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.”