When Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin, a Democrat, became the new president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Monday, he announced that his priority areas would be infrastructure, innovation and inclusion.
Focusing on those particular issues isn't really remarkable for a local leader these days. But there's one thing about the platform that is noteworthy: It's the first time in decades that the organization's president and vice president have agreed to a two-year bipartisan strategy.
Presidents of the mayors group serve one-year terms, each with a slightly different focus. But Benjamin and his Republican vice president, Mayor Bryan Barnett of Rochester Hills, Mich., developed their agenda together. By sharing a strategy, Barnett says, "we'll be able to build momentum and keep it going."
The two mayors decided on a joint platform, Benjamin says, "to really stress that on our worst day we’re bipartisan, and on our best days, we are nonpartisan." Despite the fact that most members are Democrats and most of the conference presidents are Democrats, the agenda "was intentionally designed to make sure that at any point all of our mayors have an equal seat at the table and have full ownership of our priorities," Benjamin says. "As a result, I believe we’ll be stronger and unified when we go to the White House or Capitol Hill."
Since January 2017, Republicans have controlled Congress and the White House, often putting federal policymakers at odds with their Democratic counterparts at the local level. The Trump administration has clashed with mayors over a variety of issues, such as the Affordable Care Act, immigration, climate change, gun control and immigration. On the first day of mayors' winter meeting in D.C. this year, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened to sue sanctuary cities that limit local law enforcement's cooperation with federal immigration authorities. President Trump's budget proposals have also threatened to eliminate block grants and tax exemptions that mayors consider vital for local housing and economic development projects.
Mayors will continue to advocate for those "sacrosanct" programs, Benjamin says, but "it wouldn’t be prudent to respond to every news flash or tweet or provocation. We’ve got to remain focused on helping improve people’s lives."
On infrastructure, the group will continue to push Congress to pass a comprehensive infrastructure spending bill worth at least $1 trillion. (So far, the Trump administration's plans for an infrastructure package would only include about $200 billion in federal funds.) Mayors also want to reverse a provision from last December's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that prevented local governments from using a financing tool called advanced refunding bonds. The bonds helped governments save money by taking advantage of lower interest rates.
On innovation, the conference will establish a smart cities council that will help mayors prepare for regulatory and policy changes necessary to adopt 5G wireless internet technology in 2020. The conference will also continue to partner with Austin and South by Southwest to host a weekend of discussion and learning activities around local government, startups and new technology.
On inclusion, Benjamin hopes to raise $1 million for a learning center on policies that promote equity and inclusion. The center would be an outgrowth of a compact that more than 300 mayors signed last year as a pledge to fight bigotry and extremism. While much of the conference's work on inclusion will focus on combating discrimination, Benjamin also wants to mayors to be inclusive of different political perspectives and serve as national role models for reaching bipartisan consensus.
"In today’s political discourse, the rhetoric that we use is hostile. It’s vitriolic. It’s destructive. It’s not reflective of who we are as a people or who we should be as a country," Benjamin says. "This country has legitimate enemies around the world. Republicans and Democrats are not enemies."
Benjamin and Barnett are trying to put that philosophy into practice with their own partnership.
"We agree on more topics than we disagree," Barnett says. "I'd like to think we'll focus less on prescriptive Republican and Democrat agendas and more on bipartisan solutions that our residents demand from us."
Benjamin will be president until June 2019, when Barnett takes over for a one-year term.