Among gathering of U.S. mayors, focus turns to recovery

Scott Smith, the Mesa, Ariz., mayor who heads the U.S. Conference of Mayors, believes in the power of the well-worn groove to warm up a room: “To my left, both physically and politically,’’ he began, introducing others on the dais, were Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a.k.a. KJ, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a.k.a. SRB, “and we established today I was Mayor SOB,’’ Smith said, unflustered at the lack of crowd response.

The patter went on like that. A bon mot about Chris Christie’s bridge problem drew so many groans that Smith proclaimed himself glad “there’s one person up here who laughs at my jokes and also applauds; thank you, dear.” But the Catskills routine stopped abruptly on the subject of congressional paralysis: We “survived the Great Depression,’’ he said, “but time will tell if we survive the Great Dysfunction.’’

Local government just doesn’t have time for the kind of partisanship that’s paralyzing federal government, according to Smith, who’s a Republican. Perhaps that explains the can-do, must-do energy these government executives project when they talk about closing the inequality gap by modernizing infrastructure such as seaports and making sure community colleges are training students for specific, available jobs.

The group released a report with the welcome news that economies in all but seven of the country’s 363 metropolitan areas will grow this year. That’s considerably better than last year, when 97 of the economies shrank.

That shift was palpable in the hallways of the conference, at the Capital Hilton Hotel near the White House: “I’m struck by how different the conversations are’’ this time, said Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, who ran on closing racial gaps in her city. “There’s less about emergency management and more on recovery.”

The mayors definitely sat up and listened as Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker promised her department’s help in expanding exports, which she said hit a monthly high in November, and energetically invited them to compete to become one of a dozen designated “manufacturing communities” that will receive a “concierge to federal services.”

The group also heard from Mexican Ambassador Eduardo Medina-Mora, who noted that he and Pritzker share everything from “a business background to both our sons being Yalies” and reminded the group that more Mexicans visit the United States as tourists than Americans visit Mexico.

In between sessions on education reform and gangs, mayors in color-coded badges chatted over coffee: “I’m a red,’’ said Mayor Karen Hunt of Coppell, Tex., gesturing to a name tag that she said meant she was “brand-spankin’ new” to her job heading the Dallas suburb. (“Failure to wear badges may cause inconvenience to participants,’’ the conference program warned.)

Unlike Congress, America’s mayors really do look like America. As diverse as they are, though, many are looking for similar guidance — on pension reform, helping small businesses in particular learn how to export, and competing not with each other but with other countries.

Stephen Sham, one of five City Council members who take turns serving as mayor in the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra, said his main focus is how to redevelop in a way that attracts Chinese tourists to the town, where many Chinese immigrants live. “We can’t just sit and complain” about dollars going elsewhere, he said. “Even Disneyland has dumplings now.”

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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