During the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt frequently entertained his friend and fellow New Yorker Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City, at the White House. La Guardia would tell the president a “sad story” about some project he wanted funded and Roosevelt would buckle: “Tears run down my cheeks and the first thing I know he has wangled another $50 million.” La Guardia was manipulative and self-serving, but he also helped guide a policy that proved critical to beating the Depression. Roosevelt’s economic agenda succeeded in large part as an urban agenda. Over time, mayors became darlings of the White House and their lobbying arm, the Conference of Mayors, dedicated itself to promoting New Deal endeavors in exchange for federal largesse.
Today’s mayors enjoy the same access to President Obama as their predecessors did to FDR, but so far they’re seeing different results: deteriorating urban conditions and a stimulus package adapted to the needs of state governors. Interviews with eleven mayors from across the country reveal that big-city chiefs are waiting anxiously to see whether the first big-city president in decades will treat cities as central to his agenda.
Last summer, when Obama was still on the campaign trail, he seemed eager to listen. At a June 2008 speech to the Conference of Mayors, he pledged to create the first urban policy office in the White House. The mayors of Minneapolis, Denver, and Dallas all consulted with Obama’s team as early as October 2008, reminding the candidate that cities provide the vast majority of American jobs and produce the bulk of its GDP.
These arguments won mayors a candid and bipartisan relationship with the White House. Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, who heads the Republican Mayors and Local Officials coalition, regularly chats with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Vice President Joe Biden, and other top administration officials. “I don’t think they would have spent their time talking to me if they didn’t really care what I thought,” he says. Another Republican mayor called certain energy grant applications “crap,” a comment he still marvels at making to the country’s second-in-command.
In the midst of this promising dialogue, however, the economic crisis has taken a firm hold. A September survey of city budget officers warned that “the nation’s cities will most likely still be realizing the effects of the current downturn in 2010, 2011, and beyond.” Unemployment rates are above 10 percent in almost a third of metro areas—as high as 16 percent in cities like Detroit and Flint—and service cuts and layoffs are likely. Reacting to these conditions, voters earlier this month sacked at least one incumbent mayor, Seattle’s Greg Nickels, and gave an unexpected scare to another, New York City’s Michael Bloomberg.
Now mayors are pointing out that the stimulus package was supposed to help cities avoid this nightmare scenario. During the bill’s conception, mayors stressed that a state-focused stimulus would bring slow, inefficient results, and that more jobs could be created if money were funneled directly to urban areas. In a report issued last winter, the U.S. Conference of Mayors listed more than 15,000 “ready-to-go” projects that could provide 1.2 million new jobs in just two years.
So what happened, exactly? “I think we were listened to,” says Stamford, Connecticut, Mayor Dannel Malloy, who will run for governor of his state as a Democrat in 2010. “I just think we were then ignored. And I don’t think we were necessarily ignored by the president. I think we were ignored by the Congress.” Vice President Biden, the stimulus sheriff, has echoed this explanation. In a September speech on the stimulus, he lamented that “Congress, in its wisdom, decided that the governors should have a bigger input.”
But the White House can’t blame this shift entirely on Capitol Hill. Biden, Emanuel, and other administration officials spent late nights and much political capital shaping the finer details of the stimulus package in ways that thrilled states but disappointed cities. As Brookings scholar Thomas Mann has observed, “Obama’s hands were all over this bill from start to finish. … The nitty-gritty legislative work identifying where and how these decisions could be implemented … was done in Congress with the direct participation of key Obama administration staff.”
Representative Chaka Fattah, chair of the urban caucus in the House of Representatives, acknowledges that Congress privileged states over urban areas when drafting the stimulus bill. “If you had nine dollars missing in social service funds to a city, there would be a call for a grand jury investigation,” he told me recently, contrasting this with the billions of dollars misplaced and largely forgotten in Iraq. “There was a great deal of concern about how to [fund] things that were needed and not end up with headlines that were going to be problematic at the end of the day.”
Though Fattah can list a slew of funding streams in the stimulus package that he says will eventually benefit urban areas, mayors remain skeptical. Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer jokes that some mayors have “seen money go to building roads where there are more deer than people.” Mayor Cornett is blunter. In his us-versus-them view, “It was either going to be a governors’ stimulus package or a mayors’ stimulus package, and this is a governors’ stimulus package.”
The evidence seems to be on the mayors’ side. In July, The New York Times analyzed the distribution of stimulus money, particularly the $26.6 billion that had been allocated for roads and transportation projects. The federal government left the details up to states, which, the Times noted, “have a long history of giving short shrift to major metropolitan areas.” After looking at approved transportation projects in all 50 states, the authors concluded, “It is clear that the stimulus program will continue that pattern of spending disproportionately on rural areas.” North Carolina state stimulus overseer Dempsey Benton agrees that the federal-state allocation formula “has been a source of frustration,” favoring country roads over urban freeways.
Mayors are hopeful that Obama will eventually turn his attention back to federal urban policy. The president has already made good on his promise to create a White House urban affairs office, a historically significant step for cities. Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter treated urban areas as warrens of poverty and racial conflict that would implode without sufficient attention. Richard Nixon took the opposite approach, espousing a theory of “benign neglect” toward urban problems that set the tone for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Even Bill Clinton, widely viewed as a champion of cities, struggled to come up with a workable plan for metropolitan areas. Just a few weeks after the administration issued a national urban policy report, Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros expressed concern in a memo to the president. “We do not have enough to stand on,” Cisneros wrote frankly, adding, “We can be caught flatfooted by the violent outbreaks which will stem from the anger of the cities.”
Today’s mayors are urging the White House to embrace cities not as problems needing to be solved but as catalysts of long-term economic well-being. “America needs a jobs bill,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told me recently. “There are ways to leverage what cities are doing through federal partnerships that won’t even cost a lot of money up front. We need to be thinking of those creative partnerships.”
So far, the most notable activity of the urban affairs office has been a “listening tour.” The director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión, has led the tour into three cities over the last five months, meeting with local innovators in each location. “Our mission in developing a new urban policy,” he told me in a statement, “is to make our cities and metropolitan areas more economically competitive and environmentally sustainable, and the critical investments being made through the Recovery Act are helping us achieve those goals.” But as stimulus funds continue to pass their cities by, mayors are looking for more than good listeners. “Listening is not an action. Listening is passive,” says Malloy, the mayor of Stamford. “Action requires definitive steps.” For that, America’s mayors say they are still waiting.