City and Town Officials Look to Congress for Help
Thousands of local officials arrived in Washington last week for the National League of Cities’ annual Congressional City Conference, including a lone city councilman from South Dakota.
Nearly 3,000 elected and appointed local leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., last week for the National League of Cities’ (NLC) annual Congressional City Conference. Attendees heard presentations, participated in workshops and networked with each other and federal officials.
The three-day event culminated in “Hill Day,” where more than 600 conference goers fanned out over Capitol Hill, meeting with their state’s U.S. representatives and senators. Using information and techniques gathered at the conference, they advocated for issues important to their cities, towns and villages.
Texas, Georgia and California were the most represented states, each of them sending more than 70 advocates to Capitol Hill. South Dakota, however, sent just one participant, Rapid City councilmember Ritchie Nordstrom. But that wasn’t a problem since South Dakota has only one member in the House of Representatives. Still, he had his work cut out. “My congressional delegation is probably the polar opposite of me,” says Nordstrom, a Democrat. “There’s very few things that we can agree on.”
With 76,000 residents, Rapid City is not immune to big-city problems. “Drug abuse and mental health are the big ones,” Nordstrom says. Rising homelessness and a housing shortage also continue to vex the South Dakota city. And then there is the perpetual problem of raising revenue. “We hear about property taxes,” he says. “Oh, my goodness, we hear about that.”
The morning before Hill Day, Nordstrom listened to speeches by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a ballroom packed to capacity. “People know the work we do because we are the people closest to the people,” said Secretary Fudge, a former mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio. “Just as you work for me, I work for you. I am the voice of America’s cities, that’s what we do.”
After a crew of Secret Service agents had swept the ballroom and installed metal detectors, more than 3,000 conference goers lined up to hear first lady Jill Biden talk about education and career training. Having eagerly anticipated her speech, the South Dakota city councilman was chagrined to realize he’d missed it, having been distracted by phone charging needs and an extended networking session.
By midafternoon, it was time for a mandatory meeting of the 821 Hill Day participants. Packed into a smaller-than-planned room, a series of speakers took turns instructing the audience on the fine points of congressional persuasion interspersed with periods of cheerleading.
Early on, Victoria Woodards, NLC president and mayor of Tacoma, Wash., took the stage. “This is the culmination of what we've been waiting to do all week,” she said. “Go up on the Hill tomorrow and make sure your voices are heard.”
Information packets in hand, the newly minted lobbyists streamed out of the room, on their way passing South Dakota’s lone advocate who had taken a seat in the furthest row back.
This was to be the last Hill Day for Ritchie Nordstrom. He will retire at the end of his current term, having won all six of his elections in Rapid City. Four of them unopposed. “I'm gonna go out on top,” he says, holding up a countdown-to-retirement clock on his phone. After finishing his congressional visits tomorrow, he hoped to have enough time to see the cherry blossoms before heading home.