In what was arguably the most shocking upset in modern political history, on Nov. 7, 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected 45th president of the United States. The real estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star had no prior political experience, but running on raw charisma and a promise to “Make America Great Again,” Trump managed to take down the Hillary Clinton political machine – a feat nearly every political scientist and pollster deemed impossible.
His campaign was controversial, but it succeeded in capturing the hearts and minds of millions of American voters who felt betrayed by their government – left behind and without a voice.
Now, less than a month after his heavily protested inauguration, state, county and local officials are left wondering how best to work with this new administration. Trump himself has said emphatically it will no longer be business as usual, and – depending on who you ask – government officials are meeting this reality with excitement or apprehension.
A Microcosm of America:
Lancaster County, Neb., remains united despite disparate political views
Home of Nebraska’s state capital, Lancaster County is one of the most evenly split in the nation when it comes to politics. According to County Commissioner Todd Wiltgen, Clinton won the county of nearly 300,000 by a mere 310 votes.
Wiltgen says despite the divided population, a pervasive attitude of civility and collaboration holds the county together. “These are the hallmarks of Lancaster County,” he says. “We work with and serve our neighbors every day.”
The reason it works, he says, is that the government of Lancaster is representative of its people and keeps their best interests in mind. The county board is comprised of two Democrats and three Republicans, ensuring a diversity of opinions are heard, and that one voice won’t drown out the rest. Additionally, there is a commitment to voting on the issues regardless of party affiliation, preventing partisan politics from coming into play.
“We really don’t have the opportunity to engage in the type of politics you see with larger bodies of government,” Wiltgen says. He feels this focus on the issues, rather than political pandering, keeps Lancaster functioning. “[Lancaster’s leaders] have to make tough decisions every day,” he says. “We don’t get to hide behind staff or procedural gimmicks as excuses not to do our jobs.”
Wiltgen says this problem-solving attitude creates better functioning governments, and he hopes Washington can move more in that direction under the new administration.
“The issues we face are the issues everyone faces – public safety, infrastructure, economic development – those are universal,” Wiltgen says. “Those issues aren’t Republican or Democrat.”
Rather than getting bogged down in politics, he hopes Trump’s administration can tackle issues head-on, and by doing so, gain bipartisan support.
“My advice would be to work across party lines,” he says. “At the end of the day, we have to do what’s best for all the American people in a civil way. Find common ground, and work from there.”
But not everyone is as hopeful as Wiltgen. In fact, some leaders are shaken by Trump’s divisive rhetoric and extreme ideas – so shaken they are already actively working to oppose him.
Fear and Loathing in Pennsylvania:
A State Senator holds a meeting to mobilize against the new administration
Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach held a meeting for constituents a day before the 45th president’s inauguration to outline ways to stymie Trump’s plans and mobilize against policies that might do harm to the community (photo below).
Leach and like-minded guests from the public and private sector spoke to a standing-room only crowd of nearly 800 in the auditorium of a local middle school regarding the new president’s policies, and what could be done to prevent Trump-sanctioned chaos.
“There are obviously some policy questions we have significant concerns about,” Leach says, “but even as a threshold matter, before we get to those policy issues, there is a significant concern over the mental stability of the president and the appropriateness of the people he has surrounded himself with.”
Leach began organizing the meeting days after the election, but says now that Trump has been in office for a short time, “things have only become worse.”
There are already numerous examples, Leach says, of questionable policymaking and erratic behavior, using the National Prayer Breakfast to illustrate his point. “The president took a very somber occasion to talk about his ratings on “The Apprentice,”” Leach says. “There are five or six things a day [Trump does] that are just insane.”
Leach feels the joke is over, in a sense. Trump’s bombast was entertaining on the campaign trail, and his charisma might be what cost Hillary Clinton this election, but it’s gone too far now, he says. “This is unnerving… this guy is the president of the United States now. He has the nuclear codes. His actions matter, and people are concerned and scared.”
Leach says Trump’s recent actions are harbingers of troubling times ahead for state and local government leaders. “We’re facing a torrent of incoming distressing and unnerving news every day,” Leach says. “That’s why I organized the forum – to give people some perspective and some context and some tools to try and preserve what we will have left of a nation when he is done.”
