In the Government Shutdown, Mayors See a Moment to Shine

Washington’s dysfunction gives them a chance to talk up their operational prowess.

Reuters

Half a decade ago, politicians from both sides of the aisle were urging New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run for president. Today, his distaste for federal government could not be more pronounced. During the opening session of The Atlantic’s CityLab summit, he showed off a new communications strategy for city-level leaders: us vs. them.

“We certainly aren’t waiting for national governments to lead the way, because we would be waiting for a very long time,” he said. “In cities, people are working across party lines to solve problems; in Washington, the partisanship has gotten so bad that the two parties can’t even agree on how to keep the lights on. We are pioneering new ideas; they are paralyzed by dysfunctional politics. The fact is, Washington is increasingly unresponsive to the needs of our country, and cities are filling the void in a very big way.”

Some scholars are also signing on to this idea. The federal government may be gridlocked, they argue, but municipalities are more functional than ever. Bruce Katz, the director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, echoed Bloomberg’s criticism of Washington.

“The federal government has literally left the building, not just figuratively,” he said. “Cities and metropolitan areas are stepping up and doing the hard work to grow jobs and make their economies more prosperous in resilient ways.”

But Katz also conceded that cities aren’t insulated from political chaos at the national level. In particular, the country’s broader financial standing in the global economy could affect how well cities can do business. “We do have a default proposition here as the national government goes on a frolic and detour,” he said.

Carol Coletta, the lead on community initiatives at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, doubted that Washington will provide a sufficient safety net for the poor moving forward, but she was also skeptical that cities have the financial means to support a growing number of people in poverty.

“If you look at the jobs that are predicted to be the fastest growing of the next 20 years, six or seven of the top 10 categories do not pay a living wage,” she said. “Health care workers, food workers – what do we do about those jobs? The federal government is going out of business, so then what – are the cities are going to subsidize all of those people?”

Karl Dean, the mayor of Nashville, offered something of a free market solution: If a city’s economy is strong, he said, there will be better opportunities for everyone.

“If you look at a city like Nashville, which has done pretty well over the last few years, it’s not so much what the government did. The real excitement is created by young entrepreneurs… and people feeling that they can earn a living and still have disposable income and a higher quality of life. That’s why they come there – [not] because I’ve announced some program,” he said.

There seemed to be a consensus in the room that a new era of growth is happening in cities, even as the federal government proves itself increasingly non-functional. The mayors weren’t afraid of crowing about it, either.

“Ironically, it was Washington policy that helped fuel the age of the suburb,” said Bloomberg. “But the urban renaissance we’re experiencing is happening despite Washington, not because of it.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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