AIF Blog

How Local Leaders Tackle National Issues

Jan 24, 2018
CATEGORY: Society, U.S.A.
Mickey Edwards speaks with Julie Fedorchak, Amanda Edwards, and Ashley Swearengin at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Whether they’re from a big, sprawling city or one of the most rural states in the country, Americans are concerned about a lot of the same issues, economic sustainability for their families and education chief among them. And, according to a panel of young local and regional leaders at the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival, people are looking more toward local leadership than their state and national governments to tackle the issues most important to them.
With the second-highest concentration of poverty in the nation, according to Ashley Swearengin, president and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation, the city of Fresno, CA, has been grappling with chronic issues related to poverty for a long time. Fresno's problems include widespread unemployment, a cycle of poverty that’s hard to break, and persistent low-level stress poor kids grow up with.
There is some optimism at the local level, says Swearengin, who was mayor of Fresno from 2009 through 2016. “One good thing about being under the radar is that we’ve learned we’re not going to get anything out of DC. So built into the fabric of the civic DNA of Fresno is this sense of civic entrepreneurship, that we have to solve problems ourselves. And there’s always a way.” 
Houstonions similarly place more trust in their city leadership to advance policy that makes a difference in their lives than state or national politicians, says Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards. Recent city initiatives aimed at advancing Houston’s economic interests and combating inequality include a technology task force, intended to help craft a plan to diversify the city’s economy from its traditional oil and gas monolith, and the Complete Communities Initiative, which provides revitalization tools for underserved neighborhoods, “but letting the residents of these neighborhoods be the authors of their own destiny,” says Edwards.
On the pessimistic side, she adds, most Houstonions don’t appreciate state and national politics on immigration. In a city that’s 40 percent Latino, people have been living in fear and disruption since the state government passed a law banning “sanctuary cities,” which among other provisions punishes officials who don’t actively cooperate with federal immigration law. In June, Houston joined three other Texas cities to sue the state over the law.
On the other hand, local leaders appreciate serving in positions that, contrary to state and national politics, are often not party-affiliated.
“It's quite liberating to be in a nonpartisan position,” says Edwards, who adds that there’s a lot of bipartisan cooperation at the City of Houston. “It’s very challenging to have to operate in colors of red and blue instead of just thinking about the best outcome for people you're representing.” 
Julie Fedrochak, a public service commissioner in North Dakota and a Republican in a Republican state, says that her responsibility to hold companies responsible to high standards has sometimes put her at odds with people in her party, “but I insist on high standards.”
Sometimes party politics play out in unexpected ways. A Republican, Swearengin recounts the story of accepting help from the Obama administration shortly after she was elected, and how that backfired among her conservative supporters. In this video clip, she explains how, “when you’re coming from a partisan mindset you will only receive help if it’s coming from a person or party that you think it should come from.”
And in this video clip, panelists debate over a local, state, or federal approach to school funding issues, which seem prevalent all over the country.
Written by Catherine Lutz, guest blogger