Ryan McDonald

Hermosa and Manhattan mayors visit divided D.C. Can cities show Washington how to function?

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Hermosa Beach Mayor Mary Campbell and Manhattan Beach Mayor Nancy Hersman with a bust of President Abraham Lincoln. The two South Bay mayors recently attended the 88th Winter Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy Mary Campbell

by Ryan McDonald

Opening statements from House managers in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump began Jan. 22. On Jan. 23, Rep. Adam Schiff, the Burbank Democrat who became the most forceful and eloquent voice urging the president’s removal from office, spoke briefly before ceding the floor to fellow impeachment manager Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York.

Nadler, who the day before had outraged Senate Republicans by accusing them of complicity in a “cover-up” to protect the president, told the assembled lawmakers that “Impeachment is the Constitution’s final answer for a president who mistakes himself for a king.” In a trial at which witnesses were not permitted, Democrats relied on videos of previous testimony and speeches. Nadler dug into the archives to find old footage of Sen. Lindsay Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has become one of Trump’s most vigorous defenders. In the Trump trial, Graham and other Republicans insisted that the articles of impeachment were fatally defective, because they had not included an allegation that Trump violated a federal criminal statute, and thus fell short of the Constitution’s requirement of a “high crime” or “misdemeanor.” Nadler presented a video of Graham, speaking during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton more than two decades earlier, offering a very different theory.

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“When you start using your office and you’re acting in a way that hurts people, you’ve committed a high crime,” Graham said in the clip.

While the senators, deprived of their phones and forced to subsist on water and milk, stewed and fidgeted in their undersized, antique wooden desks, spectators looked on at the Senate floor from the gallery above. Among them were Hermosa Beach Mayor Mary Campbell, and Manhattan Beach Mayor Nancy Hersman.

Hundreds of mayors visited the nation’s capital late last month for the 88th Winter Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The trip offered plenty of opportunities to see the bitter divide in the nation’s capital. (The Senate voted to acquit Trump last week; Utah Sen. Mitt Romney was the only Republican to support removing the president from office.) But it was also a welcome reminder that, even as federal progress on key policy issues grinds to an election-year crawl, city halls across the country are attempting to tackle issues without the rancor of partisanship.

“That was the one thing I really came away with: all of these little nuggets, really seeing that kind of unity of purpose,” Hersman said. “It was not partisan at all. You didn’t feel any kind of partisanship. You had no idea if a mayor was a Republican, a Democrat or an independent.”

The conference, Campbell said, introduced her to mayors in cities across the country, and exposed her to the shared challenges Hermosa and other cities face, as well as some possible solutions.

“I was impressed by so many of them,” Campbell said of the mayors she met at the conference. “Honestly, I was just really impressed with the level of dialogue across our aisles, if you will. We come into governing a local municipality as a non-partisan position,” Campbell said.

The impression offered by Campbell and Hersman hews closely to the narrative the U.S. Conference of Mayors has sought to communicate.  The gathering was one of two the organization holds each year, one in the nation’s capital and the other in a changing location, intended to give mayors the chance to interact, and provide input the organization will use to advocate for municipalities. Bryan K. Barnett, mayor of Rochester Hills, Mich. and the president of the conference of mayors, said that cities have needs that do not fit neatly into party boundaries.

“While it is no secret that national politics have become crippled by partisanship, mayors know it’s still possible to look past party affiliation and work together on key agreed-upon issues affecting our cities,” Barnett in a statement. “The reality is we have much in common, and there is no shortage of areas where the priorities of local and federal governments overlap — particularly infrastructure, public safety, reducing homelessness, addressing the opioid crisis and the 2020 census.”

And yet the specter of division is tough to ignore, a smudge on the filter-free view that local government is supposed to possess. How, for example, to address climate change, which Campbell and Hersman identified as perhaps the dominant issue at the mayors’ conference, in a nonpartisan fashion, when the leader of one of the country’s two dominant political parties has deemed it “a hoax”?

In one of the keynote panels, Sharon Weston Broome, mayor of Baton Rouge, La., described a torrential rainstorm that hit her town. The days-long downpour flooded her house and forced her to move out for more than 18 months. The point of the panel at which she spoke was that, in a century likely to be defined by rising seas and increasingly intense storms, preparing for climate change will come to be considered as fundamental to the responsibilities of local government as putting out fires and paving streets.

“We can no longer think myopically. When you live in a community where water is a way of life, you have to think about water management in everything you do,” Broome said.

Though Broome was speaking about a city more than 2,000 miles away from the South Bay, for Campbell and Hersman, her comments must have sounded as familiar as waves crashing on the beach.

The great cement

 

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg (center) with Thomas Cohran, executive director and CEO of The U.S. Conference of Mayors (left) and Bryan K. Barnett, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Photo by Nancy Hersman

In the 2018 book “The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized,” political scientist Daniel J. Hopkins reports that the percentage of citizens who are able to name the governor of their state has declined precipitously over the last half-century, and that participation rates for local elections have plunged far faster than those in national ones. The result is a country in which people are more familiar with what is happening in Washington than with what is happening down the block. It is also a country in which local government, despite most offices being nonpartisan, is often viewed through the prism of national politics and party preference.

