Politics is about confidence. If you aspire to become a politician, it’s partly because you want to make a difference but also probably because you believe in some variation of, “I alone can fix things.” All politicians, at every level of government, inevitably seek more sway and more power as a result. But I can’t say that I envy the job of US mayors.
At the US Conference of Mayors in Washington last week, municipal leaders from across the country made passionate pleas for more resources and co-operation from federal officials. They described cities on the front lines of challenges including gun violence, homelessness, drugs, immigration, chronic housing shortages and poverty. And yet mayors are typically hamstrung by higher-ups, as political dysfunction in Washington and many of the nation’s 50 state capitals grips the nation. Cleveland’s mayor, Justin Bibb, told me that Joe Biden’s administration has been far more willing to engage directly with mayors than most of his predecessors. And though the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken (pictured), gave a speech encouraging mayors to reach out and work with his department, frustration at congressional inaction – and much-needed funding being stuck at state or federal level – remained palpable.
And yet there was a surprising sense of optimism and camaraderie too. “We can do this – we’ve done it before,” Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, told attendees, after a particularly bleak description of how record overdoses from fentanyl had ravaged his city. It’s a confidence that impressed the visiting mayor of Helsinki, Juhana Vartiainen. “When I listen to these US mayors and their very powerful speeches about compassion and being together, I realise that I must try, to a far larger extent than has so far been the case, to be a values-based leader,” he told me. “That is a very useful lesson for me from the US.” Compassion in the face of seemingly impossible odds? That’s a good lesson indeed.
Christopher Cermak is Monocle’s Washington correspondent.