But despite what some see as early missteps, some leaders are excited by Trump’s vow to make America great again. They are energized by his commitment to rebuilding the country’s crumbling infrastructure, and in the process putting the down and out back to work. So could infrastructure be the answer to bridging a divided electorate?
Uniting a Fractured Nation with Concrete:
How infrastructure investment might heal a fragmented nation
According to documents obtained by the Kansas City Star and The News Tribune, the president’s administration has compiled a list of 50 priority infrastructure projects, totaling $137.5 billion, it would like to undertake. Among these projects of regional and national importance, the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project is one of the most critical in terms of national economic growth.
Jamie McCurry, chief administrative officer of the Georgia Ports Authority, is invigorated by the administration’s commitment to investing in infrastructure and feels this particular project is one everyone – regardless of their political leaning – can rally behind,
The expansion will deepen the harbor by 5 feet, which will make it suitable for newer, larger, more modern container ships, McCurry says. Initially conceived in 1997, after all the requisite studies and authorizations were complete, Congress approved the project. By that time, Georgia had appropriated its share of the necessary funding. Currently, the construction phase of the project has been underway for 18 months, using the state share of the total cost. Significant portions of the federal share – about 70 percent of the total costs, however, have yet to be appropriated.
This is why Trump’s backing of the project is so critical, McCurry says. “As we look to the next three or four years of construction, it’s going to be incumbent upon the federal government to meet their share of the costs if it’s going to be completed on time, and in order to maximize the benefits to the nation.”
And those benefits, McCurry says, are significant. “This billion dollar project has a cost-benefit ratio greater than seven to one. Even though it’s an expensive project to build and has an annual maintenance component to it, its annual benefit to the United States of America is in excess of seven times its cost.” This return on investment comes from an increased trade volume, job creation and economic expansion not only in the immediate region but also across the eastern half of the country.
Despite the unprecedented contentious nature of Trump’s presidency, McCurry says there is a high level of confidence that the project will meet any measure of justification.
“As the administration and Congress look to advance infrastructure projects, the Savannah Harbor Expansion project meets just about every marker that would be a criterion for those decisions. We have no reason to have a lack of confidence in the new administration or Congresses’ ability to complete this project.”
It’s high-profile projects like these that have the potential to heal a dangerously fractured nation, says Charlie White, former head of the Office of Railroad Policy at the Federal Railroad Administration and Port Commissioner for the Port of Baltimore. In the past, massive signature infrastructure projects like the Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal and the Interstate Highway System were all born of a charismatic president, a unified Congress and the strong support of the electorate. These projects are the hallmarks of American ingenuity, and certainly fit in with Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again.”
However, given the contentious nature of the election, a new Panama Canal might be unlikely. “I don’t want to say the chance is remote,” says White, “but I do feel the odds are less than 50/50 given the division of the country.”
Despite this divide, White feels that there are some large-scale projects that the new administration and its detractors alike might embrace. White says there is growing support for one such project, a Maglev train connecting D.C. and Baltimore, with financial backing from public partners in Japan, as well as private investors.
Regardless of what the signature project is, though, White says it has the potential to bridge the divide between a divided electorate. “If the project is presented as a job-creator with a long-term economic impact for the nation as a whole… I think Republicans and Democrats would have something in common in terms of meaningful infrastructure development.”
However, no infrastructure project, large or small, will be possible without financing. This is why state and local government leadership has adamantly lobbied for keeping municipal bonds – the main financing tool for infrastructure projects across the country – tax exempt.
Steven Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, S.C., says that approximately 80 percent of America’s infrastructure is financed using these types of bonds. Because of this, he says “elected officials across the country are very eager to work with the administration on the delivery of a purposed trillion dollars in infrastructure projects. That’s exciting, and we’re committed to working in conjunction with the president.”
However, Benjamin also points out, this delivery cannot be divorced from the role tax-exempt municipal bonds have played in the delivery of infrastructure projects since before the inception of the current tax code in 1913.
“It is sacrosanct to our commitment to deliver on infrastructure that we protect the exemption on muni bonds,” Benjamin says. “That’s not to say that other creative ideas shouldn’t be introduced into the process… but these are complementary tools to infuse more capital into the process of delivering critical infrastructure.”
