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How Mayors Became Our Best Problem Solvers

Mayors of cities and towns as the new American policy pioneers. Doing it locally.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg cuts a ribbon to officially open the new Hunter's Point South Waterfront Park, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, in the Queens borough of New York. (AP)

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg cuts a ribbon to officially open the new Hunter’s Point South Waterfront Park, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, in the Queens borough of New York. (AP)

Mayoral races in the news from Boston to New York to Detroit, Houston and Seattle this season.  And more than ever, we’re told, they matter.  National politics and policy are gridlocked, paralyzed.  States are broke.  Americans are looking closer to home – local, locavore – for food, music, artisan creation of all kinds.  And now maybe for social and economic policy, too.  Ambitious mayors are looking to create their own way, solve their own problems.  Up next On Point:  Taking it local.  Cities, towns and mayors as the new pioneers of American public policy.

– Tom Ashbrook


Jennifer Bradley, fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and  co-author of The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy with Bruce Katz. (@JBradley_DC)

Benjamin Barber, Senior Research Scholar at the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, Founder and President of CivWorld at the City University of New York and author of the forthcoming “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities.” (@BenjaminRBarber)

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Times: I Want to Be a Mayor — “In fact, if you want to be an optimist about America today, stand on your head. The country looks so much better from the bottom up — from its major metropolitan areas — than from the top down. Washington is tied in knots by Republican-led hyperpartisanship, lobbyists and budget constraints. Ditto most state legislatures. So the great laboratories and engines of our economy are now our cities.”

NextCity: The Virtues of Corruption — “In an interdependent world where sovereign nation-states often seem dysfunctional when it comes to international cooperation, cities may have a new and influential role to play. That, if indeed, mayors and those they represent were in charge, we might actually find ways to resolve democratically some of our global problems. It is hard to imagine we can go on confronting a 21st century world of interdependent challenges in crime, environment, security, immigration, markets and war while we are deploying 18th century nation-state solutions that have long since ceased to work.”

FastCompany : Dynamic Duos: Michael Bloomberg And Janette Sadik-Khan On The Future Of Walking, Biking, And Driving — “The innovators are the ones with their arrows in their backs, as the euphemism goes. If there is an instant referendum in advance on everything, you’re never going to do anything. And one of the dangers is, particularly with elected officials who have no knowledge of technology, they will say, oh my god, we had 10,000 people write me yesterday saying they don’t like that bike lane. Yeah, it’s one kid with a computer, and he bought the friends on Google.”

Excerpt from ‘The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy’ by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley

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  • Fiscally_Responsible

    The reasons why mayors have generally done better at solving fiscal problems is that unlike the federal government, they can’t kick the can quite as far down the road because they cannot simply run the printing presses and deficit spend. ($17 trillion and counting) They still get push back from the governmental employees unions as in the case of Detroit, which cannot afford to pay the exorbitant pension benefits that the Democratically controlled administrations awarded to the unions in order to continue to get elected. But the problems have gotten big enough that even public officials beholden to the anti-productivity/pro-featherbedding unions are having to face economic reality.

    • 65noname

      Fiscy—the average pension in question in detroit is $27,000 a year for people who reach retirement age after a full lifetime of work, And they’re NOT eligible for social security. And they ARE productive workersm mostly firefighters, police, garbage collecters, electricians, clerks, etc, who gave up other benefits in order to get what is not a very large pension. Well, you get the picture. You’d just rather distort it.

      • Fiscally_Responsible

        I wish that I could have retired at 52 with an annual $204,000 pension like the guy described in this article.


        • 65noname

          once again, that wasn’t Detroit as was discussed in the original comment. nor was it a working, union person. It was the police chief, a management dude and we all know that management people are typically corrupt when it comes to their salary and benefits. Once again, in Detroit the average pension of those people facing the loss of that pension, is $27,000 per year. NOT $204,000;NOT $150,000; NOT $100,000; NOT EVEN $50,000. $27,000 PER YEAR.

