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Municipal officials anticipate challenges under Trump administration

Contradictions in president-elect’s promises, policy positions creates atmosphere of uncertainty for officials in U.S. cities

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Cities have been powerful policy players under Barack Obama’s administration, able to take local action on initiatives that otherwise stalled in Congress. Meanwhile, Donald Trump drew the bulk of his support from rural areas and ran under the Republican party ticket at a time when most mayors are Democrats.

A panel of Boston University researchers and federal and local officials gathered in D.C. in an event livestreamed last week during which they contemplated what the future of local power and the role of mayors may be under the next presidential administration.

The power of local

Cities are a critical part of American life: They generate 75 percent of the country’s GDP and are home to nearly two-thirds of its citizens, according to the Boston University Initiative on Cities.

When Obama’s proposals were stalled or curtailed on the national level — for example, proposals to raise the minimum wage and provide free community college — staff turned to working with states and cities to advance the ideas on a local level, said Jerry Abramson, White House director of intergovernmental affairs and deputy assistant to Obama. Many states and municipalities put minimum wage increases on the ballot and others piloted affordable community college plans.

“We couldn’t get anything done so we turned to where the action was — the laboratories of innovation: cities, counties and states,” said Abramson, who served as a five-term Kentucky mayor and one-term lieutenant governor before joining the White House.

“We’re in such gridlock [nationally], nothing gets done. So we turned to cities and states,” he said.

That work has involved training 600 federal government staff to collaborate with mayors on tackling problems and crafting solutions tailored to the community, Abramson said.

Hard times

While panelists said Trump’s policies are unpredictable — given the frequency with which he has changed his statements and the vagueness of his policy plans — expectations were bleak.

Local governments cannot avoid working with the federal government as municipalities rely on it on for funding, which often comes with strings attached, and because federal policies impact their citizens, said Courtney Snowden, D.C.’s deputy mayor for greater economic opportunity. Her role involves fostering economic growth in undeserved and overlooked communities through workforce and small business development and other projects.

In the past three elections, urban areas have been strongholds of Democratic support, with Republican support growing in rural areas, thus presenting a geographical ideological divide, said Katie Einstein, assistant professor of political science at University of Massachusetts Boston.

Einstein also is co-author of the Menino Survey of Mayors, a multiyear survey and interviews of mayors nationwide. Most of the nation’s mayors are Democrats. Einstein said that many mayors surveyed recently praised Obama as a thoughtful and supportive partner, but said they feared Trump’s rhetoric, which denounced many segments of the U.S. populations and the makeup of their cities.

While Trump has said little about urban policy, he does not seem to view cities positively, describing inner cities as places where black residents “liv[e] in hell,” Einstein noted.

Many mayors’ fear Trump does not share, or actively disavows, their priorities. Einstein said that while many surveyed mayors described HUD as a lifeline and critical source of funding and support, there are rumors that Trump is considering appointing as HUD secretary Robert Astorino, “who has said things at time that make you question if he thinks HUD should even exist.”

Astorino is a Westchester County executive notable for a legal fight against HUD and the Justice Department over a federal court settlement that would require affordable housing construction in Westchester locations that HUD deems as lacking racial diversity.

Snowden said cities will need to be ready to fight to protect their people and identify and progress on areas where they can take action without going through the federal government.

Areas of collaboration

Panelists recommended finding what areas of common ground do exist and working to see that progress on these issues extends to both cities and rural areas. Collaborative possibilities include infrastructure, criminal justice and poverty, they said.

Trump has promised a $1 trillion privately-funded infrastructure plan, although his discussions made no mention of public transit — something many mayors said is critical to their cities’ revitalization and success, Einstein said. Furthering infrastructure discussions and broadening the scope of work could be an area of intergovernmental alignment.

Many of Trump’s supporters are economically disadvantaged, Einstein noted. This could open the door to agreement on policies that benefit both urban and rural poor, such as minimum wage increases.

While Trump’s support of stop-and-frisk raised alarms for many, Abramson said that the Koch brothers’ support for prisoner reentry programs represents an opportunity to collaborate across partisan divides.

Alliances

Abramson also called for mayors and Democrats to take proactive efforts to identify and forge relationships with those in office who may be open to proposals from other parties and accepting of moderate ideas. Seek out relationships even in unlikely areas, he advised, noting that even if the HUD Secretary proves unwilling to listen or collaborate, another official in a department less directly tied to the issue at hand may prove to be an avenue to policy change.

“The way to get people both to work together and hear you is identify the unusual suspect who can share and carry the water with you,” Snowden seconded.

Snowden and Einstein added that Democrats may be able to get advice on navigating the new administration from non-elected, career governmental employees who will remain at the White House even as the West Wing changes over, and who tend to be more liberal.

The election results also showed a need for Democrats to take a serious look at getting into state government, Abramson said, while Snowden noted that often overlooked ultra-local roles, such as school board membership, can serve as a pathway into these state house positions.

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