On Monday, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett became president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Over the weekend, the group met in Indianapolis to elect Cornett and lay out a broad policy agenda for the next year -- much of which focused on advocating in Washington. Mayors will focus on pushing for congressional funding to combat the Zika virus, improve infrastructure and treat opioid addiction.
Cornett, who has been mayor since 2004, spoke with Governing about his personal goals for his one-year term as president. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The presidential election is in high gear. What do mayors want from the next White House?
There have been presidents who seem to have a strong preference for dealing with governors as opposed to dealing with mayors. We prefer a president who is open to dealing directly with mayors or directly with regional economies.
How has that relationship been under President Obama?
We’ve had an open dialogue with the White House. For the most part, I can’t complain about the attention that cities have gotten from the administration.
Hillary Clinton spoke at the mayors’ conference last week. What do you think a Clinton presidency would be like for mayors?
I don’t know. I think it would probably be OK. Typically if a president has been a governor, then they generally see the world through states and not cities. She hasn’t been a governor, but she has been the first lady of a state. So she may very well come in with that point of view.
However, she has already spoken to the mayors twice, so I’m grateful that she’s talking to us.
Did you invite Donald Trump, too?
We did. He was unavailable.
Any thoughts on what a Trump presidency would mean for mayors?
I don’t have a clue.
I was wondering if you’ve had any offline conversations about what his urban agenda would be.
I don’t have any idea.
What do you envision your organization focusing on in the next year?
My priorities in the next year involve infrastructure, health and wellness, and technology. On the technology side, I’m seeing incredible changes in the way citizens interact with cities -- autonomous vehicles, the potential of flying cars, the potential of high-speed rail. I don’t think enough of the private-sector industrialists out there are having conversations with mayors about how this would actually be implemented into society. So I’m asking some of the Conference of Mayors staff to start engaging our private-sector partners who are interested in these technologies. No level of government is going to be more impacted by the autonomous vehicle than cities. So far, we haven’t had serious or meaningful conversations with any of these manufacturers.
We’ve seen a lot of instances recently of states preempting local laws -- such as North Carolina barring cities from passing non-discrimination ordinances, or your own state of Oklahoma prohibiting cities like yours from raising the minimum wage. As a mayor, how do you see that issue?
It’s not a new problem. We have many states out there that are dominated in the leadership by rural areas, and it’s not unusual for them to preempt cities from controlling their own destiny. It’s just part of the abrasive nature that we’re seeing between cities and states. We’re not working together very well.
You say it’s not a new problem, but do you think it’s gotten worse?
It might be more frustrating because it seems to come from legislators who are right of the political center, who constantly say that Washington is too powerful and that more decisions should be made at the local level. Then at the state level, they go and do the exact same thing to us in cities. That’s troublesome to me.
One of your biggest achievements in Oklahoma City has been instituting universal pre-k. How is that going? Any growing pains?
We are the largest school district in the country to have fully funded all-day pre-k. We did it with some government dollars and largely with nonprofit and private-sector help. It’s still too early to tell [how well it’s working]. One of the things that you face in an urban pre-k environment is that families are pretty mobile. It’s difficult to track the success of a 3 year old or a 4 year old five years later because they’re not in the same school district or even in the same city. I think we all suspect that it’s working and it’s helpful. But if you’re looking for metrics, it’s either too early or too difficult -- or both -- to track with confidence.