Think Washington, D.C., and your statehouse are irredeemable and unproductive? Look to city hall for answers. That’s the message from the nation’s mayors six months in to Donald Trump’s presidency.
“We don’t have time to argue about ideological positions. We have to find real solutions for problems,” said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who will take over this weekend as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors as it convenes in Miami Beach, Florida.
Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry is among the U.S. Conference of Mayors contingent in Miami Beach that will discuss immigration, healthcare, federal budget, national economy, climate protection, homeland security and community development block grants.
“It’s critical for mayors to interact and share best practices and ideas for moving our respective communities forward in the right direction,” said Henry. “This conference provides unique opportunities to discuss policies and develop strategies to ensure cities are viable and sustainable to meet the needs of residents and businesses.”
Fresh from the national spotlight after taking down his city’s Confederate monuments, Landrieu wants to lead the bipartisan group to a more high-profile role in national affairs. “We see that Washington is stuck,” Landrieu said. “We want to help get them to a place where they can … help us rebuild this great country.”
Landrieu and his colleagues already are lobbying the Trump administration on infrastructure, immigration and health care. On those issues, mayors highlight local actions and investment, but are asking the federal government for more resources and cooperation. Landrieu said cities — like states — want to avoid a scenario where “they send us the responsibility” but don’t “send us the money.”
On other matters, such as climate science, mayors are going it alone: More than 300 have committed to follow the Paris climate accords that Trump is abandoning.
Those efforts, Landrieu and his colleagues say, aren’t about “resistance” to Trump, and they insist it’s not about boosting individual profiles, as more than a few run for governor. The point, the mayors argue, is to demonstrate to skeptical voters that government can work and, in the process, convince higher-ranking politicians that “compromise” and “problem-solving” can be good politics.
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, the outgoing president of the national mayors’ group, is among the mayors who’ve huddled with the Trump administration on its promised $1 trillion infrastructure plan.
The White House makes clear, Cornett said, “that they want us to have some skin in the game” at the local level. But Cornett, a Republican, and Landrieu, a Democrat, emphasized that many cities don’t have the financial standing to do what other cities have done on their own.
Cornett noted Oklahoma City has “paid cash” for a series of improvements, while Los Angeles has planned a $120 billion infrastructure plan of its own.
New Orleans is ahead of many cities its size in overhauling aging water and sewer infrastructure, but that came with considerable federal aid after Hurricane Katrina.
Landrieu points to estimates that the U.S. has a $5 trillion infrastructure backlog. Trump’s 10-year budget outline proposes just $200 billion in direct spending on infrastructure. “We have to think big,” Landrieu said.
On health care, mayors have joined many governors to explain to the administration and members of Congress the practical effects of curbing Medicaid funding and private insurance premium subsidies, both anchors of the Republican proposal that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky unveiled Thursday.
“We’ve tried to show them what it’s like in an emergency room … that is overrun by people without insurance” and what that means for state and local budgets, Landrieu said.
Nan Whaley, mayor of Dayton, Ohio, makes a similar argument about spending cuts for treating mental illness and drug addiction. Those problems, she said, morph into more expenses for emergency rooms and the criminal justice system.
“We’ve been growing jobs in our cities, making sure our communities are safe,” Whaley said, “and we’ve got to have better partnerships between state, local and the federal governments to keep making that happen.”
Many mayors are trying to parlay their arguments into higher office.
Whaley is part of a crowded Democratic lineup vying for Ohio governor in 2018. Cornett is among several candidates in Oklahoma’s Republican gubernatorial field. Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine, the host mayor for the conference, is running for governor in Florida’s Democratic primary, alongside his Tallahassee counterpart, Andrew Gillum. Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles mayor who shepherded the massive infrastructure plan through a public referendum, is among many sitting and former mayors who may seek California’s executive seat.
“Local government is the most functional, and cities are where people see that action affecting their daily lives,” Whaley said. “We could use more of that in state and national government.”
Of course, Whaley acknowledges, even a wave of former mayors storming statehouses and Capitol Hill won’t mean those institutions have to answer calls about pot holes, police response times and garbage pick-up.
“They have no repercussions for being dysfunctional,” Whaley said.
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