City Journal editor Brian Anderson and senior editor Steve Malanga discuss the GOP’s new generation of pragmatic, problem-solving mayors that have helped turn around some of America’s struggling cities.
From Steve Malanga's piece for the Autumn 2016 Issue of City Journal, "City Hall GOP."
Brian Anderson: After an era of reform conservatives having great success during the 1990s as mayors of major American cities like New York and Los Angeles, the GOP has had less success of late. Prior to the November 2016 election, 27 of the 100 largest American cities had Republican mayors. Of the top ten U.S. cities in population, only San Diego currently has a Republican mayor. But where they have managed to be winning urban elections, Republicans have helped turn struggling cities around. Joining us to talk about the GOP and the mayor's office is Steven Malanga. Steve is City Journal's senior editor, the George M. Yeager Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and his recent piece "City Hall GOP" is featured in City Journal's brand new Autumn 2016 issue that can be found online at www.city-journal.org. Steve, welcome as always.
Steven Malanga: Thank you.
Brian Anderson: Now, cities are often thought of as Democratic territory these days. How hard is it for Republicans to get elected in these kind of blue environments? Do things need to get as bad as they did in New York City in the early 1990s for urban voters to put their trust in a Republican?
Steven Malanga: Well, that definitely is a pattern. First of all, if you look at the demographics of cities they do tend to be younger, and younger voters tend to vote more liberal. But where Republicans have won, and this not just only recently but going all the way back, certainly, to the 1990s and Rudy Giuliani and also Richard Riordan in Los Angeles, they've sort of been - they've come in, if you will, as rescuers. And that pattern actually continues in places like California, for instance, a very blue or Democratic state which has a few cities with, nonetheless, Republican mayors.
Brian Anderson: Now three of the Republican mayors you focus on in your piece indeed come from California. San Diego I had mentioned in the introduction. What has been going on in some of these other cities like Fresno and San Bernardino so that voters who had rarely voted for a non-Democrat in recent years would decide to elect a Republican mayor?
Steven Malanga: Well, you know both of those cities, they're not in what you would call the wealth belt of California, the Silicon Valley belt. They rather...
Brian Anderson: The coastal.
Steven Malanga: Yeah, not the coastal area. They're inland and they're more former blue collar areas. And they've been having a rough time. Their unemployment rate is far higher than other places in California and their budgets have been in bad shape. And particularly we saw some abuses. San Bernardino actually went into bankruptcy and when they did go into bankruptcy the mayor, Democratic mayor, when he was quoted as talking about the problems of the city and he acknowledged that this is a city where for years unions controlled the politics and since it was a union-dominated town, the city council tended to give them everything they wanted. So in Fresno, and which had a number of big government-directed projects that failed that helped to kind of undercut the economy there, in both Fresno and in San Bernardino where you had a guy, Carey Davis, who had never been in politics before, he was an accountant, and he basically just started explaining to people why the city wound up in bankruptcy. He got elected mayor there and he's been struggling. He's got a chapter, you know, bankruptcy exit plan in place and it's a big struggle. In Fresno you had a former economic development executive who is also a Republican, Ashley Swearengin, who came in and eight years really struggled. There were reports by a financial analyst saying Fresno was going to be the next city to go in bankruptcy, never did go in bankruptcy, she managed to negotiate deals, pull it out, and now she's kind of a star, if you will, in the California GOP.
Brian Anderson: Let's look for a moment at Oklahoma City, another city with a Republican mayor. Since 1995, when Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal office build there, notoriously, Oklahoma City has expanded considerably, both in terms of its business community and its population. What's made it such a success for the past thirty years, and what attracts Republican mayors to the people of that city?
Steven Malanga: Well, first of all it is a more Republican town, if you will, in a more Republican state than these other places. And Cornett, Mick Cornett, the mayor there, has been mayor for four consecutive terms now. The thing is that Oklahoma City faced both a devastating psychological impact from the bombing, but also like many cities it was losing its industrial character and it had to make a transformation. So, the city invested money in the downtown area looking to revive it. The difference is that what Cornett emphasizes is that we weren't going to - we were going to do this on a pay-as-you-go basis, so that we didn't blow our budget. We didn't, essentially, put this revival or this attempt to revive on the next generation. They made some decent choices in terms of what they spent. I think that part of that, though, is that they decided to do this on a pay-as-you-go basis, which tends to make you much more careful and conservative. One of the problems that we've seen around the country with borrowing money to revive downtowns is that people have borrowed money for frivolous and very speculative, you know, endeavors. Like baseball stadiums, minor league baseball stadiums, sports arenas...
Brian Anderson: We covered a lot of this in the Texas special issue we did.
