It's no secret that cities are the red-headed stepchildren of presidential politics — and of presidents once they win office, especially Republicans. After all, most of America's cities are solidly Democratic.
That doesn't mean cities have endeared themselves to the last two Dems in office. Bill Clinton pocketed urban votes, but largely ignored the cities, with the notable exception of his able first HUD secretary, Henry Cisneros. Jimmy Carter's domestic agenda, the work of a highbrow panel, concluded that urban centers weren't worth the investment to rebuild, and declared that "cities aren't permanent." Oh?
Gone are the good old days of the 1950s and '60s, when programs such as LBJ's "Model Cities" promised what amounted to a Marshall Plan for urban areas.
Among the low points in municipal-presidential relations, in March 1985 Ronald Reagan awoke from his presidential sleepwalk long enough castigate an effort by Miami to solve its burgeoning traffic congestion by building the Metrorail transit system. The Gipper groused, "It would have been a lot cheaper to buy everyone a limousine." With gas prices today poking at $4 a gallon, Metrorail, MARTA and other transit systems, even with all their faults and imperfections, seem downright visionary.
Gerald Ford in 1975 dissed New York – and, by implication, all of America's cash-strapped cities – when he denied a bail-out plea. One of Gotham's tabloids, the New York Daily News, penned a famously acerbic headline: "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD."
And George W. Bush has presided over a regime that is ruinous in so many ways it's easy to overlook its corrosive impact on urban areas. For a start, consider that Bush's Iraq adventure is now estimated (by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, among others) to have a $3 trillion price tag. What problems in America, especially in the cities, couldn't be attacked and largely resolved with such an infusion of resources? But Bush would have had to be a good president, and not a blundering would-be Caesar, to comprehend that.
As testimony to his colossal failure to attend to the cities' needs, remember the 53 breaches in New Orleans' federally maintained levees when Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, followed by the lethally inept response of the administration; or recall the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis two years later, one of thousands of bridges around the nation in dire need of attention.
"Infrastructure," says Atlanta City Council President Lisa Borders, when asked what she wants to see from a new White House resident. "Our roads and bridges and sewers and water – that's where we need help. We need federal investment in early childhood education. What we have is the sad fact that the largest educational system in the state is the penal system. There's something wrong with that. We have to invest in our children and the infrastructure of the cities."
Mayor Shirley Franklin echoes those remarks. MayorTV compiled the voices of a dozen leading mayors around the nation to focus presidential candidates' attention on their cities' desperate situations. "Invest or Atlanta's economy and the national economy are going to die," Franklin said on the website.
The cities would seem to rate some attention. After all, about 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas and their surrounding suburbs. About 87 percent of the nation's economy is output from what some pundits now dub America's "city states."
Yet recent election campaigns rudely snub the cities. In 2004's four televised presidential debates, cities garnered only four mentions, and three of those were in the context of terrorism. 2000 was even worse. This year? Hillary Clinton didn't add a position on the cities to her platform until March, according to a report by politico.com, and Barack Obama's urban statement is filed under his position on poverty. I've watched most of the presidential debates, and haven't heard a word of hope for the cities.
As the New York Times commented in February: "For more than a generation, presidential aspirants have mostly resisted acknowledging the importance of the cities' well being. ... [They] continue to ignore the plight of urban schools, and soon about half of New York City's one million schoolchildren won't graduate from high school. Continue to neglect infrastructure, and face the prospect of more Katrina-like disasters. ... Let brownfields remain polluted, and risk health problems and hurt the potential for job-creating development. Keep encouraging fossil-fueled transportation, and cities will choke on gridlock, and so will businesses and jobs."
Otis White, president of Civic Strategies Inc. in Decatur and former editor of Georgia Trend explains the current drought of presidential interest in cities: "Other issues are more in the public's mind, the war and the economy. City stuff is more long-term and not so dramatic, and candidates are focused on the easier-to-grasp short-term pain."
White says two major areas in need of federal aid are transportation and housing. "The feds could make compact, affordable housing a priority," he says. "Build transit and build transit-oriented housing. It's doable, but not without a lot of federal involvement."
And he notes that Atlanta has a peculiar problem when compared with cities such as Denver and Charlotte that are forging forward with inspired transit programs (and, in the latter case, eating Atlanta's lunch when it comes to being the business capital of the South). "The Legislature is no help to Atlanta, unlike North Carolina's, which enabled their progress with regional and intercity transit. In Georgia, we have the national neglect of the cities, plus a Legislature with little interest in Atlanta compounding the problems."
The nation's mayors are calling for federal assistance on energy sustainability; more police officers; better ways to finance infrastructure, schools and affordable housing; workforce development; and money to build programs that will give kids educations rather than prison cells.
It's clear McCain's priority is continuing Bush's imperial delusions for another century or so. Will relief come from Clinton or Obama? You think they're listening to the cries from cities?
More information: Listen to a dozen of the nation's mayors, including Shirley Franklin, at www.mayortv.com.
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