      • Fiscally_Responsible

        “a full lifetime of work”…do you mean like this guy who retired at 52 after four years of employment with an annual pension of $204,000? And the last time that I checked, Governor Gray Davis and Governor Jerry Moonbeam were registered Democrats.


        • 65noname

          of course, that wasn’t Detroit as was being discussed by the original comment above. And that was the police chief, a management person. hardly something that you can blame the unions for. ans we all know that management people, private or public sector are corrupt

    • TFRX

      Phew. You got through a whole set of facts (or something) without talking about God or abortion.

      Well, that’s a start.

  • 65noname

    let me see if I get this: members of the media class want to write a book buth theren’t not many subjects left. lets see: women can’t do maths. Oops!!! Done and rebuted. People are overwieght because they want to be. Ooops!!!! Done and rebuted. Shakespeare wasn’t really shakespeare. Oooops!!!!!!! Done and rebuted. Jackson was a real populist hero. Oooops!!!! Done and rebuted. Deregualting the economy and banks will bring prosperity
    to all. Oooops!!!!! Done and rebuted.Managed care will control health care costs. Oooops!!!! Done and rebuted.
    Oh, I know!!! Lets claim that the politicans who can’t win higher office and end up being mayors are really inovators and are actually solving problems.

    • MOFYC

      Yea because it’s easier to be a Congressman or Senator and hide behind the shield of your 534 colleagues to employ your windbag rhetoric than to be a chief executive and actually be responsible for decision making and accountable for the results.

  • fun bobby

    or they can be like Bloomberg and just spend their personal fortunes to get elected and even dump money in other states to influence the politics there

    • J__o__h__n

      I thought the rich could do no wrong.

      • fun bobby

        and according to bloomberg they can tell us what is wrong and then get laws to back them up

  • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

    Perhaps mayors are less likely to get away with gaming the system, compared to politicians at other levels of government.

    And it may be easier for mayors to call upon experts in problem solving.


    Mayors have always been the innovators. Because local policy
    doesn’t usually neatly break down into simplistic left-right paradigms for the
    shallow talk show host lemmings. They’re about results. And lack of results is
    not vague and distant but felt directly and immediately, thus pressure to get
    actual results is more important than ideological babbling.

  • TFRX

    Which is the biggest municipality to have fallen into the hands of a Teabagger?

    • thequietkid10

      Not sure, but it could be fun to compare those municipalities to Stockton CA, Detroit MI, and Harrisburg PA. Now and in 20 years.

      • TFRX

        Actually, the Teabagger governor of MI had a lot to do with pushing Detroit over the edge. They’re in the hands of a Teabagger appointee already.

        The gov appointed the city manager, a bankruptcy specialist. And what happened next was a surprise! Whocoodanode?

      • StilllHere

        Years of Democrat mayors doomed those cities. City worker unions got fat and the taxpayers got the shaft.

  • PithHelmut

    Yes local! Now states should vet the funding they pay to the federal government with our taxes which should go through a clearinghouse where we decide where our federal spending will be allocated. We can’t leave that up to the madmen in Washington as they have squandered our wealth enough. They have proven incompetent and unaccountable, and there I used euphemisms for this polite company.

  • Yar

    Think globally and act locally.

  • http://onanov.com Donald Baxter

    Read what Jane Jacobs wrote about cities and their ability to self govern. States in the USA unfairly and unreasonably regulate cities which hamstrings their ability to be growing, thriving, and important places. The state legislatures do more to kill cities than any other influence.

  • Billdave

    Politicians tend to be for sale. Local politicians are for sale cheap.
    referring to the mayors of our largest metropolises as “local” groups them with my rural county commissioner and the mayors of places like Athens Georgia, Missoula Montana, and Knoxville Tennessee. Mayors of major cities are national players because they have influence on the national political conversation. Local government on a smaller scale has less scrutiny and is more prone to nepotism, cronyism, and corruption. In my small town, the mayor is a fully owned property of the chamber of commerce, not a representative of all the people.

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