The tax-exempt status of municipal bonds has been on the chopping block more than once, Benjamin says. In the past, efforts to overhaul the tax code have called for capping the exemption or doing away with it altogether.
If this were to happen, the impact, he says, would be significant. “Between 2003 and 2012, local governments financed about $1.65 trillion in infrastructure projects,” Benjamin says. “If the tax exception were eliminated, during that time it would have cost state and local governments an additional half-trillion dollars. This would have forced governments to increase taxes, or reduce spending to cover the shortfall. It would also disallow some governments from accessing the capital markets to address their critical infrastructure needs.”
This is why in December, in a small meeting with then President-elect Trump in New York, Benjamin asked Trump directly if he was committed to protecting the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds. Trump responded clearly that he supports their protection.
“His commitment was crystal clear,” Benjamin says. “We, of course, are thankful for that.”
This is one issue, it seems, all local leaders can rally behind. At the 85th Winter Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, over 300 mayors from across the country met in D.C. to discuss the myriad of issues city leaders face. However, this is an issue, Benjamin says, that mayors are singularly unified on – protecting tax-exempt municipal bonds. “This is the way that local and state governments work to build America,” he says.
But in order to make the nation great, its people must be united regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. Trump’s divisive language and ideas on immigration might prevent him from coming close to the greatness he desires.
A Nation of Immigrants:
Trump’s immigration policies create discord, leaving local leaders to unite the people
In late January, days after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive order to indefinitely suspend the admission of Syrian refugees and drastically limit the flow of refugees from other countries while increasing the vetting requirements of incoming individuals in the name of national security.
Ted Terry, the mayor of Clarkston, Ga., a 1.1-square-mile city of 8,000 just outside of Atlanta, feels this action was inappropriate and will negatively impact his city and the nation in both human and financial terms.
“Clarkston has been receiving refugees for 35 years,” Terry says. “[They] have contributed mightily to Clarkston’s economy and culture in a positive way. There are 40 different nationalities and 60 different languages here.” Because of this, the city has earned the nickname “the most diverse square mile in America.”
There are two main arguments Trump has used to justify restricting refugee’s access to the country – they are dangerous, and they are a drain on government resources. Terry says neither of these justifications is legitimate, and while he admits there are challenges, he feels the benefits of open arms far outweigh the potential cons.
As for refugees being an economic drain, Terry says this simply isn’t the case. Clarkston’s refugee resettlement program is directly responsible for injecting millions of dollars into the local economy.
“We have a vibrant small business community that relies on our international clientele,” he says. “This is why practical policies and measured responses to the challenges we face are so crucial. Going from 110,000 refugees down to 50,000 refugees, which is what the Trump administration has indicated they’re going to do, is going to cause a huge upheaval in our local economy, and I would argue in our regional economy.”
Terry explains that the numbers in Georgia are in direct opposition to the argument that refugees are a drain on resources. The fact is that refugees in the resettlement program must be self-sufficient within 180 days, and the state of Georgia has a 91 percent self-sufficiency rate. “They’re paying taxes, they’re creating jobs, they’re filling jobs,” he says.
Trump also argues that refugees aren’t vetted properly, and are dangerous because of it. However, Terry reports that despite its diversity, Clarkston remains one of the safest cities in Georgia. Violent crime rates are low, and the city has never experienced an instance of terrorism in its long history of resettlement. The dangers Trump sees in refugees, Terry says, are mostly fictional. “As a group, refugees commit crimes at the lowest rate of any class of people in this country,” he says.
Additionally, Terry says the idea vetting is too lax, and terrorist agents can easily slip through the cracks is false. Refugees seeking asylum spend an average of 15 years in a United Nations camp, he says. If they are selected for resettlement, they are vetted by the international agency, which can take up to two years. Then, if they are selected for resettlement in America, the Department of Homeland Security runs their own vetting process, and if the individual is from a high-risk area such as Syria or Afghanistan, the scrutiny is drastically enhanced, he explains.
“If you’re an ISIS infiltrator,” Terry says, “the refugee program is an extremely inefficient way to gain access to the country.”
