9 Mayors on What Divides America, and What Will Save It

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Asked to assess the country’s political discourse, America’s mayors minced no words.

“It’s broken,” said Xay Khamsyvoravong, the Democratic mayor of Newport, R.I.

“The national political discourse is garbage,” said Mayor Quinton Lucas of Kansas City, Mo., a Democrat.

“It’s horrible,” said John Giles, the Republican mayor of Mesa, Ariz. “And it splashes into school board meetings and to city council meetings. I hope we survive it.”

But despite deep concern about the country’s future, the view from city hall was not all bleak. In recent interviews at a meeting in Kansas City of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a nonpartisan organization of leaders of relatively large cities, mayors mostly described a country that was not as divided as the election year rancor suggested.

The New York Times sat down with nine mayors from nine states and asked them the same nine questions. They came from the West Coast, East Coast and points in between, and from different partisan backgrounds, though big-city mayors skew heavily Democratic. The mayors spoke soberly about problems facing their cities — violence, climate change, housing instability — but also hopefully about the people and places they led.

Here’s a selection of what they said, edited for length and clarity.

If you could unilaterally change one state or federal law to help your city, what would it be and why?

“I would like to change some of the barriers that get in the way of us building affordable housing in California.”

Pretend you’re a moderator in a presidential debate this year. What question do you most want to ask?

“I would like to ask: ‘What are two or three concrete things that you can do to unify the electorate, no matter who wins? And what will you do to implement that?’”

What gives you hope about the United States?

“The United States is the greatest democracy that’s ever existed. And I look around, and as a woman, as an attorney, I would like to know what other country in what other place in human history that I could lead one of the largest cities.”

A visitor passing through your city has time to see one attraction. Where should they go?

“I would have a churro on Main Street in front of the Magic Kingdom.”

What’s a good book you’ve read recently?

“The Women” by Kristin Hannah.

What’s the biggest challenge facing your city?

“We’re one of the fastest-growing cities in the country and so we have a supply crisis with respect to housing.”

If you could unilaterally change one state or federal law to help your city, what would it be and why?

“I think probably what is most important is for the federal and state government to respect and understand home rule, and that local knows best.”

Pretend you’re a moderator in a presidential debate this year. What question do you most want to ask?

“What are your specific plans to help deal with the housing crisis in America today?”

A visitor passing through your city has time to see one attraction. Where should they go?

A museum called the Center of Science and Industry. “It’s a place where my daughter and I have great memories.”

What’s a good book you’ve read recently?

“The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson.

What’s the biggest challenge facing your city?

“Housing. Housing production, homelessness, not having places for those who are mentally ill to go.”

What’s something the rest of the country could learn from your city?

Zero-fare transit. And it has not been without controversy. There are some who are trying to get rid of it now.”

What gives you hope about the United States?

“We agree on a lot more than people think.”

Finish this sentence: Covid-19 permanently changed my city by …

“… reshaping the office market.”

A visitor passing through your city has time to see one attraction. Where should they go?

The National World War I Museum and Memorial.

What’s a good book you’ve read recently?

“It’s going to sound like such a political answer. And I’m sorry. I’ve been reading some of Chris Murphy’s work on gun violence.”

What’s something the rest of the country could learn from your city?

“We adopted a city goal of trying to get fiber optic cable to every home and every business in our city, and that required innovation.”

If you could unilaterally change one state or federal law to help your city, what would it be and why?

“To shift to open primaries. A lot of the paralysis that we see in government right now I think is tied to partisanship, and Arizona is a great example of that.”

Finish this sentence: Covid-19 permanently changed my city by …

“… opening our eyes to the reality of several problems: food insecurity, housing insecurity, the digital divide. Some of these things that we knew about, but we really just needed to kind of have it slap us in the face to realize how critical those needs were.”

A visitor passing through your city has time to see one attraction. Where should they go?

“Mesa borders the Tonto National Forest. And when you think Tonto National Forest, you think trees. No, this is a forest of saguaro cactus. And it’s right at the Salt River, as well. So there’s a wonderful trail system called the Hawes Trail System.”

What’s a good book you’ve read recently?

“Demon Copperhead” by Barbara Kingsolver.

What’s the biggest challenge facing your city?

