As U.S. Mayors Gather, Advice Given and Received Galore

by | June 26, 2017

By Glenn Garvin

U.S. mayors spent a long day in Miami Beach giving and taking advice about what to fix in their cities, how to convince voters it's a good idea and -- best of all -- how to pay for it.

With ideas such as WiFi-equipped parks, computer-controlled traffic and derelict shopping malls converted into playgrounds, the 300 or so city bosses attending Sunday's U.S. Conference of Mayors at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel bubbled over with wish lists that sometimes made them sound like kids besieging a department-store Santa on Christmas Eve.

But there was usually some Scrooge waiting just around the corner to pull everybody back to reality.

"We can't print money, so [funding projects] is a zero-sum," New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu reminded everybody during a session on urban security. "If we spend money over here, we can't spend it over here."

The mayors and the small army of lobbyists and vendors who showed up to sell them ideas and hardware were in the third day of a conference that wraps up Monday, and at times they were a little slap-happy.

How else do you explain pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz telling the crowd a joke he shared Saturday with the conference's star speaker, former President Bill Clinton: We took a survey of 1,000 women to see if they would sleep with Clinton. And 22 percent said, "Never again."

"Clinton said to me, 'That's not true,'" Luntz reported with a straight face. "'It was only 16 percent.'"

Most of the sessions, though, were somewhat more sober, particularly one in which mayors were told they've been leaving small fortunes in federal and state aid on the table because they're not getting all their constituents counted in the U.S. Census.

The data compiled in the Census, which takes place every 10 years, is used to divide up $590 billion in federal aid  and also to apportion congressional seats that will oversee countless more billions in spending, experts told the mayors.

"A half-a-percent undercount can cost you tens of millions of dollars over 10 years,"  said Wayne Barlin, vice president of the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, which monitors urban spending and aid. A single uncounted constituent, he added, costs the local government $14,000 in lost aid.

Critics of the Census say it habitually undercounts undocumented immigrants and others -- particularly Muslims -- who are wary of participating in anything that might help the government track them down.

The possibility of costly errors is even greater this time around, some of the conference speakers said, because the U.S. Census Bureau is under siege by a hostile Congress. Its top two jobs are unfilled and the bureau is getting less money to conduct the 2020 count than it did in 2010.

Several speakers urged cities to spend money on advertising campaigns encouraging residents to cooperate with the count. Bryan Barnett, mayor of the Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills, said he was horrified to learn in the middle of the last Census that only about 70 percent of the town's population had been counted. The town spent $15,000 on advertising that pushed participation up to 86 percent and brought in an extra $10 million in federal aid.

"That $10 million is funding a lot of programs for us," he said.

But even when a mayor gets that money, it can be a struggle to persuade voters to spend it, the consultant Luntz said during his speech. "The public has lost faith in the people who represent them," he said, citing data from his polls.

Yet happily for the mayors, Luntz added, the most significant loss of credibility is at the federal level, where only about 40 percent of voters trust the government. Local government still has a comparatively healthy 72 percent level of voter trust.

And Luntz provided them with a list of buzzwords and catch-phrases to help them keep it -- words, his polls show, that make voters feel warm and fuzzy. "All your policies should be connected to this language," he instructed them.

At the top of the list, Luntz said, are the phrases "I will be your voice," "I hear you," "24/7" and "365." And "working together to get it done" just sets voters a-tingle. But whatever you do, "don't use the word 'universal,'" he said. "It got trashed during the '90s and it never recovered."

A "fact-based approach" is good, but "evidence" is not -- too lawyerish. And the only thing voters hate worse than lawyers is capitalism. "'Capitalism' is not received well," Luntz said. "People used it too much with 'crony capitalism.'"

And school-board candidates? "Stop talking about 'educational reform,' because nobody wants it. They want 'educational excellence.'"

Along with words that turn voters on or off, Luntz also offered aspiring comedians some advice on ethnic and national approaches to humor. It turned out that a crack he made about the French-made Statue of Liberty -- that she's raising one arm in greeting, whereas Luntz always thinks of the French raising two arms in surrender -- did not play well with actual French people in one of his audiences.

"But the Germans loved it," he said.

When the mayors finished laughing, Luntz, who is Jewish, started to offer some observations on Semitic humor.

"Is anyone here Jewish?" he asked. Several dozen arms shot up. "Don't raise your hands!" Luntz shouted. "Have you learned nothing from history?"

(c)2017 Miami Herald