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Election Focus 2004

Two Mayors' Perspectives on Local 2004 Election Issues


On April 20 the Republican mayor of Elkhart, Indiana, David Miller and the Democratic mayor of Tacoma, Washington, Bill Baarsma spoke at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, D.C., about their perspectives as local leaders and important issues in the 2004 election.

Although the mayors belong to different political parties and represent different geographical constituencies, they demonstrate that the old adage "all politics is local" still rings true. They each face daily a myriad of issues that directly affect their constituencies.

However, these local leaders are also facing international issues from trade to the war on terror, and funding needs after the September 11 terrorist attacks that have required local governments to produce creative plans to insure their governments run smoothly and effectively.

Following are excerpts from the Foreign Press Center briefing on select topics of importance to mayors and other local government leaders:

"We're about doing our business which takes care of our various communities, and we work with the federal government where we need to in the overlapping partnerships. But they pretty much let us run the cities, and we let the president run the country."
Mayor David Miller

What is the role of a mayor in politics today?

MAYOR MILLER: At the local level, there is no elected officer that affects people's day-to-day lives more than the mayor. The things I address on a day-to-day basis include trash pickup, the condition of streets, police, fire and 911 dispatch services, airports and parks and everything in between, including water and sewer issues.

[Mayors] touch the lives of their constituencies and are responsible for the things that touch their lives probably more than the President, more than senators, more than governors, more than any other elected officer.

So it brings our responsibility right to their front door. And because we live in those folks' neighborhoods, we see them all the time.

There isn't a Republican or a Democratic way to plow a street or to pick up trash or to respond to a police call or put out a fire. The partisan politics that people may see on the national level generally don't exist much, or at least not with the same steam, at the local levels.

So we have to find ways to work with people to take care of their problems without respect to their party politics.'

MAYOR BAARSMA: I would share the sentiments of the Mayor in that all politics, indeed, is local when it comes to city politics and things that are of immediate concern to citizens. Picking up the refuse and making sure that the street lights stay on, and repairing sidewalks and making sure that police and the fire service respond appropriately, and struggling with the budget to provide those basic services are a part of our charge.

Part of my responsibility, too, as the mayor of the second largest city in the State of Washington and the city with the largest container port, is to maintain a good working relationship with our congressional delegation. Now, it turns out they all happen to be Democrats, which is of the other party, but, they are all very talented.

It's interesting that one member of Congress happens to be a constituent of mine, but I'm not a constituent of his because I live in a different congressional district. But I have a good working relationship with our two members of Congress as well as our two U.S. senators.

So we have to maintain the relationships at the national level and the state level. Mayors are also advocates of city interests at the state capital, and local government is dependent, to a large degree, on decisions that are made in [Washington, D.C.] as well.

What are the important issues for the local constituencies that you serve?

MAYOR BAARSMA: We are strongly working toward a balanced and vibrant economy in the city of Tacoma with job creation and working closely with the port. So economic development is important. Now, given that we're a port city, obviously security is of paramount concern, so there is that relationship between economic development and the growth of the port and the terrorist threat. The second issue in our strategic plan is to provide a safe, secure and livable environment within our neighborhoods and to make sure that the infrastructure of our city is provided for. And our third goal is the goal of government by results. We're going to have to begin to do things smarter and be more effective and more efficient in terms of service delivery.

MAYOR MILLER: Terrorism and the strikes against the United States showed us that it can happen here and that they could bring their atrocities to our nation, and therefore it made Tacoma and Elkhart and other communities potential targets.

So we've had to kind of assess the risk and take additional measures just to try to take us off the terrorists' radar screen, or at least make sure that if
they attempt to do something they can't succeed. And we're a major thoroughfare through rail and truck traffic and a distribution point, so we have to watch those things, too.

But the best benefit that Washington can give to communities like ours is to be sure that the national security is intact and that their economic conditions are as strong as possible so that our businesses can survive and thrive in our communities.

Has the relationship between the federal government and local government changed after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks?

MAYOR MILLER: Our relationship and the city's relationship with Washington have not changed as a result of the terrorists. It is harder to travel now, but that's nationwide, global even. But [Washington D.C.] is not neglecting us or ignoring us. They're focusing their attention where it rightly needs to be focused, on ensuring the safety and tranquility of the United States in general.

We're about doing our business which takes care of our various communities, and we work with the federal government where we need to in the overlapping partnerships. But they pretty much let us run the cities, and we let the president run the country.

MAYOR BAARSMA: I am concerned about this particular issue. We've recently done an inventory in the city of Tacoma, as to the basic needs, in terms of our infrastructure.

We have about $800 million in needs. Now this includes bridges, roads, sidewalks, lights, and so on. And a portion of what we have been able to accomplish in the past has been through federal assistance in the infrastructure, building a stronger country.

We're also concerned about other funding sources that are important in terms of social and human services. We have gone through a period of what's called evolution, in which the responsibilities of helping those families that have economic hardship have fallen to state and local governments.

So we do have a concern. My feeling is that if our infrastructure crumbles and we can't rebuild our bridges and maintain our roads, and so on, that it's going to have a long-term economic effect. I share the concerns of Mayor Miller about terrorism and addressing the issues. Since 9/11, everything has changed, but at the same time, we can't neglect or forget the basic infrastructure of our own country.

The challenge comes from the fact that that there are declining resources. Our ability to receive certain federal appropriations has decreased. I come to Washington asking for assistance, like probably most other mayors and community leaders do. We've been fortunate to receive some, but it's a matter of making due with what we have and still moving our cities forward. So it just makes more challenges for us in local leadership, to figure out how to replace our streets when there is less federal money, and replace our sewers when there is less assistance to do those things. I'm confident, though, in the spirit of America that we'll be able to find a way to do that and still continue to make Tacoma and Elkhart, and all of the other cities livable for the future.

Election Focus, April 28. 2004 pdf document