For the 85th time the mayors of America gathered in the name of progress, more than 250 of them, to proclaim their insurgent independence from politics practiced in spite and politicians too often consumed with it.
Instead, the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, set in a resurgent Miami Beach, showcased something remarkable. The mayors thought together, commiserated together, imagined together and pulled together — Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, from the Rust Belt to the Bible Belt.
Without breaking into partisan sweats or ideological proselytizing, these local leaders used a different kind of vocabulary, one built on addition, not division; on respect, not rancor.
For four days, they practiced a brand of democracy that would please every one of the Founding Fathers. By replacing the words “I” with “we” and “them” with “us,” these mayors reminded us that words are no substitute for deeds and fear is no match for hope.
It was a rejuvenating break from the investigations consuming Washington, from the angst consuming the media and from the gnawing frustration all feel as we look for something better from both.
Tellingly, this bipartisan conference was hosted by a Democrat and chaired by a Republican.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine is a Democrat tackling rising seas backed by a rising regiment of people who care enough to name it and tame it. Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett is a Republican finishing his term as conference chairman and sparking an urban renaissance amid fields of oil, cattle and the NBA’s Thunder.
In fact, every mayor speaking at the conference represent an honor roll of achievement at a time when honor and achievement in government are missing in action.
The roll included Flint, Mich., Mayor Karen Weaver, who is out to stop pollution in the city’s drinking water by watering down parochial pettiness.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, whose Beantown brogue squares with his city’s charisma, is crusading against substance abuse as opioids threaten generations of American families and children.
Mayors Carey Davis of San Bernardino, Calif., and Buddy Dyer of Orlando show how to hold a city together through unimaginable pain wreaked by once-inconceivable domestic terror.
Los Angeles’ telegenic Mayor Eric Garcetti is pioneering a CleanStat program that’s keeping streets and neighborhoods clean by deploying personnel to remove trash and litter wherever it migrates (shades of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “broken windows” approach two decades earlier that reclaimed a city that had lost its groove).
Hattiesburg, Miss., Mayor Johnny DuPree was honored for a reading program that’s uniting the public and private sectors behind a literacy-enhancing breakthrough for children.
New Orleans Mayor and incoming conference chair Mitch Landrieu, a big name in the Big Easy, used the moment to lecture Washington on the perils of parochialism measured against the responsibilities of public service.
And so it went, with mayor after mayor, city after city, profiling the potential of the possible in America. That a hands-on, party-blind, get-it-done attitude can transform any community — and all who live there — into life’s winners.
Thomas Jefferson was right. Local government, that which is closest to the people, which interacts in the day-to-day lives of people, truly governs best.
Because in towns and cities across the American expanse, this is where government must be guided by practicality and delivered with accountability. This is where, by choice, the public and private work as one and cheer as one.
This, today, is where democracy lives.
Levine, who is exploring a run for governor, told attendees that getting things done is not about being Republican or Democrat, left or right, but moving forward.
Former President Bill Clinton took it a step further, suggesting cities have become the nation’s “laboratories of democracy” where rhetoric is not divorced from real lives, where you look at people as people, not demographic groups, and where you must govern “for everybody.”
The last time the U.S. Conference of Mayors was held in Miami Beach was 55 years ago, a year when John Glenn would orbit the Earth three times in a visual statement of American willpower and derring-do.
At that conference, President John F. Kennedy implored the nation’s urban leaders to imagine the improbable and bridge the inconceivable if they wanted to achieve the unthinkable. He forecast that things which “do not now exist” will one day in a nation determined to achieve.
“The Now President” would do well to heed these lessons, past and present. Washington would do well to learn from them.
To keep democracy alive in America.
Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in St. Petersburg and the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.