Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

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.

Mayor Woodards.jpg
NLC President Victoria Woodards takes questions at the annual Congressional City Conference.
(Photographs by David Kidd)
In Brief:
  • The National League of Cities’ annual conference drew thousands to Washington last week.
  • Attendees heard presentations from federal officials and first lady Jill Biden.
  • The conference ended with a day of advocacy on Capitol Hill.

  • 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.”
    Conference veteran Ritchie Nordstrom has made many friends over the years.
    Nordstrom was elected to the council in 2011 after working 30 years for the city, an experience that led him to run for office. “I never felt that the city employees were treated fairly,” he says. But the main reason he ran was frustration with potholes. “Potholes are not red or blue,” he says. “We need them fixed. ... And the other thing is garbage pickup. Don't mess with the garbage pickup.”

    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.”
    Sec Fudge.jpg
    HUD Sec. Marcia Fudge was a featured speaker.

    Afterward, the audience broke up into smaller groups to attend presentations on digital equity, federal grants, water and transportation. Nordstrom opted to attend a session on recruiting and retaining a diverse public safety workforce. Topics ranged from police training to mental health issues within the force and in the community at large.

    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.”
    The Hill Day crowd was fired up.
    Before passing out maps and schedules to each state delegation, advocacy consultant Christopher Kush wrapped up the proceedings with an explanation of congressional protocol, which includes being nice to everyone. “The staff is the person who picks up the phone,” he says. “They are critical to our strategy.”

    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.
    packet hand off.jpg
    Christopher Kush hands off information packets from the stage.
    Ritchie Nordstrom is counting the days to retirement.
    David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at
    Special Projects