Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Smart Politicians Pay Attention To Cities

Surely, it’s about time to have a presidential campaign that’s about cities.

So far, cities have been just short of pariahs in the endless debates that have regularly punctuated the party primaries. Candidates were asked all manner of esoterica, but routinely overlooked were questions about the residential centers and economic engines that are our cities.

Perhaps, that’s because, as our colleague Carol Coletta points out, if you put the word, urban, in front of any problem, and it becomes even worse – urban crime is worse than crime, urban congestion is worse than congestion, urban poverty is worse than poverty, urban education is worse than education and urban hopelessness is worse than hopelessness.

Third Rail Politics

So, cities are often treated as the third rail for candidates – a good place to visit in the campaign but you wouldn’t want your campaign to live there. There’s just too much baggage attached to cities, it is thought, and the problems are just too complex and any way, there just aren’t any easy answers and short-term solutions.

As part of her always provocative work at CEOs for Cities, Carol recently made a persuasive case that candidates – starting with this year’s presidential ones – need to reconsider the attention that they give to cities’ issues.

That’s because she’s recently released polling that convincingly shows that the vast majority of political contributors are strongly supportive of cities and their place in the U.S. economy.


The logic seems fundamental.

After all, cities are where you find 80 percent of the nation’s employment, more than 80 percent of the national GNP and 86 percent of tax revenues.

As Carol has said: “These old attitudes only hold us back. There is so much good and vital and positive about cities and so much potential for even more progress if we as a nation recognize and build on the assets we have in our cities. It’s time for a new urban agenda that embraces the role of cities as the centers of America’s global prosperity.”

The avoidance in the political system is a commentary on how badly cities were stigmatized decades ago – particularly during the turbulence of the 1960’s - and how slowly any improvement in their reputation has been. Now’s the time.

Money Talks

The survey by Lake Research Partners – the well-known national political research firm - found that political donors, including urban, suburban and rural residents, overwhelmingly view cities as solutions to some of the U.S. most vexing problems.

In fact, 72 percent believe that there is not a strong country without strong cities and they fully understand clearly the strong connection between the economy of countries and cities.

Interestingly (not to mention encouragingly), non-urban donors were just as likely to think America cannot complete in the global economy without strong cities.

As for the relationship between urban and suburban economies, 85 per cent of the public says that their economies are closely and somewhat connected.

Defying Predictions

A key message to political candidates: political donors favor increased investment in cities, and despite all conventional wisdom to the contrary, donors that don’t live in cities are even more supportive than city-dwellers toward the investments.

Key messages that politicians can use to their advantage are these: we cannot allow America’s cities to deteriorate (83% agree); America cannot be strong if we do not have strong cities (72%); and America cannot be competitive in a global economy if we do not have dynamic cities (61%). Overall, Republican support is generally about 13-17% less than Democrats.

Donors also see cities as places for solutions and hope – from jobs to education to fighting poverty. Again, donors living outside cities were even more positive than donors in cities about cities’ access to jobs, access to education, innovation to stay competitive, combating poverty, keeping America globally competitive, reducing gasoline consumption, expanding prosperity for all and immigration.

Milk And Honey

The result suggest that despite the frequent lack of political interest in cities, people still see cities as special places of opportunities and economic prosperity.

All in all, it was eye-opening polling and powerful insight into the motivations of political donors whose cash oils the campaign process. Now, if only we can get a reporter at the presidential debates to ask the questions that matter to many of us – those about our cities.

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