“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”—Henry FordWhile Mayor Jerry Sanders huddled with a bunch of penguins a couple of weeks ago to pay off his climate-themed bet with Pittsburgh's mayor over the Chargers' loss to the Steelers, another 250 mayors were heading to Washington, D.C., for the annual winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
The conference, which ran for the three days prior to the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as this nation's 44th president, kicked off quickly with the mayors urging Congress to move swiftly on Obama's clarion call for a national economic recovery plan “to immediately create jobs and make investments in the future economy.”
Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl (or is it still Steelerstahl?) was among the attendees—but not San Diego's mayor.
Notwithstanding the obvious photo-op (and perhaps some sage advice on the safest way to thaw one's nose post-Penguin Encounter), it was a travel expense Spin Cycle would have heartily encouraged, if the Mayor's office had decided it wanted Spin's opinion.
In fact, it turns out only one mayor from this great expanse we call San Diego County packed a bag and headed east.“I was surprised—quite frankly, I was shocked—to see that nobody else from the county of San Diego was there,” said La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid, the county's sole mayoral rep at the gathering. “And 41 cities in California were represented there.”
Now, Spin Cycle is no advocate of waste-o'-money political junkets of the kind where elected officials stay at swank four-star hotels in London or New York during art-collection fact-finding missions, or travel to Tokyo to see what it feels like to whiz along on a high-speed train whilst sipping champagne.
But doesn't it seem just a little odd that here we are at the brink—precipice?—of a new world order with a new president who has said over and over again that he's counting on local governments to lead by example with fresh approaches to tackling long-standing social ills, and apparently most of San Diego's political leadership had better things to do than meet the new occupiers of the White House?
If Spin put on its skeptics hat, this might be viewed as an ill-timed snub of a new administration by a conservative cabal of politicians who can't believe their political party is presently sitting in a ditch. But that would suggest collusion—and when was the last time our political poobahs ever agreed on something in such high numbers? Methinks never.
Maybe our mound of mayors didn't want to take a political hit for traveling during excruciatingly painful budget-cutback times. Alrighty, that certainly sounds human.
Mayor Sanders has (half?) joked that he hoped his backing of Sen. John McCain in the recent presidential election wouldn't put San Diego behind the eight ball politically and more recently has made it clear publicly that he's excited about an Obama administration.
But in his State of the City address earlier this month, Sanders made it clear that he believes neither the state nor federal government can solve San Diego's deep fiscal woes.
On the federal side, he declared: “[W]e cannot depend on Washington to solve our problems. I've always believed that the best way to fortify our economy and to stabilize our revenues is with programs that help our citizens obtain the caliber of jobs that contribute to our tax base.”
Self-reliance aside, does this mean the mayor has little hope that the federal government will reach out to help ailing municipalities?
Rachel Laing, the mayor's spokesperson, said that while the city hopes to exact its “fair share” of infrastructure funds from the proposed $825 billion federal stimulus package, “there is definitely a healthy dose of skepticism in this office that this is going to be a panacea for our budget problems. Are we hoping for a bailout? No, but we'll take any help we can get.”
But as for help from the U.S. Conference of Mayors? Count Sanders as a “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Sanders attended the winter conference during his first year as mayor, as well as a subsequent summer gathering of mayors, but no more, Laing said.
“Heeding both the advice of our D.C. lobbyists as well as his own experience after attending a few of these conferences, the mayor decided that his efforts to lobby on behalf of the city would be better spent at a time when there aren't so many other mayors competing for lawmakers' attention,” Laing said.
Instead, the mayor is planning to travel to Washington, D.C., next Monday through Wednesday to meet with federal officials, Laing said—the theory being that these more intimate meetings will be more valuable than attending a conference swarming with mayors.
“The difference is like going to a job fair and going to a one-on-one interview,” Laing added.
La Mesa's Madrid seemed taken aback by Sanders' decision. “Didn't they [San Diego voters] elect the mayor and not the lobbyists?” he wondered.
Madrid said Sanders missed some pretty pertinent discussions at the conference. He also blew a chance to hear from a bevy of new Washington insiders, from Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and senior advisor Valerie Jarrett to Cecilia Muñoz, the new director of intergovernmental affairs for the White House.
The importance of meeting these folks? “Critical,” Madrid said. He noted that when he attended the previous year's conference in Miami, Obama pledged to a packed audience that, if elected, he “would have the antenna out all the time with local governments because that's where the action is. And he's delivered.”
Incidentally, both Madrid and Sanders are Republicans. Madrid, who's been mayor of La Mesa since 1990, has sat on just about every regional governing body during his political career. In most settings, he said, San Diego often acts like “the gorilla in town that doesn't have to listen to all these little tiny burgs.”
So, maybe San Diego thinks, due to its size, it deserves a better seat at the stimulus-package table. But as Madrid quipped, “If you're not at the table, you're on the menu.”
Oh, and about San Diego's $180,000-a-year D.C. lobbyists? They hail from the mega-normous D.C. firm Patton Boggs, which boasts on its website that it represents “nearly half of the nation's 15 largest cities.” That would include Los Angeles, whose mayor not only attended the conference but participated in several panel discussions about urban economics, ending homelessness and ending poverty by creating “green” jobs.
Laing noted that the lobbying firm has helped secure more than $260 million in federal dollars regionally since 2006, although the lion's share of that—$197 million—is earmarked for the improved San Ysidro border crossing.
So by all means, Mayor Sanders, enjoy your trip to the nation's capitol. Let's hope your go-it-alone strategy pays off.
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