Blog Post

Tug of War: U.S. Cities Aiming for Change in 2017 Municipal Elections

November 13, 2017
Anne Marie E. Brady
Irene García
5 min read
Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock

By all accounts, some of the results of the municipal elections in the United States on Tuesday were not a total shock. Predictably, the mayors of Detroit, New York City, and Boston won re-election, the mayor of Pittsburgh was officially unopposed in the municipal elections, while the mayor of Flint, Karen Weaver, survived a recall vote with a landslide victory. But there were also some exciting changes to the status quo.

Notably, Charlotte, North Carolina elected Vi Lyles, the city’s first female African American mayor; St. Paul, Minnesota elected its first male African American Mayor, Melvin Carter; while Jenny Durkan was the first female elected Mayor of Seattle. Meanwhile Keisha Lance Brown and Mary Norwood are set for a run-off election for mayor of Atlanta in December and the city of Minneapolis is still counting. All of these victors are Democrats with visions for their city that dramatically depart from the current federal administration and, depending on which state, from its state administration as well. (Though as the example of friction between New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, and Governor Mario Como, also a Democrat, shows, party affiliation is not always a guarantee of easy working relationships between city and state).

Innovation in policymaking and planning appear absent at the federal level.

Innovation in policymaking and planning appear absent at the federal level. So what leverage do mayors have to design, and ultimately deliver on, a progressive agenda at the city level when the federal government still holds crucial purse strings and state governments have the ability to block proposals to increase taxes on city residents?

Bill de Blasio, is the first Democrat to win re-election in 32 years based on his ability to carry out a progressive agenda in the last four years and his promise to continue therewith into the next four. But his ability to deliver on his progressive agenda — expansion of early childhood education from pre-K to pre-3, and an ambitious affordable housing development and preservation plan , to name two programs — depends more on Washington and Albany than on the politics of the five boroughs of New York. Federal budget cuts to social programs, health care and public housing — as proposed by President Trump and the Republican-led Congress — would severely limit his ability to carry through on his ambitious plans by cutting back or eliminating much needed financial resources that would directly impact his promise to accelerate and expand a push to build and preserve affordable housing, for example. And any further reduction to services, health care, education, and housing would only exacerbate social and economic inequality at a time when this is already at a breaking point in New York and other cities across the United States. Thus, cities like New York end up scrambling to plug holes rather than leveraging much needed financial recourses to address needs through innovative policy design and planning. But this is not to suggest that all is lost. On the contrary — but it does make the process a little bit more challenging.

Nothing epitomizes this tug of war reality better than the issue of climate.

Nothing epitomizes this tug of war reality better than the issue of climate. The retreat of leadership from the federal government has not prohibited cities for forging ahead. U.S. cities, including all of the aforementioned, have swiftly asserted their intention to follow through with climate and energy transition pledges, through coalition efforts such as the “We Are Still In” declaration. Even if important regulations designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions, such as the Clean Power Plan, have been dismantled, municipalities still have plenty of ways to cut emissions. They have power to encourage denser urban development, shape infrastructure, invest in public transportation, update building codes and/or setting renewable energy targets.

Take Pittsburgh, for example, where mayor Peduto committed to 100 percent renewable energy during COP21. Or the case of Denver, where voters approved a $937 million bond referendum that will earmark money for projects such as a rapid bus transit, fixing of sidewalks near train stations, and investing in parks and city buildings. With a separate referendum, voters narrowly approved a citizen-led Green Roof Initiative that will require large buildings across the Denver area to dedicate a portion of their roof to solar or vegetation. Seattle proves to be another interesting story, where the newly elected mayor has committed to “leveraging Seattle’s public and private sector initiatives to accelerate their transformation into a model resilient city.” But here too, many experts see cities’ climate actions as not being nearly enough to set the United States on the right track towards deep decarbonization. At least not in the timeframe needed.

The current challenge is such that not only do cities need leadership from the federal government to ensure much needed support in key areas such as technological innovation and renewable energy research, but where the federal government is currently getting involved, its involvement is actually hindering progress at the city-level, such as slowing tough fuel standards or promoting coal, natural gas or nuclear energy.

Thus therein lies the challenge. The municipal elections are inspiring because they indicated a desire by a percentage of the electorate for key investments in social, health, housing and climate. But, we see the limits of those desires run up against the governance framework. Nevertheless the municipal level is the place to start. The key is for cities to not only lead, but instruct in order to foster change for other, smaller U.S. cities and regions.