Cities are America’s economic engines. Nearly 63 percent of Americans live in cities, while more than 75 percent of U.S. GDP is produced by the largest 100 metropolitan areas. Cities generate wealth, improve living standards and attract innovative and creative thinkers.
America is becoming more urban, reflecting a global migration to cities that is changing the political power structure. Many mayors, unencumbered by the partisan gridlock that characterizes Washington, D.C., are leading novel policy initiatives and setting national agendas.
Our office, the Boston University Initiative on Cities, regularly interviews mayors through our annual Menino Survey of Mayors, delving into their priorities, partners and perspectives. Through this year’s Menino Survey, we’re learning that mayors are hoping for a president who, like President Obama, will be a strong advocate for cities. But they are also eager for a congressional dealmaker who can work across party lines.
While many U.S. mayors have great power, our cities will never be self-sustaining nation-states, and they don’t operate in a vacuum. They need the federal government – with its deep pockets, borrowing power and priority-setting capacity – to shape the future.
Where the candidates stand
Some commentators assert that urban issues have been largely overlooked during the presidential campaign. But a closer look reveals that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is more focused on cities than her rival, Republican Donald Trump, or a first impression suggests.
The difference was evident at the party conventions in July. Twenty-three current and former mayors spoke at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, while just two current mayors and one former mayor spoke at the Republican convention in Cleveland. Nationwide, about 68 percent of mayors identify as Democrats, compared to 30 percent as Republicans. But the disparity at the conventions exceeded statistical expectations.
The candidates have amplified this contrast. Clinton spoke at the 2016 annual meeting of the nonpartisan United States Conference of Mayors, but Trump did not attend. Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, president of the United States Conference of Mayors and one of the few mayoral speakers at the Republican National Convention, has criticized Trump for a lack of attention to cities and the priorities of urban leaders.
Trump has painted the condition of cities in stark terms. In the first presidential debate, he declared: “We have our inner cities, African-American, Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.” Trump’s most notable urban policy recommendation is reinstituting controversial “stop and frisk” policing tactics, which a U.S. district court in New York declared unconstitutional in 2013.
Trump’s sweeping, negative characterization of cities has not been lost on mayors. In a recent post, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called out Trump’s limited efforts to appeal to urban voters. “It suits his politics better to parachute in to places like Detroit and Philadelphia for photo ops, while mostly giving red-meat speeches in front of white crowds outside of the American cities he is talking about.” Trump’s unfounded criticism of urban America is even more striking given his longstanding identification with New York City.
Clinton has not outlined an explicit urban agenda, but many of her proposed policies would have major impacts on cities. Her “Breaking Every Barrier Agenda” includes making more federal funding available for affordable housing, addressing a challenge for many growing cities. She plans to lay the groundwork for more public-private partnerships through expanded funding mechanisms and tax credits. Finally, her promise to enforce the Community Reinvestment Act will help mobilize a tool that directs large banks to invest in small businesses in underserved communities.
President Obama, who began his career as a community organizer in Chicago, has been an exceptional advocate for cities. “What we’ve seen … is a constructive partnership with people in the administration who are former mayors focused on getting things done,” a West Coast mayor told us. These partners include White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Jerry Abramson (Louisville), Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (Charlotte) and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro (San Antonio).
Obama’s key initiatives include the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing, My Brother’s Keeper and Strong Cities, Strong Communities. All were designed to engage coalitions of local leaders with federal allies to tackle some of our most intractable urban problems, from police/community relations to economic mobility for low income residents and people of color.
Obama is also acting with an eye to an urban future: The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, via its Smart Cities initiatives, has supported cities as laboratories of innovation that can nimbly experiment with technology to tackle looming challenges – from climate change to congestion.
Despite congressional resistance, funding for state and local governments increased by 25 percent from 2008 to 2014. Programs that bypass state governments and provide direct transfers to cities have been particularly popular among mayors. TIGER grants, which are awarded competitively to local transportation capital projects, have provided over US$5 billion to cities since 2009.
Mayors care about transportation, housing and schools
Our Menino Survey of Mayors, the only scientific survey of American mayors, spotlights the issues they see as key to building vibrant cities. In our 2014 and 2015 surveys, mayors’ top concerns were sound physical infrastructure, local economic growth and quality of life issues like crime and affordable housing.
The federal government plays a critical support role in all of these areas by providing direct financial investment, particularly in transportation, education and housing.
Interviews for the 2016 Menino Survey, which will be released in January 2017, reveal what mayors want from the next administration: a president who understands and collaborates with cities. In short, mayors hope for another urban champion in the Oval Office.
They also want to know whether cities will receive more funding. Even if the president is an urban champion, Congress has the power of the purse.
Democratic voter strength is highly concentrated in urban areas, particularly in the 100 largest counties in the country. Republicans are less likely to represent large numbers of urban residents, so they are less inclined than Democrats to prioritize urban issues. And in today’s highly partisan climate, cities’ strong relationships with Democrats may risk harming their relationships with Republicans.
These factors mean that cities will stand to benefit if the next president is a dealmaker who can advocate for cities and work with Congress, no matter which party holds the majority.
Urban investments: Money well spent
Investing in cities could be an effective and popular strategy for the next president. Brooks Rainwater and Christiana McFarland, researchers with the National League of Cities, argue that American cities are fiscally sound, boast rising revenues and home prices, and have decreasing crime and longer life expectancies than those in rural areas.
That success is reflected in public opinion. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 72 percent of Americans trusted state and local government to solve local problems. In contrast, the Pew Research Center has found that just under 20 percent of the public trusts the federal government.
America’s prosperity relies on its urban centers. And U.S. mayors bear responsibility for the well-being of the majority of Americans. But no mayor can do it alone. The upcoming elections will determine whether cities receive the political support and funding they need to generate jobs, makes streets livable, and deliver critical services to residents over the next eight years.
Conor LeBlanc, a marketing and communications specialist with the Boston University Initiative on Cities, contributed to this article.