Hot on the trail
On a Tuesday in mid-July, presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., told thousands of county officials that she knows they sometimes feel they get no help from the federal government. “You’re asking for help with your hospitals or public safety or transportation, and it seems as though the line has always been busy. And I know how disappointing that must be because you deserve to have a partner in the Congress and in the White House,” she said at a meeting of the Washington-based National Association of Counties (NACo).
Later that same day came broad media coverage of a marathon session of Congress where the Senate debated legislation demanding troop withdrawal from Iraq. Except for the officials in the room during Clinton’s speech, almost no one heard her views on programs such as CDBG and COPS. This has been the challenge for city and county officials working to get their message heard by Washington at a time when the war dominates the discussion.
“We expect the candidates to stop talking about the war as the main topic of conversation and talk about what they’re going to do for cities and towns across America,” says Cynthia McCollum, a councilwoman in Madison, Ala. Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson agrees that it is important to discuss domestic policies with the candidates. “We believe [cities will benefit] if we get to know the candidates’ domestic policy advisors; to know how they feel and get our message to them.”
“As always in a presidential campaign, the issues covered have to be very broad and very rarely address specifics,” says Amy Walter, editor in chief of Hotline, a Washington-based political publication. “No state, county or city is ever going to feel that they are getting enough federal attention.”
Walter notes that a handful of states receive special attention from all the candidates. “If you live in one of the [primary] states, such as Iowa or South Carolina, your local issues are going to get a hearing from the presidential hopefuls,” she says. And the states are small enough that the candidates are able to campaign in them and not spend as much money as they would in a state the size of California.
Local government officials have begun finding ways to get their messages out to the candidates. NACo’s 2008 Presidential Election Project has been helping county leaders engage the candidates and get involved in the campaigns, says Kim Rogers, project coordinator. “One thing we are working on is getting county officials to attend events and speak to candidates one on one and develop relationships that way.”
Rogers says the project was started as a way to educate candidates about county issues and elevate the status of counties in their campaigns. “So much in D.C. is about relationships,” she says.
McCollum says the Washington-based National League of Cities, for which she serves as president elect, also has been reaching out to candidates and hopes to have 2008 hopefuls speak at their Congress of Cities planned for November.
Walter notes that with an open contest on both sides, local leaders have an opportunity to force the candidates to hear about their concerns. “The beauty of the competitive primary this year is there is a chance to personally pressure the candidates,” she says.
The author is the Washington correspondent for American City & County.