Would limiting big money in city mayoral races help address low turnout?

An article at Citylab details efforts by some large American cities to limit big money in local mayoral races:

Several localities—including Portland, Denver, and Baltimore—have initiatives in motion to overhaul the system either by driving down the dollar amounts each person can give or solicit, piloting public financing projects that make each donated dollar go further, or both. The overarching goal is to keep big money and its influence out of local politics, and to give all candidates a fair shot.

In Denver, voters will decide on an expansive reform package, including a contribution cap and a generous matching fund. Baltimore’s city council has unanimously passed a charter amendment that would create a similar small-dollar matching system, if Mayor Catherine Pugh approves it and passes it along to the fall ballot. And before Portland, Oregon, phases in its own public financing measure in 2020, voters will decide on a strict local contribution cap this November…

Large political donors recognize that local races have national implications, and are willing to fund mayoral or city council candidates to build party power strategically. “At the state and local level, races historically have been far less expensive than federal races,” said Joanna Zdanys, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. But that also means, she says, “given the low cost of state and local races, a big expenditure by a deep-pocketed, special-interest spender has the potential to really overwhelm a candidate.”

And potential city leaders, in turn, are hiring national media consultants who recommend large budgets and high spending. Local campaigns have become more professional, with sleek campaign mailers and digital or TV ad spots.

I wonder how this goal of making mayoral races more open fits with limited turnout for local elections in many American communities.

The 2015 mayoral election in Denver had a total of 94,525 votes cast. The total population is near 700,000.

The 2016 mayoral election in Portland had a total of 193,083 votes cast. The total population is over 600,000.

The 2016 mayoral election in Baltimore had a total of 222,593 votes cast. In contrast, the 2011 mayoral election had a total of 46,223 votes cast. The total population is over 610,000.

Does big money suppress voter turnout? I could see how a case would be made for this: the introduction of big money behind one candidate makes it appear as if the outcome is a slam dunk.

Or, is the issue of voter turnout one that will continue to linger even if money is more evenly distributed across candidates? For a variety of reasons, many municipal officials are elected to office with a relatively low level of support from all of the voter-eligible citizens. Considering the influence big-city mayors can have, this seems strange, particularly since Americans tend to favor local government.

Living in, working in, and guiding Naperville for over 70 years

Long-time Naperville mayor George Pradel’s work in the suburb spanned tremendous change in the suburb:

When Naperville was a mid-sized suburb, beginning to outgrow its small-town roots but maintaining a family-friendly feel, Pradel was a police officer. He joined the force in 1966 and made his top priority children, teaching them to stay safe and letting them know someone was watching out for them. His actions made him Officer Friendly before he even took on the title as his nickname.

When Naperville was a growing city, expanding as developers turned farm fields into sprawling subdivisions, Pradel was a mayor. An unlikely mayor at that — the faithful, cheerful cop never intended to take on the role…

He became mayor because a handful of residents asked him to seek the seat, and Pradel never did master the art of tactfully saying “no.” With only a concession speech prepared, he won his first election in 1995, defeating a two-term city council member who worked in human resources for DuPage County. The newly minted mayor took office that spring. His hometown pride never ceased.

Born in Hyde Park on Sept. 5, 1937, as one of six children, Pradel was 2 when his family moved to a small house on Van Buren Avenue in Naperville. He always called it home.

When Pradel’s family first moved to Naperville in 1939, the community had just over 5,000 residents. When he joined the police force in 1966, the population was still short of 20,000. As a new mayor, the population was around 100,000. When his mayoral tenure ended, the city had over 142,000 residents. This is tremendous population change over one lifetime.

I wonder if a vocal and enthusiastic figure like Pradel helped ease the transition from small town to large suburb. Significant growth can change how residents feel about the community and their neighbors. Who are these newcomers? Do we have to build so many new schools? Where are all the locally-owned businesses? Why is the traffic so bad as I try to get across town? Naperville still tries to claim to be a small-town at heart and having a central popular figure to focus on could help.

How much influence mayors have in sizable communities is difficult to pin down exactly. Pradel will certainly be remembered for the length of his service as well as his efforts to boost the community. Might someone of a different temperament accomplished other things? Was Naperville already well on its way to what it is today when Pradel took office? How much did spending his formative years in the small town affect his later efforts? Regardless of the answers, it is hard to imagine there are many small children in Naperville today who will stay in the community for just as long or many who will see such change as Pradel witnessed.

