Tip O’ Neil famously observed, “All politics is local.” These days, it seems that we need to revise O’Neil’s adage and start saying, “All political responsibility is local.” With the political gears stuck in Congress and Washington divided, America’s mayors have stepped up and said, “We’ll take the lead.” Every day, in cities and towns across the country, it is America’s mayors who are hard at work building bipartisanship and tackling the big problems our country faces.
With Washington paralyzed, more and more responsibility for spurring innovation and growth now falls on the shoulders of cities. The challenges facing our country are clear. We’re recovering from the worst recession since the 1930s. Our education system is not preparing students for the jobs of the future. Our outdated infrastructure is not keeping pace with the emerging economies of China, Brazil, and India.
America’s mayors get it. Now is the time to put results over rhetoric and progress over politics. So we are leading the way on job creation, education reform, and infrastructure investment.
In Jacksonville, Fla., Mayor Alvin Brown is charting the economic future of his region by spearheading an impressive expansion of the Port of Jacksonville and growing his local export sector. In New Orleans, La., Mayor Mitch Landrieu knows that cultural tourism is one of the most dynamic industries and an important source of jobs. That’s why he has led the way with such initiatives as the NOLA Business Alliance, the World Cultural Economic Forum, and his New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp.
While states are slashing education budgets, cities are blazing new trails in education reform and finding innovative ways to ensure that our children are career ready.
In Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson has raised millions of dollars and worked in partnership with the national nonprofit City Year to place tutors in Sacramento schools. In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter has led the charge on education reform by restructuring, and even replacing, schools that are not serving students.
And while Washington is retreating from making the critical investments we need in our infrastructure, cities are finding creative ways to finance the needed improvements while putting their residents into good-paying jobs.
In Los Angeles, through Measure R, our half-penny sales tax, we are investing $40 billion, building a 21st-century transportation network, and creating more than 400,000 jobs. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel--without raising taxes--has created a $7 billion fund that will fill potholes, build parks, repair aging sewer pipes, and put 30,000 Chicagoans in good-paying jobs.
We’re doing all of this in cities that are undergoing profound demographic change. Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the country. You can hear 224 languages spoken in our neighborhoods, on our streets, and at our plazas. Angelenos hail from over 140 countries, and we have the largest population of Mexicans, Armenians, and Koreans outside of their home country, just to name a few.
Last week was an important first step with passage of a Surface Transportation Bill that included America Fast Forward. This innovative federal loan program will allow Los Angeles and cities across this country to speed the expansion of their transit systems while accelerating the creation of one million jobs.
Let’s build on that momentum to take on the tough challenges.
Congress needs to come together and tackle the immigration issue. President Obama led the way with the Dreamers Initiative. Now it’s time for Congress to do its part by passing the Dream Act, as we move towards comprehensive immigration reform.
Second, Congress should end the threat to Community Development Block Grants. For nearly four decades, CDBG has been a crucial source of funding for cities. It provides funds for housing, economic development and job training. These block grants are vital, they work, and Congress needs to fully fund them--it’s that simple.
Third, it’s time to put the needs of our students--and our country’s economic viability--ahead of politics and reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And when Congress acts, it must hold states accountable for increasing student achievement, especially for our highest-need students. Let’s build an education system that works for every student.
Our investments in job creation, infrastructure, and education will not bear fruit if our fiscal house is not in order. That is why it is imperative that Congress get serious and find a sensible approach to deficit reduction that strikes a balance between cuts and new revenues. The Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan is the right place to start.
America’s mayors put purpose before partisanship. We collaborate, forge consensus, and create coalitions. In short, we are governing. Now it’s Congress’s turn. It’s time for Congress to stop playing politics and begin to do the hard work the American people expect and deserve: create jobs, invest in infrastructure and reform education.
Antonio R. Villaraigosa is mayor of the City of Los Angeles and former president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Note: An earlier version of this op-ed was written before Congress passed the transportation funding bill last Friday. The story has since been updated to reflect the legislation’s approval.