A Small-Town Mayor in the National Arena

Clarence Anthony, the National League of Cities' new executive director, wants the NLC to be a strike force for cities at a time when our federal system is undergoing profound changes.
by | February 28, 2013 AT 11:00 AM
The NLC's Clarence Anthony
The NLC's Clarence Anthony

Clarence Anthony, who took over as executive director of the National League of Cities (NLC) last month, could not have arrived on the national scene at a more interesting or crucial time for cities.

Anthony certainly has the background to represent cities and towns in Washington. He was only 24 years old when he was elected mayor of South Bay, Fla., and served as mayor of the town of about 4,000 on the south edge of Lake Okeechobee for 24 years. From that position, he rose to become president of the Florida Municipal League and then president of the NLC.

While serving as mayor of South Bay, Anthony, who has a master's degree in public administration, gave back the $3,400-a-year salary that came with the job and supported his family by consulting with governments in the areas of citizen engagement, strategic visioning and policy development.

Visioning is one ability that is going to be needed over the next decade as American federalism is bludgeoned into a new and different form. The twin forces of permanent fiscal scarcity and tectonic demographic shifts will greatly alter the relationships among the levels of government. On the one hand, states and local governments will increasingly resist the demands of the federal government to call the tune when Washington is no longer willing or able to pay the piper. On the other hand, the paralysis of the federal government as it lurches from crisis to crisis increasingly will limit its ability to enforce its mandates on states and localities.

We're already seeing these shifts as states and their voters pass laws contradicting the policy directions of the federal government in areas ranging from immigration to same-sex marriage to marijuana. The Supreme Court, while affirming the Affordable Care Act, gave states permission, which many are exercising, to go their own ways with Medicaid expansion and health-insurance exchanges. And now some state and local jurisdictions are threatening to defy any move by the federal government toward greater gun control.

Sooner or later, there will be some great sorting out of responsibilities among the federal government and the cities, counties and states as it becomes clearer that the money isn't there to support the duplication and overlap of services or the added administrative costs of coordinating programs administered at multiple levels of government. Cities, at the end of the funding food chain and legal creatures of the states, are at a very vulnerable but potentially opportune juncture.

As our federalism is redesigned, what cities need is effective advocacy and a strong voice at the table. Anthony's goal is to increase the NLCs visibility with the administration and Congress and position it as a more effective and results-oriented advocate. He's taking the NLC through a strategic-planning process intended to change its culture to make it a nimble, organized, focused "strike force" on city issues. "We're not a think tank, we're an action tank," he says.

More Americans than ever before--82 percent of us--now live in cities and towns, and the vast majority of those towns are small ones. It seems like a good time to have a savvy small-town mayor who has shown the political acumen to rise to the top of an organization like the NLC advocating for cities and for the people who live in them.