Staying close to constituents and at the same time forging regional partnerships are the keys to solving many of the problems confronting American cities. That message emerged in an hour-long discussion that convened mayors from Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Iowa City. The event, Cities on the front line: Urban approaches to national issues, was sponsored by the Big Ten Collaboration: Democracy in the 21st Century, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP), the U-M Democracy & Debate, and a continuation of the Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning’s annual mayoral series. Partners in the Big Ten were the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, Chicago, the Paul H. O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, the School of Planning and Public affairs at the University of Iowa.
The crucial challenges they addressed included public safety, effects of climate change, rebuilding infrastructure, affordable housing, building an equitable justice system, and strengthening democracy.
Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot (U-M BA ‘84) opened by addressing public safety. While Chicago has been in the headlines for a surge in gun-related violence, she said, “Guns are pouring over the border from Indiana, from Wisconsin and other states that definitely have a different sensibility and different laws regarding the sale of guns, purchasing and enforcement. You've got to play both the short and a long game. The short term means you've got to hold violent, dangerous people accountable; and you've got to look at the root causes of the violence. And in a city like Chicago, I'm convinced that a big part of our challenges really revolves around poverty.“
She said efforts to build a resilient public safety ecosystem involved the police and law enforcement, prosecutors and the courts. And in Chicago each entity needs to work together more effectively across the city, county and state government. But she warned that if public perception was that violence was pervasive, the problem was even harder to address.
Cincinnati mayor Aftab Pureval agreed that guns were the driver of violence. “Instead of our state legislatures providing legislation to prevent that or to get to that, they have armed teachers in our schools, passed stand your ground, and now have gotten rid of licensing for concealed carry which is putting more guns on our streets. So unfortunately, there is a policy disagreement at the levels of government and mayors,” he said.
The second cause was “the inability to resolve differences peacefully,” which requires deep community engagement.
Local and communal efforts are also needed when looking at climate resilience, according to Bruce Teague, mayor of Iowa City. “We're talking about houses and how we can better insulate and make sure that they are able to financially afford some climate action activities within homes. The other thing is creating inviting, fun and exciting public spaces like parks and trails to make sure that people want to come to our city, and just making sure that we have long-term goals. So making sure that there's bike trails and any other type of mobility that is easily accessible to people, and making sure that it's a part of the city planning efforts.”
A failing bridge doesn't know where the city limits are, or for that matter, where the state limits are, and it doesn't know the political party or the party of its local elected officials.Mayor Aftab Pureval
Mike Duggan, Detroit mayor and also a U-M alum (BA ‘80, JD ‘83), said mobility is the key to that city’s current appeal. “We're not having a lot of trouble getting young people to be here, there is more construction going on in Detroit than there's been in 50 years. So in our case, I think it's the mobility industry that's attracting them,” he said.
“A failing bridge doesn't know where the city limits are, or for that matter, where the state limits are, and it doesn't know the political party or the party of its local elected officials. It's simply failing and residents on both sides of the river have felt the effects of closure, of congestion and a national negative impact, frankly, on supply chain issues due to this bridge acting as a bottleneck between two states, Ohio and Kentucky,” requiring regional action on infrastructure, Pureval said.
From the beginning of my administration, we have really focused on regionalism. You build those relationships when you don't need them, so that when you do need them, you can draw on them.Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Lightfoot agreed. “From the beginning of my administration, we have really focused on regionalism and particularly around infrastructure, transportation, water, which is a big issue for us in this region. You build those relationships when you don't need them, so that when you do need them, you can draw on them. We have to have regional partnerships to be able to address these issues.”
Moderator Paul Helmke, director of the Civic Leaders Center at Indiana University’s O’Neill School and former mayor of Fort Wayne, cited a recent report by the CLOSUP that found 53% of local government officials in Michigan said their own government personnel had faced harassment or abuse from members of the public in the last few years. Was that emblematic of problems with democracy in general?
We really do need people to raise their hand up and say, 'hey, I wanna be a part of speaking on behalf of constituents in this community and represent.'Mayor Bruce Teague
Teague responded, “One of the biggest concerns that I do have is: what will this mean for a future pool of elected officials? Many people that I talk to, they actually want no parts of an elected role because of what they've observed as a lack of civil discord and personal attacks that elected officials have faced. And so I do believe that we need to try to reverse this trend because we really do need people to raise their hand up and say, hey, I wanna be a part of speaking on behalf of constituents in this community and represent and we have a lot of great candidates that just won't raise their hand right now.”
“Detroit was at ground zero,” Duggan said. “Election Night in 2020, when Donald Trump sent people from outside the city down to the counting center. In 2016, Trump won Michigan by 10.000 votes. In 2020, he lost it by 150,000 votes. So President Biden did 160,000 votes better, 2,000 votes better out of Detroit, 158,000 votes better out of the surrounding suburbs. It was a very cynical attempt to stoke racial prejudice saying, you can't trust the vote count in Detroit. And we were very proud here after three independent audits and four lawsuits that the City of Detroit ballot counting was found to be very close to perfect, and thrown out. So I think there's a lot of pride here.”
Pureval blamed gerrymandering and the outsize influence of money in politics. “Until we get meaningful reforms on both of those fronts, our democracy will continue to stumble along.”
Concluding the discussion, Helmke said, “The lesson from these mayors, from this discussion, is that all of us need to get more involved, we need more people getting involved, more people voting, more people showing up, and more people learning about what's really happening. And I think if we do that, I think our democracy can be in good shape, and if we don't do that, then we do have concerns going forward.”