Oklahoma City’s Republican Mayor, Mick Cornett, can stop waiting for Donald Trump to deliver an urban policy briefing—or even to answer his phone. In an alternate universe, the Republican presidential nominee would have courted Cornett, the current president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, along with other GOP mayors in Cleveland, for for a long-overdue conversation about American cities. Cornett has been trying to meet up with the now-official GOP nominee for weeks.
But Cornett is looking for leadership in all the wrong places. The man who could be the next president of the United States hasn’t shown any interest getting in touch with him.
Perhaps that’s why Cornett devoted his brief Monday afternoon convention address to the topic of the “growing force” of Republican mayors. Their numbers are still modest; of the 500 largest cities in the U.S., only about 150 of them—including San Diego, Anaheim, Albuquerque, Jacksonville, and Fort Worth—are run by Republicans. But that didn’t stop Cornett from declaring this week that “Republican mayors are back.”
His eagerness to project enthusiasm is understandable, yet it is long shot indeed to think that Republican mayors will soon wield any more influence in Washington than their Democratic counterparts now do. Confronted as they are by the twin scourges of dwindling federal assistance and congressional Republican intransigence of the Obama years, American cities have learned to shift for themselves. Washington allocated $3 billion for Community Development Block Grants in fiscal 2016, $6 billion less than in fiscal 2015. Funding for the grants that many municipalities rely on to pay for local programs has dropped nearly 50 percent since 2000, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
The street-level challenges of running cities do not mesh neatly with current GOP social and economic orthodoxy. Republican mayors have to be as nimble as their Democratic confrères when it comes to gauging the impacts of local decision-making on issues like police-community relations, homelessness, and even diplomacy. Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait came out against a proposal to give tax breaks to Walt Disney Company for a new hotel (the city council voted them in anyway) and accepted an invitation to discuss police brutality with President Obama at the White House. Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry came up with a plan to provide jobs to homeless people. San Diego Mayor Kevin Falconer held talks recently with Tijuana Mayor Jorge Astiazaran. Suffice it to say that the subject was building new ties, and that new walls were not on the agenda.
But Trump apparently had no interest in a meeting with a Republican-only group of municipal leaders (or even with Cornett, the leader of a city that went for Mitt Romney in 2012 in a state that is bright red.) Earlier this week, Cornett, who has been lauded as a major urban innovator in his own right, tried to signal the group’s intent. “When I get with Republican mayors, we are trying to guess what a Trump presidency would be like,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “The issues that are important to us haven’t been addressed.”
The snub from Trump and his staff in Cleveland should give him a fairly good idea of where Republican mayors and their issues rank. Cornett has not endorsed Trump (therein lies one problem, no doubt; see entries under Cruz, Ted) but is “open” to backing him. But Cornett has also suggested that he might support the Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson. This is the second time that Trump has rebuffed overtures from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The group invited him to attend its annual conference last month; he never responded.
Trump’s motives have been difficult to fathom on many fronts, but his demonization of cities is relatively simple to decode. While Hillary Clinton has laid out a detailed urban program, Trump rails about crime in Chicago and Washington, talks about the new hires he would make to restore law and order, and congratulates himself for getting out of Atlantic City before its financial crisis. How better to seal the deal with his supporters and attract undecideds who live far away from the bright lights of big cities than to stoke their fears that those locales are largely inhabited by lawless black and brown people?
Economic development and public safety are the top two issues for the vast majority of American mayors, according to the National League of Cities 2016 State of the Cities report. But mayors talk about their communities using words like “strong again,” “thriving,” “dynamic,” “poised,” and “full of momentum and pride.” They recognize that gun violence is a key problem and are active strategists, deploying new technologies like police body cameras and putting greater emphasis on traditional tools like community policing to chip away at what is, after all, a uniquely American phenomenon.
Save for a nebulous trillion-dollar infrastructure program, Trump has failed to articulate a set of strategies that could even be cobbled together to resemble an urban agenda for the 21st century. He does serve up Orwellian, bumper-sticker-worthy slogans like “There is no prosperity without law and order.” He doubles down on out-of-context broadsides about crime rates, “roads and bridges falling apart,” and “third-world airports”—problems that will presumably be addressed by “reforms” that he never detailed in his first national address Thursday to the country he aims to lead.
One might be forgiven for thinking that a New York real-estate mogul would have no shortage of ideas on how cities should be run, and what the moving parts like economic development, infrastructure, and policing should look like. Yet Trump has demonstrated little interest in an urban policy of any substance. Republican mayors should stop waiting for their phones to ring and continue to forge ahead down the trails that many of them have already begun to blaze.