If it’s true that all politics is local, then urban mayors are among the most powerful politicians in the country.
But even the best mayors admit they can’t make changes alone. Three of these visionaries—Manuel A. Diaz, mayor of Miami; Stephen Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis; and Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans—shared their thoughts on effective government at a June 15 Penn Institute for Urban Research panel discussion. All three emphasized that partnerships between city officials, business leaders and community groups are key to urban improvement, with crime as the first hurdle leaders must confront.
“Once [business leaders] figured out that crime was a potential Achilles Heel for the community, they became an active ally,” said Morial C’80, who was New Orleans’ mayor from 1994 to 2002 and is now president and CEO of the National Urban League.
Goldsmith, Indianapolis’ mayor from 1992 through 1999 and a policy advisor to George W. Bush in the 2000 campaign, agreed: “Economic development is silly if you’re going to get beat up on your way to work.”
Miami’s problems were many when Diaz came into office in 2001: The city was bankrupt, its bonds had fallen to “junk” status, and it faced both rising unemployment and three decades of population loss. Since Diaz’ arrival, the city’s population has increased by 10 percent and crime rates are down—victories he chalks up to the combination of a stellar police commissioner, partnerships with the business community and sheer political will.
But the challenges remain, especially for mayors like Diaz who head up diverse communities. Diaz, himself Cuban-born, said in a city where 62 percent of the residents are not American-born, it’s important for all residents in every neighborhood to feel as though they’re being treated the same.
Morial said that he wished the federal government would use a “foreign policy paradigm” when assessing how—or if—to help cities, from no-interest loans to the rebuilding of infrastructure. In the last 50 years, “when the cities did well, the nation did well,” he said.
Originally published on July 7, 2005