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The Sunny Side of Midsize

books and culture

The Sunny Side of Midsize

Oklahoma City’s successful former mayor offers lessons from his experience. September 28, 2018
Politics and law
Cities

The Next American City, by Mick Cornett with Jayson White (Penguin Group, 272 pp., $27.00)

In the era of Donald Trump, competent traditional Republicans, such as former mayor of Oklahoma City Mick Cornett, have often been lamentable casualties of political war. Cornett, who served four terms, was a rare Republican big-city mayor, and one of a series of high-caliber Republican leaders in Oklahoma City who helped propel it from a backwater town in the middle of nowhere to an emerging American metropolis. He was a transformative Republican mayor in the mold of Rudy Giuliani of New York, Steve Goldsmith of Indianapolis, and others.

After leaving city hall, Cornett ran for governor. It’s always hard for the mayor of a state’s biggest city to get elected to higher office: Goldsmith lost in his gubernatorial bid, and no mayor of New York City has been elected to anything else in more than a century. But a Republican with metropolitan sensibilities nowadays faces an even steeper climb. Cornett won a plurality in a three-way primary, but under Oklahoma’s system was forced into a runoff, where he was defeated by political neophyte and businessman Kevin Stitt, who accused Cornett of being a Never-Trumper.

Cornett’s other post-mayoral project is a happier story. His new book, The Next American City, uses his experience to make a case for “the big promise of midsized metros.” Midsize may be a misnomer; metro areas of more than 1 million people (including Oklahoma City), which constitute the majority of this book’s case studies, are usually classified as large metros. Cornett’s intent in the use of the term “midsized” is to contrast these cities with giant, elite coastal metros like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

Cornett’s thesis is that Americans will be drawn to less-populated yet vigorous urban areas as the nation’s population continues to grow and as housing prices in elite cities become prohibitive. These less glamorous cities have been transforming themselves to become more attractive options for residents and businesses. The Next American City charts Oklahoma City’s transformation, offers examples of similar turnarounds in other cities, and describes Cornett’s personal journey from sportscaster to mayor.

One of Cornett’s major policy innovations was MAPS, or Metropolitan Area Projects. Oklahoma’s municipalities rely on sales taxes for revenue. On three occasions, the city used a referendum to approve temporary sales-tax increases to finance capital campaigns for specific improvement projects. The higher sales taxes came with clear sunset provisions, and the city used a pay-as-you-go method for the improvements, rather than issuing bonds against the anticipated proceeds. Doing things this way made projects slower to finish but also reduced financial risk, keeping the city clear of any debt. The city also appointed a citizens advisory commission to review all spending and provide an additional layer of public input and oversight. While many other cities struggled with debt and an inability to raise funds for infrastructure, Oklahoma City, with its MAPS approach, could invest in capital assets like schools, parks, sidewalks, and a convention center, without endangering its financial future. Cornett’s approach offers a promising template for investing in public infrastructure.

Cornett also describes innovative projects from other cities, designed by leaders from both parties. This bipartisan group includes Republican Richard Berry in Albuquerque, who hired homeless people to work on city projects while connecting them with social services at the same time, and Louisville’s Democratic mayor Greg Fischer, who started a campaign to make his city America’s “most compassionate.”

Many of the cities that Cornett discusses—Des Moines, Sacramento, Charleston—are doing well or making progress. Some, like Nashville or Austin, are already boomtowns, but others, especially in the Rust Belt, are struggling. Nevertheless, Cornett makes an effective case that mid-size cities can, at least in some cases, dramatically improve their national profile and join the ranks of America’s desirable places.

Photo: tobynabors/iStock

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