Hopkins argues this focus on national issues at the expense of local ones is an “underappreciated” cause of the polarization now gripping the federal government. “When voters are national in orientation, legislators have little incentive to bargain for benefits targeted to their constituents,” he writes, which makes assembling a coalition more difficult. The strange bedfellows politics once made have been replaced by the same tired face one sees nightly before turning off the lights.

This state of affairs would be unrecognizable to the people who signed the Constitution. In Federalist No. 17, Alexander Hamilton wrote that it was unreasonable to fear the strength of the central government, because people’s allegiance would naturally be shaped by the states and cities in which they lived. Hamilton’s argument is about power, and also about what people pay attention to. Local government, “being the immediate and visible guardian of life and property, having its benefits and its terrors in constant activity before the public eye” would form the “great cement of society,” and would give its officials “so decided an empire over their respective citizens as to render them at all times a complete counterpoise” to the actions of the federal government.

There’s no need, however, to go back to the Founding Fathers to see how much things have changed. Hersman lived in D.C. in the ‘70s while working as a staffer for a Congressional committee. (She also lived there again for several years in the ‘80s, after she finished law school.) She worked on issues related to civil servants, and remembers the phone in her office “ringing off the hook” at the time of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties of 1977, in which the United States surrendered control of the Panama Canal to Panama. But she was struck during her recent visit by the way partisanship had overshadowed the friendliness that had characterized her previous time there. 

“Well, it just was very different. Tip O’Neill was Speaker [of the House] then,” Hersman said, referring to the Massachusetts congressman famous for coining the adage “All politics is local.” “It was so much less partisan. They worked together. I remember going to conference committees after a bill had passed the Senate, and the members of the house would work out deals. People got along.”

It’s unlikely that the inability of citizens to name their county supervisor is to blame for all the modern nastiness. Polarization has ebbed and flowed over the scope of U.S. history, and it was unusually low in the roughly 30-year period that concluded where Hopkins began his study. (Several political scientists have found that the factor most strongly correlated with eras of polarization is high income inequality.) It’s harder to dispute, though, that the federal government is now experiencing historic levels of divisiveness. In 2016, an analysis of nearly 15 million votes in the Senate and House concluded that Congress was more polarized than at any time since Abraham Lincoln was in the Oval Office.

The three or so years since have not exactly brimmed with come-together spirit, and mayors at the conference seemed resigned to ongoing inaction from the federal government. Campbell attended a speech by Lori Lightfoot, the recently elected Chicago mayor whom Campbell described as a “powerhouse,” on addressing gun violence at a time when a solution emerging from the nation’s capital look unlikely.

“Unfortunately, Washington has largely abandoned the mantle of leadership on most of the pressing issues impacting Americans we represent,” Lightfoot said.

Because guns so frequently cross state borders, and because firearm laws vary so much from state to state, cities have long sought national rules on sales and background checks. In their absence, mayors have had to work around the margins. In Chicago, that has meant addressing gun violence as a public health issue, assigning clinicians to associates of victims in order to discourage retaliatory shootings, and targeting economic development initiatives in affected neighborhoods. After a surge in gun deaths at the beginning of the last decade — around the time the U.S. Supreme Court deemed Chicago’s once-strict local handgun laws unconstitutional — rates of homicide and other violent crimes have dropped in Chicago for four straight years.

Cities have been able to take more direct action on climate change. Following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, many cities, including Manhattan Beach, pledged to meet the treaty’s environmental mandates on their own. A survey conducted by the conference found that adding electric vehicles to the municipal fleet, a practice occasionally lampooned by Hermosa residents, is done by 60 percent of cities nationally, and that an additional 26 percent have plans to purchase one soon.

“It was pretty loud and clear that everybody needs to be moving toward energy efficiency and long-term sustainability,” Campbell said.

On the day they left, Campbell, Hersman and other mayors took a tour of the White House, where they heard presentations from senior staff, then a speech from Trump himself; both said the speech consisted mainly of generous descriptions of his accomplishments. Hersman said it was not until several days later, when someone emailed her a link to a news story, that she realized the group had been included in a White House photo of a bill signing ceremony. The bill later proved to be unobjectionable — it increased funding to help religious organizations guard against terrorist attacks — but, in a sign of the fraught associations the current administration carries, she felt deceived. 

“He was signing legislation, but we weren’t told that, and I wasn’t sure I was okay with it,” Hersman said. 

Back at the conference, not long after Lightfoot spoke, Pete Buttigieg took the stage. Buttigieg, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, had recently finished his second term as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He described the assembled mayors as “that rare body of high-profile elected officials, from all states and both parties, who concentrate on getting things done, and actually like each other.” Speaking less than two weeks before his narrow victory in the Iowa caucus, Buttigieg attributed the momentum of his campaign, which began with few resources and little name recognition, to the universal appeal of local government.

“What we did have was this idea that Washington would start to look a bit more like our best run cities and towns, before the reverse started to happen,” he said.

Then, starting to sound more like a candidate and less like a panelist, he criticized the president, and explained why he was best suited to take Trump’s place.

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