Elmer Smith: From Obama, hopeful signals for big cities
MAYOR NUTTER tried last week to buttonhole every official in Washington who had an unspent dime in his budget. By all accounts, he did pretty well. He met with Congress members, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's staff and members of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team.
MAYOR NUTTER tried last week to buttonhole every official in Washington who had an unspent dime in his budget.
By all accounts, he did pretty well. He met with Congress members, U.S. Tresury Secretary Henry Paulson's staff and members of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team.
Usually, when a big-city mayor goes to Washington looking for billions in federal aid he can expect to be greeted by "out-to-lunch" signs. In the Oval Office, that is still the sign of these times.
The Bush administration seems to regard big cities as holding tanks for people who can't escape to the suburbs or to the small towns that are home to the people who "built this country" as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin put it during the presidential campaign.
But Obama transition team co-chair Valerie Jarrett signaled a new approach when she met last week with the Trotter Group, an organization of African-American columnists who work for daily newspapers.
Jarrett, who was named a senior adviser to the president yesterday, confirmed Obama's commitment to create a cabinet-level post of urban policy chief. If he follows through, and she certainly made it sound like a high priority, it would fulfill a pledge Obama made on the campaign trail last spring.
"We also need to stop seeing our cities as the problem," Obama told a nodding crowd at the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
"Strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions and strong regions are the building blocks of a strong nation."
But what does that mean in terms of policy and what is it that this White House director of urban policy, as Obama terms it, would do?
He or she would be "an advocate for the cities," Jarrett said, someone who would spearhead "a comprehensive approach to urban development."
According to Jarrett, this official would have the president's ear and have the expertise to tie together the issues that impact on cities into a comprehensive urban policy.
"To have a person whose job is to pull all of that together is critical," Jarrett told us.
Maybe not as critical as the situation Mayor Nutter and other big-city mayors find themselves in right now. He projects a $5 billion hole in the city budget over the next five years.
Nutter, representing himself and other big city mayors, carried a letter requesting $50 billion in emergency aid to cities from the $750 billion bailout fund that Paulson is overseeing.
But that's the current crisis. If Paulson or Obama's urban policy director scrapes up enough money to fill that gap, it will just be a finger in the dike.
Failing school systems, high crime rates, crumbling infrastructure and job losses are problems common to big U.S. cities even in the best of times.
That may be why Obama racked up huge majorities in big cities. According to an ABC News poll released yesterday, Obama won cities with populations of 50,000-plus by 28 points. Cities like Philadelphia with populations of half a million or more went for Obama by an overwhelming 70 percent to 28 percent.
Nutter, who backed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, pushed hard for Obama in the general election.
If Obama follows through on his pledge as Jarrett insists he will, it might not mean an instant pot of money for mayors like Nutter. But it could mean one-stop shopping the next time he's in D.C.
(An error in my Friday column said I voted for Richard Nixon in 1968. I voted for Hubert H. Humphrey. I apologize for the error, but not for the vote.) *