The race starts here
As the 2008 presidential race heats up, candidates and local officials are finding ways to bring their messages to each other. Reaching out to local leaders, a half dozen candidates eyeing the White House have appeared before local government organizations in the past few months to promote their visions for leading the country. Meanwhile, city and county officials have been talking up local issues to the potential presidents at national and local forums.
Washington-based organizations hosted several meetings with potential candidates in January and March for local officials from across the country. Members of the National Association of Counties (NACo), the National League of Cities (NLC) and the U.S. Conference of Mayors heard from possible contenders Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del.; and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., about their agendas and how they would address some key issues for cities and counties. “From our perspective, these forums are an opportunity for us to provide issues important to us to the candidates,” says Donald Borut, NLC’s executive director. “But also, the candidates see local leaders as an important constituency group.”
In fact, all of the potential candidates who spoke at the meetings had done their homework, Borut says. Not only did they tout their agendas, such as how they would handle the ever-worsening situation in Iraq, but they also addressed issues local leaders face every day, including decreasing funds for the Community Development Block Grant program and the recent increase in violent crime in many cities. “We need to focus on an agenda important to us and … make sure we stay on point and are heard,” Borut says. “We want to reengage so there is an appreciation of that interdependence between local and federal governments.”
In addition to arranging meetings in D.C., NACo has launched a 2008 Presidential Election Project in an effort to get candidates to focus on issues important to counties, such as Medicaid reform, quality health care access for all, and adequate funding for community development projects and homeland security. In the crucial early presidential proving grounds of Iowa and New Hampshire, NACo is encouraging county officials to host or attend events to talk to candidates.
The idea and hope, says Fairfax County, Va., Commissioner Gerry Hyland, is that “the candidates will be engaged in the topics, and we will be able to pose the question, ‘Will you partner with local governments at the federal level?’ [The issues] are important, but most important is to have a presidential candidate agree that the federal government needs to recognize the need for partnerships,” he says.
The meetings also are a key opportunity for candidates to learn about local activists and influential people, says Stuart Rothenberg, political analyst and editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report. “[Local officials] are the kinds of people who are involved in creating the local buzz. They are on the ground and in contact with activists and local leaders — not going through the national media and the national pundits, but talking to people at the grassroots level,” he says. “This is the ultimate of talking to political figures who interact daily with local opinion leaders.”
The author is the Washington correspondent for American City & County.