Seeking Attention For City Priorities From 2020 Presidential Candidates

Candidates participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio.

Candidates participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio. AP Photo/John Minchillo


Connecting state and local government leaders

A group of local officials is developing a platform of issues they want to see discussed during the race.

City leaders from around the U.S. are working to come up with a slate of priorities that they want to see presidential contenders focus on during the 2020 election cycle.

A National League of Cities task force met in Washington, D.C. earlier this week to work on the project. The group’s members include about 30 mayors, city council members and representatives for local government organizations.

Clarence Anthony, executive director of the National League of Cities, said an overarching goal for the task force is to ensure that city priorities are discussed during debates, as candidates are developing their platforms, and at party conventions.

“If the presidential candidates really want to know what are the pulse issues that are occurring in cities, they need to talk to municipal leaders,” he said. “They can tell them what is trending.”

The task force hasn’t finalized its platform yet, but one of NLC’s leaders offered some insight into what it could include. 

Karen Freeman-Wilson, who is mayor of Gary, Indiana and the current National League of Cities president, indicated in an interview that infrastructure, criminal justice reform, immigration and housing are among the issues that the group might choose to emphasize.

“We have the ability to really help them focus on the everyday needs of the American people,” Freeman-Wilson said, referring to the presidential candidates.

Mayors Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Francis Suarez of Miami are co-chairing the task force. The panel is scheduled to meet next in November in San Antonio, Texas. 

That convening will take place during a National League of Cities summit, where the league has planned a presidential candidate forum. An NLC spokesman declined to say on Wednesday which candidates had committed to appear at the event.

Eighteen Democrats and four Republicans, including President Trump, are currently running for president.

In Anthony’s view, some city priorities have been getting attention during the race so far, but not as much as NLC’s members would like to see. “They want them to be able to be specific on issues that cities are faced with, whether it’s housing or whether it’s public safety,” he added.

The topics the Democratic contenders spent the most time talking about during the first five nights of debates included: health care, immigration, racial equality, climate change and foreign policy, according to an analysis published by Vox.

Housing affordability and homelessness, two pressing issues in many cities around the U.S., did not appear in the publication’s list of the 10 most discussed issues. 

A number of the Democratic contenders, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders, have put forward housing policy proposals or legislation. Curbed posted a summary of the candidates’ housing plans earlier this month.

Gary is a city that has struggled economically in recent decades. Following declines in the steel industry, the city’s population fell and poverty rates climbed.

Asked about areas where the city would benefit from greater federal support, Freeman-Wilson highlighted infrastructure, including a local port project and improving broadband access. She also mentioned workforce development and eliminating vacant and abandoned buildings. 

“We could use a federal partner in all of those areas,” she said.

For over 50 years now, the share of Americans living in urban areas has been steadily on the rise and is now around 80%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

President Trump, a native New Yorker, has frequently sparred with city leaders—one notable example are the threats by his administration to withhold law enforcement grant money from so-called “sanctuary” cities that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Trump tends to enjoy strong support from voters in rural areas, which lean more conservative and his election drew attention to the so-called urban-rural divide in American politics.

The president’s budget proposals, meanwhile, elicited fierce backlash from city officials early in his presidency. These spending plans called for slashing grants and other programs cities have depended on to help pay for community development, transportation and housing initiatives. 

Lawmakers, including Republicans, have for the most part rejected the proposed cuts, reducing concerns that funding for the programs might be in jeopardy.

City leaders at different times during Trump’s term have expressed optimism that they might be able to work with the president and Congress on major infrastructure legislation of some kind—something that Trump repeatedly identified as one of his priorities.

But hopes for a public works package have collapsed with the administration and lawmakers in Congress unable to coalesce around ideas for how to raise revenue for such a plan, and the president at bitter odds with Democrats who have launched an impeachment inquiry.

“There’s a lot of distractions,” Anthony said when asked to take stock of how it has been for city leaders to get their voices heard in Washington during Trump’s time in office. “We want to get both Congress and the administration back focused on the issues that impact cities.”

“That’s what our goal is,” he added. “We don’t care which administration it is.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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