Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
When she takes the debate stage tonight, Kirsten Gillibrand is likely to tout a new infrastructure bill. Other presidential hopefuls are talking up their own rebuilding priorities.
Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls parsed big ideas, from the progressive to “pragmatic,” during Tuesday night’s debate. Some involved tearing down a broken system: removing barriers to healthcare access, carving holes in border walls, and dismantling racial injustice. But the candidates were also pressed to discuss, albeit briefly, how they’d think about rebuilding—starting with the country’s pavement and pipes.
“Infrastructure … [is] a bread and butter issue for people that are caught in traffic jams,” said Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. She was the first of the candidates to introduce an infrastructure plan this March, proposing spending $1 trillion on projects like rural broadband, green infrastructure, and new schools. To pay for it, she proposes closing capital gains tax loopholes and helping states and cities “leverage private funds.” Former Representative John Delaney of Maryland became the second in May, promising to commit $2 trillion to the cause, including $200 million to the cash-strapped Highway Trust Fund.
But it was self-help author Marianne Williamson who pointed out that giving the oft-parodied Infrastructure Week its due isn’t only about fixing highways or cleaning the lead-contaminated water of Flint, Michigan. “We need to say it like it is: It’s bigger than Flint,” she said during her (surprisingly strong) debate performance. “It’s all over this country. It’s particularly people of color. It’s particularly people who do not have the money to fight back.”
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand wasn’t on stage last night (she’s in Wednesday’s lineup), but today she becomes the latest Democratic presidential candidate to take up that theme, introducing infrastructure spending and building legislation that explicitly acknowledges the harm that federal infrastructure projects have inflicted on low-income communities.
Co-sponsored by Karen Bass, a Democratic representative from California, Gillibrand’s “Build Local, Hire Local Act” isn’t part of a presidential platform the same way Klobuchar’s or Delaney’s is: If passed, it could be implemented at the national level whether or not Gillibrand ascends to office. The other key distinction is that rather than focusing on new infrastructure spending goals, it aims to maximize local job creation and local input. “Too much of our nation’s infrastructure is in disrepair, and we urgently need to get to work rebuilding it,” Gillibrand said in a statement released today. “But when we do, we also need to make sure we’re not repeating our government’s mistakes from last century and building barriers between marginalized communities and everyone else.”
As the name suggests, the bill emphasizes thinking locally. Half of the jobs hired to work on every federal infrastructure project would have to be a resident of the local community or someone “facing barriers to employment.” Of the contracts for infrastructure projects approved, a third would go to small businesses, and another 30 percent would be reserved for “minority-, women-, or veteran-owned businesses of all sizes.” Preference would be given to equipment manufacturers that operate locally and to organizations that allow collective bargaining among employees.
The bill would also allocate $5 billion to a Building American Infrastructure and Careers Program, which would match people with the training to work in construction and infrastructure. In a state like California—which is experiencing a housing-crunch-related construction labor shortage—suiting up a larger, more capable workforce could be huge. To better ensure that infrastructure projects serve, rather than bulldoze, vulnerable communities, the bill codifies former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s “Every Place Counts” competition—helping communities that have been bifurcated by highways, for example, address those legacies. It would also launch a $25 billion grant program meant to help communities redevelop, replace, or rehabilitate projects in need of a boost. Each recipient of assistance or funds would be required to form community advisory boards or teams that include residents from the area affected by the projects, giving them a seat at the planning table.
The bill has a long list of endorsers, including L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti; John D. Porcari, the former Deputy Secretary of Transportation in the Obama Administration; and Madeline Janis, executive director at Jobs to Move America. The North American Building Trades Unions and the AFL-CIO are also on board.
“Our nation’s crumbling infrastructure has left many low-income communities without the public transportation, broadband access, child care services, affordable housing, and educational facilities necessary to obtain long-term, family-sustaining jobs. Additionally, infrastructure investment has historically left out communities of color, further increasing racial inequities in employment and wages,” said Olivia Golden, executive director at Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), in a statement. She said she was proud that CLASP had a hand in drafting the policy, which would promote racial equity and inclusion.
Gillibrand hasn’t yet had a chance to talk up her plan on the debate stage; she, along with nine other candidates, will get their moment on Wednesday evening. Maybe they’ll spend more time on infrastructure than the first crowd did.
Chicago mayor-turned-pundit Rahm Emanuel sure hopes so: Before Tuesday’s debates, he posted an open letter to the Democratic candidates, imploring them to pay more attention to nitty-gritty issues like infrastructure and less on “promis[ing] health care coverage to undocumented immigrants,” he wrote.
Everyone who spends their days stuck in endless traffic knows that the nation’s roads are going nowhere fast. This fact alone should be enough to convince people that we need to invest in our infrastructure. Most voters will take comfort knowing that we have to hire American workers to pave American roads; rebuilding America can’t be outsourced to New Delhi.
(Of course, Emanuel’s rebuilding record from Chicago is somewhat mixed: A much-ballyhooed “infrastructure trust,” meant to attract private funding for local projects, “shifted focus” after failing to attract “a dime,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times, and a partnership with Elon Musk to build an expensive high-speed tunnel to the airport has stalled amid controversy.)
Job creation, investment in sustainable and affordable infrastructure, and racial justice already undergird several of the Democratic candidates’ platforms: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan would push cities to spur job creation via infrastructure spending and restoring or redeveloping vacant homes. Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris have affordable housing plans, as do Warren, Klobuchar, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro. And the Green New Deal, which has been (at least tacitly) endorsed by several candidates, pairs infrastructure spending—on green energy and transitioning away from fossil fuels—with retraining the nation’s un- and underemployed.
There is certainly no lack of need. President Trump’s campaign promise of a $1 trillion infrastructure spending spree turned into a $2 billion bipartisan package that swiftly vanished. Meanwhile, Flint still doesn’t have clean drinking water, and the kind of highway and freeway projects made infamous for enforcing segregation and directing pollution into historically black neighborhoods are still being planned and built. Pairing some progressive values with urgent local needs like housing construction, transit, and highway maintenance might give the Democrats an opportunity to restore the faded luster of Infrastructure Week. And, as Gillibrand’s plan suggests, tearing some stuff down might not be a bad idea either.