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In the middle of a December snow storm in Johnson County, Iowa, former Sen. John Edwards and Supervisor Terrence Neuzil delivered pizzas to local emergency management officials. Taking advantage of the time with Edwards, Neuzil discussed emergency response issues in rural counties. Although most local officials do not have easy access to presidential candidates, those who live in Iowa, New Hampshire, or one of the early caucus or primary states have more opportunities to highlight their challenges.
Before he announced his support for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, St. Petersburg, Fla., Mayor Rick Baker met with other Republican White House hopefuls about the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, homeland security issues, a comprehensive energy policy and a key issue to Florida: a comprehensive catastrophe fund to help local and state officials rebuild after hurricanes. “It is a great opportunity to sit down with them,” Baker says of the courting by the contenders.
“One of these candidates is going to be president, so we’re really trying to create a partnership,” says Neuzil, an Edwards supporter. “We really want them to remember county governments and to remember that we should work as a team.” Their efforts are paying off as local needs are discussed alongside such national issues as Iraq and gas prices. “We’re now starting to see these issues come up in the speeches some of the candidates are giving,” Neuzil says.
That “teamwork” theme is a major focus of the Washington-based National Association of Counties’ (NACo) 2008 Presidential Election Project, which is attempting to ensure that the candidates hear a consistent message from county officials on key issues, including health care, transportation, methamphetamine abuse and homeland security. “Our main goal is that the future president will understand that local and federal governments are partners,” says Don Stapley, Maricopa County, Ariz., supervisor and NACo’s president-elect. “For many years now, we have not been at the table on the federal government’s policies, and we want to restore that partnership.
“That’s why we focused our energies this early in the primary process,” adds Stapley, who has announced his support for Sen. John McCain. Kim Rogers, the project manager for NACo, says at this early stage in the election, “this is definitely the most we’ve been involved” as an organization.
“We knew we were beginning to have an effect when candidates started saying, ‘Oh yes, we’ve seen that,’ when we presented them with our materials at campaign events and small meet-and-greets,” says Linda Langston, Linn County, Iowa, supervisor. “That’s when we knew the campaigns were starting to pay attention.”
Manchester, N.H., Mayor Frank Guinta did not endorse a candidate until late November, when he decided to back former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Until then, he had met with several candidates discussing CDBG, funding for local law enforcement and ending unfunded mandates. “The benefit of being from New Hampshire is that I can question every presidential candidate on their specific plan on how to improve local infrastructure and invest in local economies, and it requires a specific answer,” he says.
The author is the Washington correspondent for American City & County.