INSIDE WASHINGTON/Shifting the focus
As the presidential candidates discuss how many times they will debate or focus on a war that occurred more than 30 years ago, local officials are hoping the discussion will shift to the nation's pressing domestic needs. City and county officials say they are irritated the focus of the 2004 presidential campaign has been dominated by the Vietnam War and are pleading with President Bush and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to discuss how they would address the country's transportation woes, deteriorating infrastructure, as well as inadequately funded public safety and health care systems.
“We don't need to be talking about Vietnam, but rather the domestic issues that affect our mutual constituents,” says Larry Naake, executive director of the National Association of Counties (NACo). The organization's president and Lake County, Ill., Commissioner Angelo Kyle agrees. “The substantive issues are not being discussed,” he says.
To convince the candidates to turn their attention toward domestic issues, three Washington, D.C.-based local government organizations — NACo, National League of Cities (NLC), and the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) — sent delegations to each national political convention this summer to lobby party leaders on their concerns. USCM also released the “Mayors '04 Metro Agenda” in August — a list of priorities it wants to see discussed this election year.
Seizing on an election-year opportunity, several Ohio mayors took the USCM agenda on a two-day bus tour of their state, a crucial political battleground where both presidential campaigns are investing substantial time and money. Ohio ranked 50th out of the 50 states in job growth and gross metro product over the past four years, according to a USCM study. “This state is hurting,” says Dayton Mayor Rhine McLin, who participated in the bus tour. “We need more money for infrastructure; we need jobs; money to raze dilapidated housing; and more police.”
McLin says Iraq is another major obstacle in getting Ohio mayors' concerns heard. “Americans and the citizens of Dayton know about the Iraq war, but in their everyday life they want jobs and health care and they want to be able to afford a home and give their kids a good education.”
However, with more than 1,000 soldiers killed in Iraq and no definitive exit strategy in place, the Iraq war, as well as the nation's overall fiscal situation, is likely to continue to dominate the discussion right up to the elections. “Right now polling shows that voters are more concerned about the economy and Iraq rather than getting a new overpass,” says Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the non-partisan Washington, D.C.-based Rothenberg Political Report.
Still, local issues may capture some of the national attention. Trailing in the polls, Kerry reconfigured his campaign last month to place more emphasis on his domestic agenda, and local officials say they hope that spurs Bush to do the same. And the debates should force both candidates to clarify their positions on many domestic issues. “I would hope that we would hear a discussion about the issues that directly affect people's lives,” says Don Borut, NLC's executive director. “[So far] I am not seeing it.”
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.