Leaders of global cities coalesce around common interests

This doesn’t have to be framed as Trump versus big cities to be interesting: leaders of global cities have common perceptions about the world.

That was the important message of the visit by Khan, who arrived in New York after an earlier stop in Chicago. Like his hosts, Democratic mayors Bill de Blasio in New York and Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, Khan forcefully insists that integration, inclusion and openness to the world offer the best chance both to defuse terror and maximize economic growth.

That perspective shared by the mayors of almost all large U.S. cities and many others in Europe views immigrants as a source of economic and cultural vitality, trade as an engine of prosperity, and integration of Muslim communities as the central defense against radicalization and terror. “We play straight into the hands of the extremists and terrorists when we [say]…it’s not possible to hold Western values and to be a Muslim,” Khan wrote last week in the Chicago Tribune. “It makes it easier for terrorists to radicalize young people. And it makes us all less safe…”…

Adjusting for national differences, the mayors of global cities are largely coalescing around agendas antithetical to the Trump vision. “There are 50 cities, maybe 100, that are the intellectual, cultural and economic engine of the world,” Emanuel said in an interview shortly after Khan left Chicago. “We are all working on the same things because we face similar opportunities. We have to make our cities competitive. The jobs and companies we talk about are not only global but mobile.”

This modern urban agenda revolves around investment in infrastructure and education (ranging from expanded pre-school to tuition-free post-secondary education); welcoming immigrants; support for small business and information-age technology start-ups; promoting more dense development (Khan toured Chicago’s impressive riverfront development as a possible model for the Thames); embracing renewable energy as both an economic engine and environmental imperative; and with only a few exceptions (like deBlasio) supporting more international trade. The common theme, Emanuel says, is to create a “platform for private sector growth” while advancing equity and inclusion.

This could be used as evidence for limiting or eliminating the nation state, at least for the most powerful cities of the world. If anything, nations might hold them back from doing what they really need to do. Similar arguments have been made recently about states enacting new laws that supersede regulations from cities. See an overview here.

For the sake of public argument, it would be helpful to see the positive argument made for why cities need or benefit from states and countries. Outside of helping to balance budgets, what would Rahm Emanuel say is the benefit for Chicago of being part of Illinois as opposed to operating as an independent entity? Or, could Khan explain why London is a better place because of being in England and the United Kingdom?

Do you want your big city mayor to have no experience with corruption?

Many big city residents may want mayors who stay away from corruption but what if that means the mayor is less effective at getting things down and fighting corruption?

Today, Mr. Marino finds himself under political siege in the city he vowed to save from itself. Italy’s news media lampoons him as an honest man in over his head, or as one newspaper called him, a Forrest Gump.

“His virtue is also his main problem: He is not connected to all the rotten Roman relationships,” said Carlo Bonini, an investigative journalist with La Repubblica, a daily newspaper. “He knows the world he operates in too little.”…

Perhaps most damning for the mayor has been the slow-bleeding “Mafia Capitale” investigation, which has exposed tainted bidding for city contracts on a number of services, including refugee centers and sanitation. Even for a country more than accustomed to such scandal, the revelations have come as a shock…

While the corruption revealed by the scandal predated Mr. Marino’s arrival in office, the mayor has been criticized as responding slowly and indecisively. “He has always been a step behind,” Mr. Bonini of La Repubblica said…

The corruption investigation of park maintenance contractors led the mayor to suspend their work, leaving public spaces overgrown. His order to stop sidewalk vendors from peddling near historical sites prompted protests from merchants.

Perhaps this is a situation where you would prefer to be the mayor after the crusading reformer has vigorously taken on corruption. Two other quick thoughts:

1. How much can a mayor do on his/her own to fight corruption? If other governmental bodies are not working with the mayor, it would be difficult to get much done.

2. Cleaning up corruption is a difficult task. Moving too quickly may lead to disruptions. Moving too slowly irritates residents.

Obama bypasses Congress and talks to mayors about economic policies

President Obama talked to big city mayors yesterday in efforts to work outside of Congress:

White House aides say the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting was an ideal opportunity to press the president’s agenda with a more sympathetic audience. White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters before the speech that it was a chance to move “forward on priorities helping the middle class despite inaction in Congress.”

The president urged mayors to raise the minimum wage, guarantee paid sick leave, and expand childcare and pre-kindergarten education — all issues with little traction among congressional Republicans…

Since Obama called for an increase to the minimum wage in 2013, 17 states and the District of Columbia have passed raises. Large retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc, IKEA, and Gap Inc. have also pledged to increase the lowest hourly wage for their employees.