“Development of our people and our residents as we’re growing.”

Finish this sentence: Covid-19 permanently changed my city by …

“It permanently changed our city by allowing second homeowners to move directly into Michigan City to stay. I think that as a tourist area, we have a lot of folks with second homes that now became residents and left Illinois.”

What gives you hope about the United States?

“I’ve been putting younger people on boards and commissions. And they’re engaged — more engaged than I than I ever thought they would be.”

A visitor passing through your city has time to see one attraction. Where should they go?

“The lakefront for sure. Our Washington Park area has a zoo, the lakefront, rooftop dining.”

What’s a good book you’ve read recently?

“The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity” by Nadine Burke Harris.

What’s the biggest challenge facing your city?

“Right now, it’s without a doubt infrastructure. We are literally on the front lines of climate change. We are where the Atlantic Ocean crashes into the North American continent. Because of that, we have the typical sea impacts that you would expect from a community that’s on the waterfront, but we also have substantial storm water challenges.”

If you could unilaterally change one state or federal law to help your city, what would it be and why?

“Repeal No Child Left Behind and the associated failed state education policies.”

Finish this sentence: Covid-19 permanently changed my city by …

“… changing our education system.”

A visitor passing through your city has time to see one attraction. Where should they go?

The Newport Cliff Walk “is a 3.5-mile trail that runs along the jagged edge of Newport’s coast. On one side, you have Gilded Age mansions. On the other side, you have a drop-off into the Atlantic Ocean. It is absolutely spectacular. But it’s also important because it gives you a frontline feeling for the impacts of climate change.”

What’s a good book you’ve read recently?

“red helicopter — a parable for our times” by James Rhee.

Finish this sentence: Covid-19 permanently changed my city by …

“What if it didn’t?” He added: “Economy is booming, downtown is as active as it was before. We came through it.”

What gives you hope about the United States?

“I actually don’t think we’re a polarized country.” He added, “There’s like 70 percent in the middle who just want to work together to get things done, and they’re registered Republicans, Democrats and independents.”

Pretend you’re a moderator in a presidential debate this year. What question do you most want to ask?

“It’s something along the lines of, ‘How are you intentionally going to work to bring people together over the next four years?’”

A visitor passing through your city has time to see one attraction. Where should they go?

“Attraction feels trivial for what I’m going to say. But they have to go to the Oklahoma City National Memorial. And especially in this current political environment, I think this event has a very important lesson for people because it is the ultimate reminder of the natural outcome of dehumanizing your political opponents.”

What’s a good book you’ve read recently?

“Boom Town” by Sam Anderson.

What’s the biggest challenge facing your city?

“Youth violence is our biggest issue in Scranton right now.”

What’s something the rest of the country could learn from your city?

“Scranton’s been ahead of the curve on residential downtowns.”

How would you assess the national political discourse and how does that affect your job?

“The discourse is not indicative of where the vast majority of Americans are. We’ve got this 10 percent-ish on both the right and the left that are taking over the entirety of the space in the conversation. And it’s really tough in a place like Scranton.”

Pretend you’re a moderator in a presidential debate this year. What question do you most want to ask?

“Public education has been defunded and really dismantled over the course of generations. And what is it that you see yourself being able to do about it in these next four years?”

A visitor passing through your city has time to see one attraction. Where should they go?

“Our coal mine tours. You go, actually, 300 feet under the earth, into the earth on the coal mine tour. It’s very cool. But on a very serious note, it gives you a sense of what people still go through to this day.”

What’s a good book you’ve read recently?

“Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America” by Jon Tester.

What’s the biggest challenge facing your city?

“We’re one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. And so transportation, affordable housing, work force development, sustainability, resiliency — those areas are a concern for us.”

If you could unilaterally change one state or federal law to help your city, what would it be and why?

“It would be something dealing with firearms, the availability.”

What gives you hope about the United States?

“Our democracy will survive. I have no doubt about that.”

Pretend you’re a moderator in a presidential debate this year. What question do you most want to ask?

“I would ask them how they feel they can best serve the average American.”

A visitor passing through your city has time to see one attraction. Where should they go?

“Get on one of our pirate taxis and take a historical tour.”

What’s a good book you’ve read recently?

“The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” by James McBride.



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