes, to leave the chambers and satisfy her offspring’s needs in private.
Egon ‘Wet Fish’ Weidekamp
With 25 years’ experience at City Hall, Egon Weidekamp was the natural replacement for the retiring Hansen. The new mayor was the prime mover in a ruthless housing redevelopment policy, which involved old rental properties in Copenhagen being systematically torn down, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. In the eyes of many, the new constructions were sterile concrete eyesores. Confrontations with the squatting movement followed as young homeless people who had occupied empty properties were evicted in often violent battles with heavy-handed police. In 1982, Weidekamp famously gave the troublesome squatters the rights to use the landmark Nørrebro building of Jagtvej 69, telling BT newspaper in 1992 “they get a house and we get some peace”. Peace in his time was not achieved, as the opening of Ungdomshuset ended with a bucket of water being poured over Weidekamp’s head.
In 1992, he said in an interview that there were only two things that he regretted in his time as mayor: his role in removing the trams from the Copenhagen streets and passing over the right of use of Ungdomshuset in Nørrebro.
Jens ‘Misappropriate’ Mikkelsen
Fifteen years as Copenhagen figurehead, from 1989 to 2004, gives Jens Kramer Mikkelsen the undisputed title of the city’s longest serving mayor. Copenhagen, in 1989, was not in the best of states, with high unemployment and numerous social problems. The result was that many families had consequently fled the city for the promise of the suburbs.
During his period, the Ørestad and Metro projects were kick-started, and around 20,000 council properties were controversially sold to the occupants as housing co-operatives – a decision that was not entirely popular among left-wing politicians.
His time at the top was not completely controversy free: a 50,000 kroner prize awarded to him by an estate agent’s fund in 2001 was publicly promised to the homeless, but reportedly spent down under on a family trip to Australia. This was uncovered some years later by journalists, and in 2004 he partially repaid some of the amount to organisations for the homeless.
His increasing business associations in the Ørestad development were making it hard for him to be seen as an impartial mayor, and he announced his resignation in September 2004.
Ritt ‘Battleaxe’ Bjerregaard
Lars Engberg then became Copenhagen’s shortest serving lord mayor. His 13-month period in charge was basically just a matter of keeping the seat warm for Ritt Bjerregaard, who had the small matter of being democratically elected before she could take over the reins. He oversaw the sale of public utility Københavns Energi (KE) to Dong – the 6 billion kroner proceeds went directly to the prestigious City-Ring project.
The tradition for employing long-serving local politicians was broken by the selection of political heavyweight Bjerregaard, who was elected with a huge 60,000 personal votes. With a background as minister for education, Bjerregaard was already a well-known personality in Denmark with a somewhat chequered history behind her. Expensive hotel bills from the Hotel Ritz in Paris in 1978 saw her being fired from the Anker Jørgensen government, but the Smiley ratings still seen in Danish restaurants was one of her more successful achievements.
Echoing the rallying call of Urban Hansen, Bjerregaard’s election promise of 5,000 new flats for a monthly rent of 5,000 kroner was a rash pledge that was to haunt her period as lord mayor. The thorny issue of Ungdomshuset became fodder for the national and international press as massive protests and aggressive confrontations eventually led to the building being torn down in a city district that had started to resemble a warzone.
The solution to rehouse the former occupants at great expense was maybe practical, but extremely costly. Bjerregaard became increasingly disillusioned with the difficulties of local politics and decided to leave her post in 2009 after seeing her grand visions thwarted.
Frank ‘It’s My Joint’ Jensen
When the two-way battle between Helle Thorning Schmidt and Frank Jensen in 2006 for the post of new S leader ended in victory for the current prime minister, the consolation prize three years later was the chance to become the new mayor of Copenhagen, which Jensen did to resurrect his faltering political career. A steadfast social democrat since his teenage years, Jensen steadily rose through the ranks and so far seems to have been well-received.
No stranger to criticising his own party at a national level, Jensen has also come with progressive suggestions such as legalising the sale of cannabis to combat gang criminality as well as initiatives to improve conditions for the business community in Copenhagen. The jury is out on Jensen, but the voters will have a chance to give him a vote of confidence on November 19 as he campaigns with the slogan “Her bor vi” (“This is where we live”), which sends the message of a city population that respects and takes care of each other.
The political intrigues of 1938 may well be missing as Jensen seems to be heading unassailably for re-election and continuing the seemingly unstoppable cascade of S lord mayors, but in the unpredictable world of politics, you never quite know what is going to happen.
As Copenhagen’s best-loved mayor, HP Sørensen, wittily observed: “When things have gone down the pan, you can be absolutely certain to find a social democrat sitting there!” And while Frank Jensen may be flushed with success on election day, only time will tell if he is able to hold on to the chain, and continue the chain of command.