Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Some 99 mayors have a new policy agenda for the presidential candidates. Their message: Fund the priorities our local citizens are actually talking to us about.
American mayors are here to tell the presidential candidates what’s really going on.
“So often what happens when you get into large office you lose touch with what reality is,” said Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville and vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, on a call with members of the press. This week, the Conference released a slate of policy prescriptions for presidential candidates that are intended to reflect local priorities.
The predominant theme: They need far more federal money for urgent local needs, particularly housing, infrastructure, and climate change.
“The origin of these policies come from our citizens. We believe this is the most direct way of talking to the residents of America’s metro areas,” said Fischer.
The agenda, released this week, was developed and “seen by” 99 mayors from USCM’s broad coalition, said Bryan K. Barnett, the U.S. Conference of Mayors president and mayor of Rochester Hills, Michigan.
On infrastructure, the mayors are calling on the federal government to assist cities by securing the highway trust fund, allocating more highway dollars to mayors and local officials, and spending more money on airports and public transit. They also highlighted the need for support in their efforts to regulate new transportation technology, from scooters to self-driving cars, and called for incentives to cities that are innovating in the public transit space.
“The mayors have led on this issue of infrastructure for the past several years and continuously amplified the need for an infrastructure bill,” said Elizabeth B. Kautz, the mayor of Burnsville and a former president of USCM. “Nothing unites Americans like the need for better infrastructure.”
Housing is another area that mayors say demands more federal funding. To fix blighted and vacated neighborhoods, the mayors want a redo of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which spent more than $7 billion from 2008 to 2010 before being defunded. To up the supply of rental housing, they want the president to better support the National Housing Trust Fund—an affordable housing program created by candidate Julián Castro when he served as President Obama’s Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary.
“We have to get our [Community Development Block Grant] levels restored to back what they used to be,” said Fischer: The grants, which cities can apply for to fund public infrastructure and renovation projects, have been cut by almost $1 billion in the last 5 years. The HOME Program, which equips localities with federal funds to build affordable housing, has shrunk to almost half its former size since 2010. Mayors want that those cuts reversed.
“In Louisville, we have a need for 30,000 additional units” that meet particular affordability metrics, said Fischer. “Money is what’s required to get this program back on track.”
Though housing hasn’t been a major topic on the debate stage—much to the chagrin of advocates—democratic candidates like Castro, Warren, and Booker have released comprehensive housing plans for building the country’s housing stock and homeownership opportunities using tax adjustments and zoning reform. No mayor present on this week’s press call chose to comment on whether they were excited about a particular candidates’ plan, or whether they saw commonalities.
On climate, which Fischer called “the issue of our time,” the mayors again want federal dollars funneled more directly into cities, calling on the president and Congress to rejuvenate the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program, which has so far given $3.2 billion to job-creating renewable energy and energy conservation programs; create tax breaks for electric vehicles buyers; reduce nationwide greenhouse gas emissions through incentives and grants; and fund (and support) more clean energy research.
And on guns, the mayors’ prescriptions were similarly urgent, calling for universal background checks and an assault weapon ban. Though many cities are preempted from taking these bold actions themselves, they’ve led in other ways: Dayton, Ohio mayor Nan Whaley, whose city saw a mass shooting this August that left 9 people dead, praised San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo for introducing liability insurance for gun owners, and Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto for banning high-capacity magazines.
While the U.S. Conference of Mayors has not endorsed a presidential candidate or the incumbent, and does not typically do so, individual city leaders have started staking their official support. In September, 58 mayors and former mayors, including prominent leaders like Dayton mayor Nan Whaley and Kansas City mayor Sly James, came out in support of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. After Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s former mayor, announced his bid for president this fall, Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, and a former president of USCM, and Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, D.C., announced their support for him. Philadelphia’s mayor supports Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
On Friday, the mayors will present the plan to several Democratic candidates at the Local America Presidential Forum in Iowa. Among those expected to participate: former Newark, New Jersey mayor Corey Booker, former San Antonio, Texas mayor Julián Castro, and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, along with non-mayors Tom Steyer, the billionaire businessman, and Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Senator.
Overall, the agenda takes three I’s as its focus: Infrastructure, Innovation, and Inclusion. But its 12 policy suggestions span the whole alphabet, with immigration, education and workforce development, health care, and tax reform serving as other major planks.
While some of the desired outcomes will be hard to achieve if Donald Trump is reelected—on infrastructure, for example, the conference has lobbied the president heavily without much budging—Fischer says the document is “aspirational” under any presidency. “Mayors are practical,” added Barnett. “We want this to be able to be accomplished.”
As the Iowa primaries near, why should national candidates care what city leaders have to say? The U.S. Conference of Mayors argues that urban areas’ growing share of the population—86 percent—and of the GDP—91 percent—is argument enough.
“We’re closest to the people,” said Benjamin. “When the mayor tells you something, they know it’s the truth.”