When Michael Hancock, the mayor of Denver, invited a group of foreign correspondents over to the City Hall to meet him last week, most of us, this columnist included, readily agreed to go, although we were only a few hours away from the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney at the campus of the University of Denver. Our reason: mayors across the United States of America are now in the driving seat for Obama’s re-election as president. After losing several state governorships, the US House of Representatives and some Senate seats to Republicans two years ago, mayors from the Democratic Party have moved in to fill that void caused by a setback to Obama’s agenda in the mid-term national elections.
Hancock, who is only the second black politician to lead Denver’s City Hall, admitted as much. But he also told us that he gets phone calls from the president out of the blue. Denver, of course, has a very special place in Obama’s heart. That is where Democrats made him their presidential candidate four years ago, and he accepted their nomination at an open-air stadium with 75,000 people — the kind of popular rally that has become rare in America’s television-dominated political campaigns.
That, says Hancock, is not the sole reason why there is regular communication between him and Obama. Like Bill Clinton, when he was in the White House, Obama is readily accessible to mayors from the US cities. It was Clinton who took firm action to stem the rot in America’s inner cities, the impoverished black neighbourhoods from where prosperity had moved to the suburbs.
Harlem is an example. There was a time when outsiders feared to wade into Harlem. Clinton’s acclaimed “small business initiative”, which began in a small way by assisting ten Harlem businesses, eventually transformed this crime-infested New York neighbourhood. That is happening elsewhere too. For the first time in a century, inner cities in America are growing faster than the suburbs — from Washington to Boston, from Philadelphia to Seattle. Ironically, the financial meltdown and the mortgage crisis in 2008 have aided this change.
The latest census figures show that Americans in the 18 to 29 age bracket are increasingly staying away from suburbs and inhabiting cities, more often inner cities. That is where flats are cheaper than suburban houses, with proximity to public transport, which they can afford, and closer to the availability of employment, which is scarce.
It is to the credit of Obama’s micro-managed re-election campaign that it recognized this potential city vote-bank and began working on it early on. It is equally to the credit of dynamic mayors like Hancock that they made full use of the opportunities that access to the White House opened up for cities like Denver. Hancock is proud that the city he leads now has AAA credit rating, that it has managed to attract 26 new companies, two of them with the coveted “Fortune 500” ranking. In all, the mayor says that Denver has created 9,000 jobs during Obama’s presidency, a four-year period, during which many other cities lost jobs. Most important of all, during an election season when debt and deficit are among the main campaign issues, Denver has balanced its budget.
As an aside, Paul Washington, the mayor’s executive director for economic development, said the city recognizes that its future is significantly tied to an effective outreach to Asia. India, though, is not on its horizon — at least not yet. But Japan is, and so is China and Korea. To buttress this outreach, a new Boeing Dreamliner non-stop flight from Denver to Tokyo will be operated by a US carrier from early spring next year.
At this year’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, which nominated Obama for re-election, there was a parade by the party’s mayors on the stage that was like never before. They took the places that once belonged to governors or senators who yielded to city leaders either because they had lost their mandates in 2010 or because they are in tight contests for re- election in the present political climate, which is unfriendly to Democrats unlike during the general election four years ago.
There was San Antonio’s mayor, Julian Castro, the first Hispanic to deliver a keynote address at any Democratic National Convention. His speech was inspirational, prompting party strategists to suggest that history could be repeating. In 2004, Obama, then a junior, first-term Senator, gave the keynote speech at the party convention in Boston and emerged as the Democrats’ presidential nominee four years later. At 38, Castro is the youngest mayor of any of the biggest 50 cities in the US. The Castros constitute an American Hispanic political dynasty in the making. The mayor’s twin brother, Joaquin, is a candidate from Texas for the US Congress in this election.
The Los Angeles mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, another Latino, chaired the party convention in Charlotte. In ten days, he will be the keynote speaker at the Jefferson Jackson dinner in Des Moines, Iowa — an event replete with ritual symbolism in an election year. That appearance by the mayor is also being talked of as history repeating itself. In 2007, a year before Obama declared his candidacy for the White House, he was the keynote speaker at the same dinner in Iowa.
Apart from promoting mayors, a critical component of Obama’s campaign strategy is to tap into the Hispanic vote-bank, which may give the president the edge that is necessary to coast to victory when the contest is tight. In Denver, the incumbent mayor’s predecessor was a Cuban American. Guillermo “Bill” Vidal, who now heads the city’s Hispanic chamber of commerce, told visiting foreign journalists in an interaction that in the next 20 years, one-third of the population of Colorado — of which Denver is the capital — will be Hispanic. Already, half of the state’s children under the age of one are Latinos.
During a recent visit to Houston, the city’s mayor, Annise Parker, told this columnist over lunch that metro cities in the US are the engines of the country’s economy, accounting for approximately 80 per cent of activity. New York, Chicago and Los Angeles each have economies that are bigger than those of 42 American states combined. She said that cities also account for 80 per cent of the US population, and that is where Obama’s support-base lies. The demography explains the access that Obama has given to mayors and the help from the White House for revitalizing cities. Republican voters, on the other hand, are largely a rural electorate.
City leaders like Vidal are looking at education in cities as a business issue. His worry is that in Denver, for example, less than 50 per cent of Hispanic children enrolled in schools actually complete their high-school studies. This, when 67 per cent of the city’s workforce is projected as needing a college degree in order to join the modern-day labour force. Obama’s strength is that he has recognized the importance of education and worked with mayors to improve standards. Vidal regrets that a lot of the discussion about education in American cities is about charter schools as opposed to public schools. He sees a crisis looming over the poor performance of minority children in urban schools.
Mayors like Hancock point out that when things are not going well in communities the most reachable person in authority for most Americans is their mayor. In the direct line of popular concerns or ire, they do not get to make excuses, unlike senators or congressmen. Having the mayors on his side may turn out to be one of Obama’s understated advantages in this election. He has worked quietly but tirelessly during the last four years to craft his strategy of getting their support.