Mayors' Priorities Aren't Changing, But Their Attitudes Are
The annual National League of Cities report reveals a shift in the way mayors talk, especially about infrastructure.
Economic development and infrastructure are among the most pressing concerns for mayors around the country, according to a new report.
The National League of Cities (NLC) released its annual "State of the Cities" report on Wednesday based on examination of 160 mayors' State of the City speeches this year.
As usual, economic development dominated the addresses across the country, with 58 percent of mayors dedicating a significant portion of their speeches to the topic. Infrastructure, budgets, housing, and public safety also remained high on the list of topics that mayors touched on.
While the top issues remained essentially the same as last year, the context with which mayors approached those topics changed.
“It’s the way that mayors are talking about issues that does tend to shift,” said Christiana McFarland, NLC's director of research, at the event for the report's release.
Mayors offered more detailed plans for infrastructure but also expressed more concerns about addressing some of their infrastructure needs, given political friction between cities, their states and the federal government.
“Mayors are confident about the basic local government infrastructure issues they have control over,” said McFarland. “But they express trepidation when talking about large-scale infrastructure needs and support from other levels of government.”
When President Trump took office last year, there was more optimism among mayors that the new administration would make infrastructure a priority. But a year and a half later, despite a highly touted proposal from the White House, there has been no significant change in federal infrastructure funding or policy.
While mayors from cities small and large talked potholes and streetlights, mayors of big urban areas like Atlanta and Detroit spoke about the need to invest in public transit to improve people's access to jobs, according to the report.
Gun safety and high school shootings also popped in numerous speeches. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, for instance, criticized state and federal officials for failing to act on gun control.
“We need action at the federal and state level to reduce gun violence," he said. "It is beyond disturbing that those in power fail to address the need for background checks."
For the release of the report, the National League of Cities held a panel discussion featuring mayors Daniel Rivera of Lawrence, Mass., and Jim Strickland of Memphis.
Rivera reflected on his speech in which he criticized Trump's strategy for fighting the opioid epidemic. Earlier this year, Trump traveled to New Hampshire to talk about the opioid epidemic. In his speech, the president blamed Lawrence for New Hampshire's opioid problem, citing a study that pointed to the city as a source of the opioids in several New Hampshire overdoses. Rivera doesn't contest that the opioids came from his city, but he said that simply pointing fingers isn't productive.
“The answer to this opioid crisis isn’t just to find out where the drug dealers are. That’s easy. Let’s find out where the users are and let’s treat them. That’s hard,” Rivera said.
Mayor Strickland, meanwhile, revisited his goal of economic equity in Memphis, which is the poorest large metropolitan area in the country.
“If you add up all the business transacted in Memphis, only 1 percent of that business goes to African American-owned businesses,” he said during the panel.
Under Strickland, the city has launched a three-pronged initiative to increase the amount of business the city does with minority- and women-owned businesses. It includes a tutoring program for business owners and a corporate-sponsored fund to help businesses that are beyond the startup phase but haven’t fully matured. The hope, says Strickland, is to grow black businesses in Memphis by 10 percent by 2023, and to create jobs.
“These businesses might have two employees, but with a little access to capital through loans or grants or through education, they can get 10 employees."