Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
The Republican mayor of Oklahoma City, Mick Cornett, talks to CityLab about streetcars, immigration, and the nation’s 45th president.
Oklahoma City’s Republican mayor, Mick Cornett, has been something of a wary observer of Donald Trump’s ascendence since CityLab spoke with him at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last year. Since then, a lot has changed. Donald Trump has gone from being the Republican nominee to president-elect, and today, president. And in Oklahoma City, which is growing fast and trying to attract new residents, the reality of a Trump presidency comes with challenges and opportunities.
Cornett is also the president of the the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which was in Washington, D.C. for the organization’s 85th meeting this week. CityLab caught up with him for a conversation, the highlights of which are below.
I know that you and other mayors here met with President-elect Trump recently. Anything specific you’d like to highlight from that conversation?
President Trump was adamant that building infrastructure is his top priority. He know that’s what mayors are pushing for, too. We hope to coordinate and give him some ideas and become partners as he tries to rebuild America. There’s a lot of work out there. It’s not just the streets and the bridges and roads that people usually gravitate towards. There’s a number of issues under the ground and inside our water systems. There’s also technology issues out there that have become part of the infrastructure dialogue.
I think infrastructure is what he wanted us to know that he is going to prioritize. Hopefully, Congress will allow him to do something significant. We also talked about policing and the public’s perception of our police officers. How our police officers can better patrol and protect. We also talked about the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds that we’d like to see maintained. President Obama had talked about trying to remove that tax-free status and President Trump is insinuating to us that he is very much behind us in keeping that exemption in place. So that was good for us to hear.
Well, we’re now in our third version of our MAPS initiative and we’re about halfway through the building process. It’s a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax for a certain number of years. We’re almost near the end of the tax collection aspect. Then, we build the project debt-free with cash. It takes a little longer to build the projects that way, but it’s a funding model that works really well for us.
Right now, we’ve completed projects down on the river. We’ve completed projects at the fairgrounds. We’ve built the majority of the sidewalks and the jogging and biking paths. We’re going to open our first senior wellness center next month, and we have another one that’s already under construction. We’re about to break ground on the streetcar, the park, and the new convention center. There’s construction all over town. The three MAPS projects together have recreated the entire downtown area. I would say Oklahoma City has changed over the last 20 years probably more than any other city in the country.
Is there going to be a fourth iteration?
That’ll be up to the voters, ultimately. We may have a short-term taxation proposal for them to consider about complete streets and trying to build a more walkable city inside some of the neighborhoods that are surrounding downtown.
You are getting a streetcar line, too.
The streetcar was one of eight projects that was placed inside the MAPS initiative, so the voters looked at the entire list of the eight projects and passed it, 53 percent. The streetcar, I believe, is $130 million. That’ll build out about five miles. We should break ground here in about 30 days on the first tracks. The cars are being constructed at a plant in Pennsylvania. We think the complete build-out will take place at the end of 2018. It’ll really coordinate well with our bus system and hopefully create additional property values for the areas where the streetcar is located.
What are the challenges you still face in making Oklahoma City a more prosperous and inclusive place?
The challenge that, so far, we’re succeeding in is making the city attractive to highly educated 20-somethings. You’re looking at a millennial generation that can really propel an economy because many of them come in with so many bright ideas and entrepreneurial spirits. And the entrepreneurs that are already in town are able to tap into that talent pool and create greater wealth in the city. It’s our goal to build a city that’s going to attract these young people.
We believe that if we can create a city where people want to live, that the economic development success will follow. I think that’s the toughest assignment.
What are the specific hurdles you’re facing in achieving that?
That there’s so many other exciting cities out there. In our region, we compete with the Dallas metro, Kansas City, Austin, and Houston. The statistics show we’re winning more than our share.
We also know that we’re maintaining a lot more of our young people that graduate from our high schools and go to our local colleges than we ever did before. So there’s really a sense that Oklahoma City is a great place for a young person to live. We have very low cost of living and low cost of housing. We have no traffic congestion. We have good taxation policies that are pro-business and we have an abundance of fresh water and clean air. We try to keep tabs on all of those elements because if you fall down in any of those categories, you're likely to start losing people to other places.
One of the groups that Oklahoma City has also increasingly attracted is immigrants, both documented and undocumented. In the past you disagreed with aspects of President Donald Trump’s immigration policy. Has that changed at all?
I listen to a lot of the campaign rhetoric involving immigration. I never totally believed a lot of it would come to reality, regardless of who was elected, and I think I have that same stance today. The policies in Oklahoma City are not much different, if at all different, from other cities around the country. I do not expect the way that centers interact with the immigrant population is going to change.
We’ll see. There were certainly things said during the campaign that might make you think otherwise. Ideally, though, you would have some immigration reform so that whatever policies are put in place are enforceable.
Nothing frustrates mayors more than having immigration policies that aren’t being enforced. Then a lot of the citizens of our country expect local police officers to be involved in immigration issues. We’re not equipped for it, we have not been assigned that duty, and in fact, it would be unlawful for us to start enforcing immigration laws.
Is that an unpopular opinion to hold as a Republican?
I don’t think so. I think mayors aren’t overly partisan by nature. Watching immigrants in our city, [we] know that [immigration] leads to a stronger economy. Most of us in the United States are either immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants. I don’t think the United States is anti-immigrant. The problem is that the immigration issue is much larger and much more complicated than people want to make you think, in the media.
There are people in other countries right now waiting in line hoping to be admitted to the United States. Then, you have other people who don’t want to wait in line so they just come anyways. It gets very, very complicated. I don’t envy anyone having to make immigration policy because you’re not going to be able to please everybody.
How do you see your role in governing Oklahoma City and coordinating with other cities under the new administration?
I think a lot of that depends on the Trump administration and their priorities going forward. Right now, people are just guessing as to how this administration will act and coordinate with cities. They’ve talked about doing a lot of things very, very quickly. It’s probably not realistic to think they’re going to be able to do all those things, or address all those different topics. But where will they start?
I think, ultimately, the first term of Donald Trump will be judged by job creation. If there are a great deal of jobs and if the economy stays strong, I would say he'll win over a majority of Americans, even those that didn’t support him the first time. If he can’t create jobs and the economy suffers, then he’s probably going to run into a lot of the problems regarding the social issues, where he has said some pretty outrageous things.