Connecting state and local government leaders

President Kennedy’s Important Message to Today’s U.S. Mayors

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Connecting state and local government leaders

This weekend, city hall leaders listened to an address from the 35th president that resonates 55 years later.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — The U.S. Conference of Mayors opened its 85th Annual Conference on Saturday morning with a truly impressive speaker: President John F. Kennedy.

Mayors listened to the speech Kennedy delivered via telephone to the conference when they last assembled in Miami Beach back in 1962—in the exact same room of the Fontainbleau Hotel. This time, there was a stirring video presentation complete with uplifting background music.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine took the stage to “introduce” President Kennedy’s speech. The hometown mayor actually grew up “just a few blocks down the street” from President Kennedy’s childhood home in Massachusetts.

In introducing the speech, Levine said he believes Kennedy’s “message and vision about the power of mayors and local government to get things done still holds true today.”

The issues certainly sound familiar. President Kennedy discussed building prosperity through urban development, support for low and moderate income housing, transportation infrastructure, and the need for clean water and air. He also applauded a U.S. Supreme Court case “requiring more equitable representation of our urban areas in state legislatures”—legal eagles will know that as the famous Baker v. Carr—something that holds some resonance as the high court takes up a Wisconsin redistricting case later this year.

Kennedy also laments Congress’ failure to enact legislation "establishing a Department of Urban Affairs and Housing.” His successor and vice president, Lyndon Johnson, would ultimately see this vision achieved when the Department of Housing and Urban Development was created in 1965.

In very Kennedy fashion, the speech provided a lofty view of the intertwined urban and national agendas:

“In a few short decades we have moved from a rural to an urban way of life, and before long we shall be a nation of vastly expanded population, living in great urban areas in housing that does not now exist, served by community facilities that do not now exist, and moved about by means of transportation systems that do not now exist.

These are the facts of life that affect our people that make it very necessary now to strengthen and improve the machinery through which the Federal Government acts to help you meet your urban problems. This development and these problems, are tied up to all of our other great national challenges. Conversely the welfare of our urban areas, is essential to the prosperity of our farm families. Thus it seems to me we should approach the matters which concern you from a national rather than merely from a sectional or regional viewpoint.”

Watch Mayor Levine's introduction and the video below.

You can listen to the original recording of Kennedy’s full speech from 55 years ago below and can see a draft of his speech via the Kennedy Library’s online archive.

Mitch Herckis is the senior director of programs for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington D.C.

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