No Congress, No Problem: City Politics in Trump’s America

In the current state of American politics, it’s no surprise the approval ratings of city mayors tend to be about triple that of the President or Congress. From ensuring the garbage gets picked up to taking action on climate change, mayors across the US have embraced their ability to work around federal gridlock and push for effective city policies. In cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago, mayors have gained increasing national and international attention as they defy President Trump’s agenda. In June, a bipartisan group of city officials gathered at the US Conference of Mayors meeting to unveil a new policy proposal titled “Leadership for America: Mayors’ Agenda for the Future.” The plan targets infrastructure, economic growth, and the promotion of safe and equitable communities. Perhaps more importantly, this conference symbolizes mayors’ proactivity in an era of mass disillusionment with the federal government and congressional gridlock. In the words of New Orleans’ Mitch Landrieu, mayors “don’t have time to argue about ideological positions. We have to find real solutions for problems.” Those in attendance at the conference urged Americans to look to their local leadership for changes they wished to see in their daily lives.

While a shift away from federal policymaking benefits progressive Americans concentrated in cities, such a shift may have potential unintended consequences for Americans outside the jurisdiction of progressive urban centers. If only the Americans living within municipal boundaries can benefit from innovative public policy, from paid sick leave to investment in important infrastructure, Americans outside prosperous urban areas will continue to experience widespread disillusionment with the government as a whole. This sentiment was a major factor in President Trump’s victory; evidence that the preoccupation with this issue can affect nationwide change. Increased citizen engagement in local and state-level politics, as well as a collaborative spirit amongst mayors around the country, would improve political productivity across the urban-rural divide and ensure that the majority of Americans enjoy the benefits of a robust public policy agenda.

Congressional sluggishness on major issues has a long and storied history, but modern developments have resulted in an era of unprecedented inaction. Ideological and geographical sorting have created two political parties that are sharply divided and more homogenous than ever. This phenomenon has led to the reelection of over 96 percent of incumbents, despite a congressional approval rating in the low teens. Across the country state legislatures have designed heavily partisan districts where representatives fear losing primaries more than losing general elections. Representatives from both parties are then forced to take on more ideologically extreme platforms, a phenomenon described by Alan Abramowitz, a Professor of Political Science at Emory University, as “the disappearing center.” This barrier to compromise will continue to hurt legislators who seek to confront serious policy issues in a bipartisan way.

It is in this climate that mayors across the country have begun to champion local government as the last bastion of bipartisanship. Republican Arizona Mayor Scott Smith, a former president of the US Conference of Mayors, states that although balancing a budget and filling potholes aren’t easy, “at the municipal level, we somehow figure out a way to get it done.” It’s unsurprising, then, that mayors consistently receive higher approval ratings than federal officials, making it important to acknowledge what they are doing differently and how they are working together to lift up their cities.

Effective programs generated by municipal government are a testament to mayoral leadership in cities. Mayor Landrieu, who has earned praise for his strategy in reforming the New Orleans Police Department, has tackled the city’s historically high murder rate with a program centered on prevention and rehabilitation. Also under Landrieu, the Office of Performance and Accountability was created to increase governmental transparency and track management performance. Sly James, the mayor of Kansas City, has launched a similar community-based approach to crime reduction. He has also budgeted the funds to install Google Fiber’s high-speed internet throughout the city, fixing an issue commonly associated with sparsely populated rural areas of the country.

Certainly, too, there are many mayors that fail to meet the needs of their constituents. Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago has seen the murder per capita rate nearly double under his tenure. On top of this, Chicago has one of the worst credit ratings in the United States. In Minnesota, urban projects championed by Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges have disrupted local transportation and small businesses. Still, relative to the stalemate and incivility seen in Congress today, American mayors, for the most part, have been more successful and effective at getting their constituents the services they need.

