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.
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 told the Associated Press ahead of the convention. “We want to help get them to a place where they can … help us rebuild this great country.”
Three key issues
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.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a frequent Trump critic, said Friday in Miami Beach that meeting in a coastal city affected by rising sea levels underscores the necessity of a national solution for climate change, even if it takes the collective action of local government. “We have to, as mayors, be one of the forces in this country that focuses on actually getting things done,” de Blasio said.
Such efforts, Landrieu and his colleagues say, aren’t about “resistance” to Trump or boosting individual profiles. The point, the mayors argue, is to demonstrate that government can work and, in the process, convince higher-ranking politicians that “compromise” and “problem-solving” can be good politics.
No free lunch
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.
Mayors also are taking aim at proposed cuts to Community Development Block Grants, long a pipeline from Washington to the local level. “All we’re asking the administration is, let us continue to help make America great,” said Elizabeth Kautz of Burnsville, Minnesota.
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 Republican proposals pending on Capitol Hill.
“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 got to have better partnerships between state, local and the federal governments” to sustain viable cities, Whaley said.
New York’s de Blasio called the bill “a real danger” for cities.
Many mayors are trying to parlay their arguments into higher office in 2018.
Whaley is among the Democrats running Ohio governor. Cornett is seeking the Republican nomination for Oklahoma governor. Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine, the conference’s host mayor, is running for governor in Florida’s Democratic primary, alongside his Tallahassee counterpart, Andrew Gillum. Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles is among many sitting and former mayors who may seek California’s executive seat.
“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 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,” Whaley said, “for being dysfunctional.”