Amid Washington Gridlock, Cities Look to Tackle Big Issues on Their Own

In the absence of action from Washington, cities are finding ways to tackle what was historically federal policy on their own.

Mayor Bill de Blasio looks on as President Barack Obama speaks after a White House meeting on policing. At center is Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

After Mayor Bill de Blasio recently signed legislation that literally kicked a federal immigration agency off Rikers Island, the tabloids might have revisited and reversed one of their most famous headlines: FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.

Sure, the federal government is even stingier with funding for the city than it was back in the 1970s when the Daily News kissed off President Gerald Ford. And when it comes to enacting urban policy, the feds are even worse today.

But cities aren’t taking it lying down—in the absence of action from Washington, they’re finding ways to tackle what was historically federal policy on their own, Congress be damned. Or in jazzier words: NYC TO WASHINGTON: DROP DEAD.

“Rather than curse the darkness and say, well, there hasn’t been an effective national urban agenda for years, we’re going to light the single candle and say, let it be us who start it,” Mr. de Blasio declared this summer, standing beside a cadre of like-minded mayors he’d assembled at Gracie Mansion.

And as Washington has become more and more gripped by gridlock, many experts agree that any hope of a national urban agenda has fallen by the wayside, leaving local lawmakers to step up or miss out.

“From Rahm Emmanuel in Chicago to Eric Garcetti in L.A. and now Mayor de Blasio in New York, they’re trying to tackle these extremely large and difficult problems but with limited resources, and not a lot of help from Congress and Washington—so it definitely puts a premium on coming up with good ideas, doing things differently and often raising money in different ways,” said Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for Urban Future.

Not long before President Barack Obama signed an immigration executive order on November 20, Mayor Bill deBlasio and City Council Speaker MelissaMark-Viverito took their own action—enacting a law to stop the city’s police and corrections departments from cooperating with federal immigration detainers meant to deport undocumented immigrants. To make it quite clear whose policies they were rebuffing, they also forced the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to pack up and leave Rikers Island.

The message: If Washington won’t act, we will.

“When one city acts, then another city acts, then the state acts, then another state acts—slowly but surely, it becomes national policy—it becomes irresistible,” Mr. de Blasio said after signing the ICE legislation. “Unfortunately, if we once again see the Congress unwilling, more and more localities will lead the way until one day that becomes the norm, and that becomes the tipping point.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio signs bills limiting cooperation with immigration detainers. (Photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)
Mayor Bill de Blasio signs bills limiting cooperation with immigration detainers. (Photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office) Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office

Some experts say the tipping point has already been reached.

“I think deBlasio exemplifies this new shift of power and responsibilities to the cities. DeBlasio is really not waiting for Washington to shape the minimum wage, to pass universal pre-K—it’s not going to happen,” Bruce Katz, founding director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said.

The federal government was actually much more generous to New York in those drop-dead days of the 1970s, when more than 20 percent of the city budget came from federal aid. By the late 2000s—after the recession but before an influx of federal stimulus cash—New York City was getting just 9 percent of its funding from the federal government. Since then, there have been periodic bumps up—thanks to stimulus funds and Hurricane Sandy relief—but those blips on the radar won’t last. In a budget of $75 billion, the drop in federal funding represents billions of dollars lost since the 1970s.

The city’s hulking public housing towers are perhaps the most visible sign of the federal government’s initiatives here, and the cuts to them have been drastic. Since 2001, annual federal capital grants for the New York City Public Housing Authority have declined by $162 million, or 26 percent. Housing conditions have predictably deteriorated, with real consequences for residents.

“The federal government is year by year falling back and saying, ‘Go ahead and figure it out guys,’” said Adolfo Carrion, the former Bronx borough president and mayoral candidate who served a short stint at President Barack Obama’s urban czar. “And many of them are not figuring it out—including New York City, so they need to create new streams of revenue.”

The City Council has ponied up millions of dollars to fund NYCHA shortfalls. And in his first budget, Mr. de Blasio stopped charging the city’s public housing authority to provide police services there, allowing some $74 million to be diverted from the NYPD payments to NYCHA repairs.

Still, despite the decades of cuts and the millions spent to backfill them, Mr. de Blasio’s man on the ground in Washington, Max Sevillia, said there was hope for a renewed focus on cities in the nation’s capital as more people move out of suburbs and into cities.

“I think that it’s very clear that the American public, the constituents, aren’t happy with the way things are going in DC, particularly with this Congress. So I think that eventually, federal representatives will be more responsive to the constituencies that they represent—and a large portion of that constituency resides in urban areas or works in urban areas,” he said in a telephone interview from Washington earlier this year.

Mr. de Blasio hosts a contingent of big city mayors from the U.S. Conference of Mayors at Gracie Mansion this summer. (Keith Bedford/Mayoral Photography Office)
Mr. de Blasio hosts a contingent of big city mayors from the U.S. Conference of Mayors at Gracie Mansion this summer. (Keith Bedford/Mayoral Photography Office)

Like every person interviewed for this story, Mr. Sevillia blamed the dearth of federal urban investment on Congress. But he highlighted a bright spot in D.C.: former mayors like Julian Castro are now charged with running key agencies like Housing and Urban Development.

“When they were leading their cities, they faced a number of similar situations as New York City faces, with priorities oftentimes similar to those of Mayor de Blasio. So there is a synergy and understanding there that has been very helpful,” he said.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, chair of the American Conference of Mayors, also acknowledged that getting Washington to focus on issues that matter to cities would not be easy.

“You’re asking about the politics involved, and it’s real,” Mr. Johnson told the Observer at the Gracie Mansion event this summer. “We all believe that we’re open source leaders, which means we don’t care whether the best ideas come from Democrats or Republicans—we just want the right ideas. We’re pragmatic.”

And pragmatism may be key. Mr. Katz cited the example of transportation funding in Los Angeles, where former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa worked with mayors of nearby cities to get Washington to vastly expand federal transportation loans to cities like his, and then supplemented that federal funding with a sales tax hike devoted to funding regional transit.

“Having a specific, a real list of tangible items that will not just help cities but will help broader metropolitan areas, I think that makes sense,” Mr. Katz said.

Mr. Carrion said the on-the ground, pragmatic mindset of local officials was missing in the capital.

“That’s why I like local government, and I missed it so much and it was so frustrating,” Mr. Carrion said. “The national government and presidential campaigns, they generally attract a lot of heady people who haven’t really done stuff on the ground. Many of them come out of universities and think tanks, many of them theorizing how it could work. And then there’s reality.”

And the reality is, more often than not, that mayors—tasked with making the trains run on time, picking up trash, plowing snow, solving problems—are taking on more and more responsibility.

“I think the biggest consequence of this better be: pay attention to your local election,” Mr. Katz said. “It may matter more than the national ones.”

Amid Washington Gridlock, Cities Look to Tackle Big Issues on Their Own