Steven Malanga: Exactly. And they haven't paid off. They were more focused in their spending because they were spending the money out of their budget, so they came out of this, first of all, without a big budget deficit or without a lot of long-term debt. And it's also just, you know, a city in a state that's got, also, oil revenues and so forth. So they took advantage of all of this and they're on the upswing and growing as a result.
Brian Anderson: Speaking of Texas, Fort Worth is an exception to the debt problems that are afflicting some of Texas's successful cities. Its municipal debt is one of the lowest among large cities in Texas and it has a Republican mayor as well, that city. How was the mayor able to keep the city's finances under control even as some of these other cities have gotten into some serious problem during, you know, what has been a very successful period for Texas in terms of its overall economy?
Steven Malanga: Right, well Texas's population is growing robustly. And you have to spend in ways to keep up with that. You need new schools...
Brian Anderson: Right.
Steven Malanga: ...you need new police precincts and things of that nature. The problem is that in some places that kind of spending, what gets embedded in that kind of spending, is a lot of more frivolous spending. Big high school football stadiums with jumbotrons and things of that nature. What Betsy Price, the mayor of Fort Worth, dedicated herself to is first of all saying we want to pay for some of this, you know, on a pay-as-you-go basis. We're not going to - it's not going to all be borrowed money. But then the other thing she did is she said we're going to go to the people and when we do a big bond offering we're going to ask them what they want. And so she had like fifty meetings around the city and heard what people want and that changed what they asked for. And one of the reasons that's significant is because a lot of borrowing these days is done by cities and states in ways that circumvent rules that say you are supposed to go the people. Politicians want to borrow money for projects they believe in rather than sometimes going through the process that were set out in city charters or in state constitutions which say you are supposed to ask the voters. By asking the voters, what they got I think is a probably, in Fort Worth, is a more fiscally conservative approach because voters in general, even in more liberal cities, when you ask them they tend to want to borrow less money than politicians do. And so essentially what you had is Fort Worth has not gotten into the debt problems of some of the other Texas cities. It has, of the top fifteen cities in Texas, it has the second lowest per capita debt. But it's also a growing and thriving city in a growing and thriving state.
Brian Anderson: And she has appealed to younger voters as well in that city, correct?
Steven Malanga: Well the interesting thing about it is that it is a young city. See, we associate places like San Francisco or New York, which is where young people want to go. But Texas cities, and Fort Worth is a good example, are job generators. And so young people are going there for jobs. And her point is that while that's happening, Republicans often don't reach out to that constituency. So she's been doing that. And one of her observations to me was that although they are socially liberal, when you sit down and talk to them about finances, she thinks that most of these young working people tend to be fiscally more conservative and it's a question, basically, of educating them.
Brian Anderson: Only one GOP mayor, Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City, who we just spoke about, has spoken at either of the last two Republican national conventions. This is very different from how the Democrats approach cities where they often feature rising star mayors at their national convention. Why haven't urban conservatives gotten attention from the national party despite their success, their clear success, at the local level?
Steven Malanga: Yes, I think it's fair to say that actually Democratic mayors tend to be stars of the Democratic party. About half a dozen mayors have spoken at both the 2016 and 2012 conventions, and Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, actually of course became HUD secretary for Obama after giving one of the keynote addresses in 2012. I would say a couple things. There's no doubt that the Republican party, in general, has a reputation of not spending enough time thinking about and writing about and creating platform agendas for cities. I think that's a legitimate criticism of them. And I'd say the thing in particular about the party is that if you look at Republican mayors, and many of these mayors there's one thing that I think characterizes them, and that is they tend not to be lifelong politicians. Many of them are entrepreneurs or worked in the business community and then gotten into politics. And they got into politics in a very pragmatic way. Their agendas are very pragmatic. For a mayor that means, you know, picking up the garbage, making sure the streets are safe, making sure the streets, the potholes are filled. And that's a very pragmatic agenda but that's actually what people want at the local level. A lot of the Democratic mayors, I think about de Blasio, especially, in New York. You think about, well, the former mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa. They are talking about combating things like income inequality, which mayors really have very limited tools to deal with. So what happens, I think, is the Republican party tends to ignore its successes at the urban level because those successes are the pragmatic successes. But what experience shows us and what polls show us is that people actually have more faith in their local government than any other level of government and they have the least faith in the federal government. So I think it's probably incumbent on the Republican party to start celebrating some of their own mayors who are doing significant things.
Brian Anderson: Don't forget to check out Steve Malanga's latest article, "City Hall GOP." It's in our Autumn issue and on our website, City-Journal.org. We would also love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter, @CityJournal with the hashtag #10Blocks. Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes, and thanks for listening. And thank you again, Steve, for joining us.
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