This could be viewed as a political ploy to shame Congress or subvert the typical process by which Washington works. In contrast, Obama’s strategy works with one of the standard lines about big-city mayors: they can’t be as partisan as legislators or those in the executive branch because they have to attend to more practical details on a regular basis. In other words, they have to make sure their cities work and can’t afford to get bogged down in ideological standoffs. (Interestingly, I heard this again recently at a conference in Chicago and there was some open laughter.)

That said, economic issues would certainly matter to many mayors as they need jobs for citizens as well as the economic benefits that come with jobs and economic growth (increased population, more tax revenues, increased prestige, etc.). Of course, there is disagreement about how to best do this. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel presents some of these contrasts. Is he pro-Walmart? He certainly seems to like attracting big corporations and tech start-ups. Is he truly interested in economic development in poorer neighborhoods? How much influence do wealthy businesspeople have in Chicago? He was behind raising the minimum wage in Chicago. Can he be considered non-partisan?

Whether Congress acts or not, cities and metropolitan regions are large economic engines and their leaders do have some latitude in policies that could encourage or discourage economic growth.

New Naperville mayor/era approved by 10% of Naperville adults

Naperville just had an election for the successor to long-time mayor George Pradel but the winning candidate did not receive support from much of the community:

 

NapervilleMayorResults

According to the Census, Naperville has over 144,000 residents, of which over 71% are 18 or over. That gives roughly 102,000 potential voters. Yet, under 18,000 people voted for mayor. This is less than a fifth of the adults. The winning candidate, local business owner Steve Chirico, won with 60.5% of the vote. But, those who voted for him only made up a little more than a tenth of the adults in the suburb.

Turnout is a big issue in many elections, particularly local elections that are held separately from major national or statewide races. Theoretically, this frees up more attention for local candidates. Yet, for a suburb like Naperville that has a high quality of life and often claims that it has a strong community spirit, the election that was said by some to be about a new era is really more of a whimper than a resounding suggestion about what direction Naperville is headed.

Mayors leading the charge for tackling infrastructure issues

Who is tackling big infrastructure projects these days?

Governors have long been among the nation’s loudest advocates for pouring concrete. Interstate highways? New bridges? Major development projects? They love it. When a huge pot of federal money opened up as part of the 2009 stimulus package, states were eager to get their share of the cash and push it toward pet projects, shovel-ready or not.

And that’s what makes it interesting to see mayors taking the lead on transportation spending. At an event Monday in Boston, the U.S. Conference of Mayors launched what it says will be the largest coordinated campaign by mayors in some time, pushing Congress to reauthorize the surface-transportation bill and to increase funding for local and state infrastructure projects…

All of that combines to create a situation in which mayors, rather than governors, can take over the dominant role in pushing for transportation spending. Of course, mayors have plenty of concerns of their own, especially in big cities. Major bridges like the one that collapsed in Minnesota in 2007 worry them, as do crumbling urban highway interchanges and failing subway systems. Here in D.C., a major parkway was snarled for much of Tuesday after crumbling masonry fell off a bridge into the roadway. Some of the mayors who are most involved in pushing for more infrastructure money are Democratic mayors in Republican-led states—like Kasim Reed of Atlanta.

The article suggests this is primarily a political Republican vs. Democrat question with Democratic mayors pushing for things that Republicans at the national level don’t support. But, I think this ignores another factor: these mayors are at the level of government that is closest to some of these issues. For them, infrastructure is not an abstract concept but rather more often about specific projects that can enhance life in their city. It is the difference between saying “America’s bridges are in trouble” versus “Boston needs an underground highway in order to free up land, improve traffic, and reduce pollution.” And Americans tend to like local government as they see it as more responsive to immediate needs. Governors can lobby for particular projects but they also have to keep in mind the concerns of multiple actors, which might even up pitting cities against each other for limited funds (i.e., is LA or San Francisco more worthy of a major transportation project). Mayors like the applicable projects that they can point to as real change. (An odd thought to throw in here: dictators often like to memorialize themselves with large-scale planning efforts that will outlive them. When municipal power is concentrated in the hands of a single figure, such as a powerful mayor, is a similar process at work?)

While the mayors may be closer to the infrastructure issues, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can get things done. What kind of clout do mayors have when there are other layers (like governors) to contend with?