How To Build A Bold Mayor: First Steps.


The first half of January saw the inauguration of scores of Mayors across the country. If we’re to pivot off of Tod Newcombe’s essay that Andrew Sullivan and co. flagged in September of last year that described cities as an “’important breeding ground for new ideas,’ because they are far more nimble than states or federal the government” – and if the majority of us are going to be living in urban environments come 2050 – then it’s important for us to keep tabs and to highlight which new Mayor is proposing the boldest what.

And though it’s tempting to think that New York City puts itself at the top of the list by default, don’t be so sure. Don’t give them all the garlands just yet. There is – for instance – New Haven, which – due to its relationship with and the presence of Yale, as newly elected mayor Toni Harp told me – is able to strike up unique relationships with companies that build off of the research conducted at the university. Yale has scores of Nobel laureates on staff and has produced more than one President. The aspirations of a City Hall in conjunction with a university like that is no small thing.

And then there is Pittsburgh to consider, where Bill Peduto was sworn in on January 6th. “We are the perfect size for this White House to test programs that it wants to see,” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quotes Peduto as pitching President Obama, “and then to be able to have small successes to make them bigger.”

When I asked Peduto about that – why a city of 300,000-or-so was the perfect size for The White House – he said the city made a good urban lab because it was a city in transition. It’s small enough, he said, but it has some 800,000 people in its borders every day, due – in part – to the 36 municipalities it shares borders or interacts with. Also – there are some 10,000 “little Pittsburghers” in the city, and half of them are in a range which would make them eligible for early pre-K, 5,000 being a round, easy number to work with, and what’s more, he told President Obama that they weren’t “looking for him to sign a check,” and that the city would raise the funds itself.

Minneapolis saw the swearing in of Betsy Hodges, who – like de Blasio in New York, Peduto in Pittsburgh, and Walsh in Boston – is passionate about early education, as a quality editorial in The Minneapolis Star Tribune notes. (Study after study says that early education eases economic stress on parents and investing in teaching kids early produces huge returns down the line.) The city is also – as Peduto told me in our phone call – something akin to being ‘the model to beat,’ as “their regional revenue-sharing model for fractional government” – one of which is the “Fiscal Disparities” program, the other being the MSP program – is seen by him as relevant to Pittsburgh’s motley assemblage of municipalities.

When I asked Mayor Hodges – who was both keen and funny about embracing the idea of ‘boldness’ – about the ‘Fiscal Disparities’ program and what that enabled Minneapolis to do that other cities couldn’t – was it the reason why she was able to advocate for targeted development as she did in her inaugural, given that the program lowers homestead taxes, reduces property tax base inequality in the region by 20%, produced more ‘net gainers’ in the pool than ‘net losers’ by a 2-to-1 margin, and provided insurance against future changes in growth patterns (the city saw 3,552 building permits issued last year worth some 1.2 billion dollars, putting them on a faster track towards recovery than most of the rest of the country) – she acknowledged that the program did enable the region as a whole to prosper.

But that wasn’t the only thing on her plate: “Tonight we’re having the annual Mayoral showing of Die Hard, because I love that movie,”  she said when reached by phone, which followed a week of visiting low-wage earners and pledging to push for a higher minimum wage, reading to children at libraries, talking with students at the University of Minnesota about their concerns regarding crime, attending the inauguration of the mayor of St. Paul, and issuing a ‘Winter Biking Day’ proclamation that – besides promising to increase the size of bike mode shares (Minneapolis has the second highest percentage of people biking to work in the country, second only to Portland) – alleged that “Minneapolis’ Winter Bicyclists, like Minnesotans in general, are more resilient, more hearty, more ‘Die Hard’ gritty, just plain tougher and much better looking the bicyclists from all those wimpier cities.”

Perhaps one of the biggest, most multi-faceted problems facing Minneapolis is its racial inequality. And though there have been improvements in the performance of schools that receive Title I funding, the graduation rates for African-Americans and Hispanics are about 40% lower than that of their white counterparts, and though homicide rates are much lower now in the city than they were in the 90’s, African-American males are twelve times more likely to be killed by a gun in Minneapolis than white males. They’re three times more likely to drown. And even though the YMCA in the Twin Cities region has been working to address the latter, and even though investments in early education would – in an ideal world – lead to an integrated, healthy middle class a la Vallejo, California (or elsewhere), I was curious about whether or not anything could be done on a citywide level to deal with state-mandated hiring restrictions to help people who needed help now.

Regarding that, Hodges said, “It’s a partnership with the state. I think that if the Recession taught us anything, it’s that no government can do it alone.” In terms of creating a more efficient hiring process, she said that part of that “comes with knowing who your partners are and who you’re working with.”

And you can figure that out in various ways: one thing that took me by surprise during the course of our conversation was that while she was looking at various examples of “creative placemaking” done by various artists in the city (and speaking of arts – she also spoke of attending a night of improv comedy and serving as the person who delivered the monologues that inspired the various scenes that followed, and it made me wonder what would happen if Bill De Blasio or Eric Garcetti dropped by UCB or the Groundlings), she came across someone who “put together a wagon that he hauled around with his bike – and he created these Zines with a whole bunch of questions for people about their city – and people filled out these Zines, and I think they got 900 or 1,000, and we took the data and put it in a format that the planning department could use.” I told her that that struck me as something like a very surprising 311. “We have that, too,” she said.

“We’ve” – and by ‘We,’ she meant Minneapolis – “been described as militantly modest about how great we are, but recruiters will tell you that when people come here, they want to stay here.” And that’s part of how you grow a city, she said. With a current population hovering a little under 400,000, Hodges wants the city to grow some 100,000 more, which you do by “building a city that people choose to come to,” which struck me when I thought of and compared it to Richard Florida’s article from last year on how cities grow in my mind. You do it by building up transportation, she continued. “Investors are confident that rails will be there in a generation” in a way that other forms of transportation won’t. “Everyone lives within six blocks of a park.” It’s a great city, she said, and – as she spoke – I began to understand why one of the first things she hung up in her office was a framed copy of the first edition of Ms. Magazine with Wonder Woman on its cover bearing the note, “To Betsy, From Gloria Steinem.” Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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