Terry fears that Trump’s limits on immigration and perceived xenophobia are going to be more dangerous than any refugee seeking asylum in the U.S. “Almost every single domestic terrorist attack in the past 15 years has been perpetrated by an American citizen who has been radicalized,” he says, asking rhetorically how we can prevent our young Muslim citizens from seeing America as the enemy. “The best way I can think of doing that is to have open arms, and when they come here, to say ‘We want you to be part of the community.’”
But it’s not just refugees Trump has targeted. Immigrants – undocumented as well as documented – have serious concerns with the president’s policies, and the leadership of cities in which these immigrants reside is trying to negotiate the best approach to remain compliant while best serving their constituents.
One of the tools Trump says he will use to tackle illegal immigration is cutting federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities, or municipalities that shelter illegal immigrants, most commonly by refusing to use local resources to enforce federal immigration laws. This proclamation led to a wave of support and resistance among the American people, with local leaders stuck in the middle.
Providence, R.I. Mayor Jorge Elorza, has taken a stand against the president’s immigration policy. Providence, which Elozra has defiantly said will remain a sanctuary city regardless of Trump’s policies, has a large immigrant community. About 30 percent of the city, which has a population of 180,000, is foreign born.
One of the main reasons for his resistance, Elorza says, is that Trump’s mandate is tantamount to commandeering local police forces. “From a federalism perspective, we’re going to recoil from any attempt the federal government makes to get us to be federal agents – if it’s for immigration or anything else,” he says.
Additionally, at the public safety level, Elorza argues the demand hamstrings local law enforcement’s efforts to be seen as a positive and trustworthy force in immigrant communities.
“Police chiefs throughout the United States have said [Trump’s policies] don’t make our cities any safer,” he says. “It actually hinders our law enforcement efforts because it causes people to go underground. It runs counter to what policing philosophy has been for the past two decades.”
Finally, from a human perspective, Elorza says Trump’s immigration policies are troubling in principle. “I’m placed in this office to look out for every single one of the residents, and to make sure that they feel connected with who we are as a city and have avenues to contribute,” he says. “This offends that basic premise of who we are as an inclusive society.”
As for the threat of withholding federal funding for cities that won’t oust undocumented immigrants, Elorza says he is unconcerned. He says Providence is prepared to go without federal funding while still maintaining the same level of service to its residents. Additionally, Elorza says national immigration attorneys have given him a great deal of confidence that “what the president has proposed very broadly is patently unconstitutional and illegal.”
In Anaheim, Calif., Mayor Tom Tait is approaching the same problem from a different perspective.
Like Providence, Anaheim, a city of 150,000, also has a large immigrant population that is directly impacted by the president’s policies. For years Tait has been working for immigration reform without gaining much inertia. He feels that with Trump’s promised changes, there might be an opportunity to get local, state and federal officials to work together.
“I worry about people feeling unsettled,” Tait says. “I worry that people feel like they have to hide in the shadows. Our job as mayors is to represent everyone regardless of their immigration status.”
Tait says he is hopeful that the bombastic threats to round up and deport people by the hundreds of thousands and build a massive wall along our southern border are simply that – threats. He hopes that Trump’s extreme rhetoric will serve to get local and federal leaders talking to come up with viable solutions.
“Of course, we’ll cooperate with the federal government,” Tait says, “because that’s the law, but I’m hopeful that [Trump’s threats] are more of a style than a reality. Maybe shaking the box is what gets the ball rolling.”
A Cautious Optimism:
Attitudes nationwide are apprehensive but optimistic
Despite Trump’s divisive rhetoric, over-the-top personality and abrasive style, local leaders remain hopeful.
“There’s a definite recognition that this president is different from any president that we’ve had in modern history,” Tom Cochran, CEO and executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors says. “I think there’s apprehension around a president that has never run a government… but a cautious optimism that we might work with a businessman who understands what it is to build things. If he builds things, we build things.”
While Trump has succeeded in shaking American politics to its core, it’s yet to be seen if this tremor will be beneficial or calamitous Cochran says. The results of Trump’s initial orders simply remain to be seen. However, if Trump will listen, Cochran says, the best advice for how to run the nation will come from its cities. He adds, “there’s a cautious curious optimism in how we as local leaders will be involved.”
Editor’s note: AC&C would like to thank the U.S. Conference of Mayors, specifically Director of Communications Elena Temple Webb, for helping in the planning phases this story.