While interviewing mayors this weekend at the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting, I asked almost all of them about a particular line in the speech Senator Obama gave to the body on Saturday.
Senator Obama said:
So, yes we need to fight poverty. Yes, we need to fight crime. Yes, we need to strengthen our cities. But we also need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution.
From the mayors’ perspective, the Senator had walked a fine, but sophisticated, line. L. Douglas Wilder – one of the first African American governors of a U.S. state (Virginia) and current mayor of Richmond – told me that:
The code words that have been used to define the problems of the cities have been simplified to say urban issues, urban crime. Crime is crime. It expands. People who have lived in the suburbs now have come to see that crime doesn’t stay confined; it goes to its least defended areas.
Indeed, one of the challenges that proponents of increased investment in cities face is the association of urban issues with poor people, murder, robbery, drugs, abandoned buildings, and – God help us! – minorities. Sure, all these things exist in cities (and, uh, in the suburbs and in small towns and in rural communities and on isolated farms), but they’ve become a bogeyman that has permitted and, indeed, encouraged a withdrawal of federal support from urban areas.
In other words, poverty and crime, as Senator Obama stated, are not urban "issues" and should not be confronted as such. We should invest in cities not specifically to end poverty, but to create the conditions in which poverty cannot persist. We can and should adopt policies to eliminate poverty, but they make up only a part of the policies that we can and should adopt to help our cities thrive.
As Senator McCain continues to ignore most urban issues – and remains far from articulating anything resembling an urban agenda – one wonders if he is beset by a mindset that either views urban areas as concentrations of intractable economic and social depression or, more simply, as electoral districts that he could never win, so why try?
In his interview, Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia, not specifically referring to Senator McCain, said, "If you limit what you can talk about because you are worried about political constituencies, I don’t think you’re much of a leader."