The mayor of Oklahoma City explains how conservative principles helped the city grow from nowheresville to a magnet for Millennials.
CLEVELAND—Mick Cornett is the mayor of Oklahoma City and the recently appointed president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He spoke on day one of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and Wednesday he’s participating in the Arts Speak forum at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Mayor Cornett spoke with CityLab about the Republican Party, what conservative principles can do for a city, and—of course—basketball.
You are one of the few Republican mayors of major cities—San Diego, Jacksonville, Oklahoma City. What can the Republican Party bring to local municipal administration?
I think, if you look at Oklahoma City as a model, you see it’s a city that’s done a lot without raising its taxes. We have done a lot with a funding mechanism we call MAPS [Metropolitan Area Projects Plan] in which there’s no debt incurred. We live in a very conservative environment in Oklahoma City. I like to think I’m a centrist in Oklahoma, but I would be considered right-of-center nationally.
But our citizens have voted to continue taxation initiatives over and over again, and I think they like the idea that there’s a length of time on it. There’s no debt incurred with that particular funding initiative, and so I think that’s definitely a Republican principle. I’m the third Republican in a row to be mayor of that city. There’s a trend there.
So MAPS is a sales-tax-driven program for funding infrastructure and quality-of-life improvements. MAPS is on its third iteration, and there’s a lot of discussion about a fourth iteration. What are some of the accomplishments under MAPS so far?
It’s changed everything. Oklahoma City may have had the worst economy in the country 25 years ago. We couldn’t buy the love of corporate America. Young people weren’t moving to the city. The downtown core had virtually no life. So Ron Norick [mayor from 1988 to 1998] pushed an initiative that would rebuild the inner city and would also create a qualify of life so we would have a better chance of keeping our young people. We were sending them off to college, and they weren’t coming back—not necessarily because they didn’t like the city, but because there weren’t any jobs. We’d become a suburb of nothing.
Looking back and seeing the revitalization, it reminds me that quality of life in the suburbs, at least long-term, really does directly relate to the intensity of the core. I came in with a lot of the building blocks in place for a very strong economy. You could argue, over the past five years, maybe we’ve had the strongest economy per capita out there in America.
What is the advantage of using a sales tax instead of a bond or another option to build in your city?
It’s really about what the culture of your community will allow. In our community, they look at sales taxes as kind of optional or discretionary, and about one-third of the money is paid for by people who don’t live inside city limits, whether they live in the suburbs or another city and happen to be visiting. So there’s the idea that it’s not all falling on your shoulders. And … there’s a length of time that sales tax is going to be in place before the citizens get a chance to vote again on whether or not to extend it.
We also have extraordinary citizen input and oversight over the construction of these projects. We have citizen subcommittees that oversee each of the projects, and we have a citizen advisory board that oversees all of them. The city council and I have the final say, but there’s incredible citizen involvement along the way. The citizens think of them as their projects: It’s not them that’s building these projects, it’s us. That pronoun is a very strong part of building the culture that allows us to continue.
I noticed in the discussion about the next iteration of MAPS that there’s a group called “MAPS 4 Neighborhoods” that would like to see more investment directed outside the city core. What is that movement about?
It’s largely a reminder that we have redesigned all of the inner-city streets in Oklahoma City to be more pedestrian-friendly. We really are trying to change the built environment in Oklahoma City. Going forward, how do we take that new concept of building a city around people instead of cars? How do we take that to a wider area?
I suspect that the proposal we put on the table for the citizens to consider won’t [ultimately] have a MAPS title to it. It will be a short-term, penny-on-the-dollar sales tax, maybe for a couple of years, to build better streets and a better community. Don’t confuse streets with cars—[these are] streets with sidewalks, bike lanes, urbanist ideas that we’re trying to take to a larger stretch of the city.
I’m interested in tourism in Oklahoma City. I lived in Dallas for a while as a kid, and Oklahoma City just wasn’t a popular destination. But that’s totally different for my young cousins.
Dallas is one of the great economic development success stories of our time. There seems to be something magical about having two metro areas that are 30 miles apart [Dallas and Fort Worth]. In Oklahoma, our two metro areas are 90 miles apart. That seems too far. They compete against each other instead of there being some kind of centrist opportunity to capitalize on both.
Oklahoma, if you look back 100 years, we had an economy that was largely based on emerging energy companies—oil and gas—who would grow in a small- to mid-sized community. When they got to a certain size, they moved to Texas. Halliburton. Conoco-Phillips. Citgo. In 2006, we had a company where that exact same story seemed to be happening in Enid, Oklahoma: Continental Resources. They grew to a certain size and had to leave Enid to attract the talent that they needed—and they moved to Oklahoma City. We had finally built a metropolitan area that could attract the type of talent they needed to grow their company, as opposed to being in the minor league of corporate America.
There’s a story in the news today about a new police policy that allows Oklahoma City officers to carry their personal rifles along with department-issued firearms.
That’s happened since I’ve arrived here. You are up to date.
The police chief changed his stance. The [police] union has been asking for the past few weeks if their members can carry rifles. We have rifles to represent about 10 percent of the officers, and they can be on the scene if necessary, but it’s not really practical that an officer is going to need a rifle. But what has happened in Dallas and Baton Rouge has raised concerns. If your police officers feel like they need the equipment to protect themselves—apparently, the equation has changed. Again, that happened since I arrived here, and I haven’t talked to the police chief personally.
Do you support Donald Trump, and should he be the next president of the United States?
I haven’t endorsed Donald Trump. I’m open-minded about his candidacy. I’d like to hear more details. I think you’ve got a large group of Republican mayors who are standing on the fence right now, waiting to hear more. Mayors, by their nature, are inclusive; we have all kinds of sub-groups living within the city. The rhetoric we’ve heard from Trump has not necessarily carried that inclusive message, and that concerns us. How are we going to grow as a party, and how are we going to grow as a city, if Millennials and people of color don’t feel like they’re welcome? I think he needs to explain his message on this. I don’t think Donald Trump is a racist, yet he has said things that don’t sound very inclusive.
As the campaign extends, perhaps we’ll feel more comfortable. Perhaps I or Republican mayors will feel more comfortable endorsing him. But right now, you haven’t seen Republican mayors jump on board. We’re not excited about the alternative, but we haven’t necessarily figured out how we’re going to conduct ourselves or our endorsements.
Last question: Can OKC keep Russell Westbrook?
Absolutely we can. Russell is adored by the fans there. He’s a very emotional guy. Doesn’t surround himself with a lot of corporate presence. It’s just Russell, his wife, and his brother. Russell’s like a lot of college-educated twenty-somethings in Oklahoma City who like the vibe there and like living there.
This interview has been condensed and edited.