Municipal officials anticipate challenges under Trump administration

Contradictions in president-elect’s promises, policy positions creates atmosphere of uncertainty for officials in U.S. cities

Jule Pattison-Gordon | 11/23/2016, 6 a.m.

Cities have been powerful policy players under Barack Obama’s administration, able to take local action on initiatives that otherwise stalled in Congress. Meanwhile, Donald Trump drew the bulk of his support from rural areas and ran under the Republican party ticket at a time when most mayors are Democrats.

A panel of Boston University researchers and federal and local officials gathered in D.C. in an event livestreamed last week during which they contemplated what the future of local power and the role of mayors may be under the next presidential administration.

The power of local

Cities are a critical part of American life: They generate 75 percent of the country’s GDP and are home to nearly two-thirds of its citizens, according to the Boston University Initiative on Cities.

When Obama’s proposals were stalled or curtailed on the national level — for example, proposals to raise the minimum wage and provide free community college — staff turned to working with states and cities to advance the ideas on a local level, said Jerry Abramson, White House director of intergovernmental affairs and deputy assistant to Obama. Many states and municipalities put minimum wage increases on the ballot and others piloted affordable community college plans.

“We couldn’t get anything done so we turned to where the action was — the laboratories of innovation: cities, counties and states,” said Abramson, who served as a five-term Kentucky mayor and one-term lieutenant governor before joining the White House.

“We’re in such gridlock [nationally], nothing gets done. So we turned to cities and states,” he said.

That work has involved training 600 federal government staff to collaborate with mayors on tackling problems and crafting solutions tailored to the community, Abramson said.

Hard times

While panelists said Trump’s policies are unpredictable — given the frequency with which he has changed his statements and the vagueness of his policy plans — expectations were bleak.

Local governments cannot avoid working with the federal government as municipalities rely on it on for funding, which often comes with strings attached, and because federal policies impact their citizens, said Courtney Snowden, D.C.’s deputy mayor for greater economic opportunity. Her role involves fostering economic growth in undeserved and overlooked communities through workforce and small business development and other projects.

In the past three elections, urban areas have been strongholds of Democratic support, with Republican support growing in rural areas, thus presenting a geographical ideological divide, said Katie Einstein, assistant professor of political science at University of Massachusetts Boston.

Einstein also is co-author of the Menino Survey of Mayors, a multiyear survey and interviews of mayors nationwide. Most of the nation’s mayors are Democrats. Einstein said that many mayors surveyed recently praised Obama as a thoughtful and supportive partner, but said they feared Trump’s rhetoric, which denounced many segments of the U.S. populations and the makeup of their cities.

While Trump has said little about urban policy, he does not seem to view cities positively, describing inner cities as places where black residents “liv[e] in hell,” Einstein noted.