Finding success in the complicated operations of running a municipal government is much easier when mayors can work with the state government. Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta, a Democrat, has capitalized on this balance, and describes his relationship with Republican Governor Nathan Deal as cooperative, particularly when it comes to attracting companies interested in Atlanta as a site for their corporate headquarters. His ability to cross the aisle has been a major part of what has been considered a successful mayoral tenure, during which he balanced the city budget and saw Atlanta’s cash reserves grow to $175 million.

Unfortunately, not every city and state government have a working relationship. In red states, liberal mayors routinely feud with GOP governors and state legislatures. For example, the Phoenix City Council has historically clashed with both the Arizona state and the federal government over deportation enforcement. In retaliation for the Charlotte City Council passing a nondiscrimination ordinance which approved legal protections for LGBT city residents, the North Carolina legislature passed the notorious “bathroom bill,” for the explicit purpose of overturning Charlotte’s law. These conflicts are inevitable in a politically fractured country. Instead of antagonism, increased collaboration between cities and their states would improve not only the ability of American cities to implement policy, but also improve the general well-being of Americans living outside of urban centers.

So far, many municipalities have embarked on partnerships with statewide initiatives which aim to benefit the entire state. In Massachusetts, the state government is partnering with the National Resource Network to provide economic solutions to problems faced by up to seven cities and at least three broad regional districts. The network will attempt to improve business competitiveness through consulting services and investment. Importantly, the program is targeted at struggling Massachusetts cities far from the Boston metropolitan area, such as Worcester and Springfield. Similarly, the North Carolina Local Government Commission is working with local governments and public authorities in North Carolina on fiscal management and the issuance of municipal bonds. The commission has already helped numerous municipalities build a favored credit status on the national bond market.

Regional-city collaboration is the key to increasing the number of people that benefit from legislation and programs which have worked for cities in the past. Although the US Conference of Mayors is a good start, there needs to be more communication between local governments on what is working and why. California has taken this approach to tackle the climate-change-induced drought that has affected the region for most of the 21st century. Cities in California have worked alongside large companies to come up with creative solutions for water conservation, from drought-resistant landscaping to the development of a supply chain water risk analysis framework. Mayors across the country are doing great things, but a greater flow of ideas and resources between the city and state would allow more Americans to benefit from innovative programs and policies.

A great example of bipartisan collaboration among local leaders is the effort to combat climate change. In response to President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, more than 300 American mayors openly defied the president on the international stage by pledging to uphold the agreement. The mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, went as far as to write an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times with the mayor of Paris calling for their own climate deal. After all, cities are responsible for 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so urban commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could go a long way. Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, has been a leader in this effort. From pledging to go carbon neutral to installing millions in LED lights across Los Angeles, it’s clear that Garcetti is refusing to let federal failure on climate policy slow down his vision for an environmentally sustainable city.

Even states are beginning to join these efforts: In August 2017 governors of Northeastern states from both sides of the aisle came together to create a regional cap and trade program that may cut emissions by upwards of 65 percent in the next 20 years. As city and state governments continue to expand their impact, the federal government could take a page from these laboratories of democracy to fight the large, complex issues impacting our nation. Doing so would benefit not only those in cities, but also citizens across the country.

In this era of federal gridlock, Americans have very little trust in the efficacy of their federal government. Thankfully, that is not the attitude many Americans hold about their local elected officials. With a few exceptions, American mayors have not only ensured that cities remain operational, but also taken initiative where the President and Congress have failed. From Los Angeles to Atlanta, mayors have pledged to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement and have worked to advance sustainable environmental policy. Local governments are increasingly picking up the slack when the federal government falls short, in areas ranging from gun laws to afterschool programs. But local governments still need to cooperate with their states. Without a functional relationship between the two, those that reside in non-urban areas are left behind, disproportionately deprived of state and federal resources. Local governments in thriving cities must continue to strive to fulfill the vision they have for their constituents, but also recognize that increased collaboration can go a long way in elevating the quality of life for all those in their state.

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