Cities in Action

With stagnant state and federal government, it’s up to cities to get stuff done

Neil Heinen

Neil Heinen

With a mayoral election looming in the now foreseeable future, the current discussion of the ability and willingness of U.S. cities to advance policies aimed at reducing income inequality and reversing the racial disparities that plague so many cities, especially Madison, raises serious questions for our city and its leaders.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas B. Edsall wrote in a column in the New York Times a couple of months ago that newly elected and “outspoken” mayors in Pittsburgh, Seattle, Minneapolis, Boston, Santa Fe and New York were “deploying the power of city government” to enact policy changes “that progressives have found themselves unable to enact at the federal and state level.”

Edsall gets that last quote and much of the material for the column from Harold Meyerson, who wrote a piece for The American Prospect called “The Revolt of Cities.” What both of these guys are saying is that American cities, due to their “built-in advantages” of rapidly growing diversity, high-tech centers, “substantial and strong artistic and intellectual communities” and major research universities—sound familiar?—are, among other efforts, “raising minimum wages; initiating or expanding pre-K schooling; extending public transit to poor neighborhoods; and requiring police to videotape contacts with citizens.” These cities, says Meyerson, “may be charting a new course for American liberalism.”

I wish we could avoid label words like “liberalism” and simply focus on the paralysis of American politics and the inability of elected leaders at the state and federal levels to govern. Because the two pieces I’m referencing here seem to raise two very important issues that I believe we in Madison have to confront. The first is how we enhance and grow the qualities that make Madison a healthy and vibrant and desirable place to live in the absence of functional government at the state and federal levels. And the second, if we are successful at the first, is how do we sustain it without exacerbating the very disparities these strategies are designed to address? 

I’ve recently come to believe that we have to accept a dysfunctional, ideologically driven Congress, state government and judiciary as a matter of fact. These institutions reflect a divided nation and a serious and dangerous wealth disparity that will likely take many years to rectify. It’s as useless to complain about it as it is to expect the current crop of political office holders to reform the system themselves. What cities like Pittsburgh and Seattle are doing is going it alone to the greatest extent possible. Madison must explore a similar path. And to some degree it is.

Mayor Paul Soglin acknowledges the advantages city government has, pointing out how majority voting requirements and the existence of the Tea Party impede getting anything accomplished at the state and federal levels. On the other had, says Soglin, cities lack the resources to enact truly major changes at the local level. Perhaps—but I remember former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist’s position that state and federal governments could keep their money in exchange for staying out of the city’s way. That approach has some appeal to me.

The bigger challenge is that of sustainability. Can cities where progressive policies are working to attract innovation, creativity and wealth avoid becoming unaffordable, exclusive and over-regulated? Soglin describes Madison’s approach to these issues as “looking at the world through an equity lens.” It requires every city department, every new proposal, every manager to consider equity as part of the decision making process. Examples include transit availability in new housing developments and the impact of the length of city contracts and probation periods on diverse applicant pools.

Moving forward, our local leaders are going to have to be fluent in these strategies and many like them being employed by successful cities. This is much more than charting a new course for American liberalism: It’s charting a new course for America.

Neil P. Heinen is the editorial director of Madison Magazine. 

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