ANGOLA, Ind. – These past few weeks, we’ve seen yet another example of sclerosis in Washington, this time with the farm bill. On a topic that begged for compromise, everyone dug in, and there was celebration in some quarters even as they were spitting the ashes out of their mouths.
Next up comes the immigration package, with House Republicans overwhelmingly balking Wednesday at the Senate passed bill despite warnings from Speaker John Boehner about the political consequences.
Later this year, we’ll get another debt limit faux crisis.
It is a city of gangs who can’t shoot straight, of rhetoric akin to methane gas seeping out of a melting tundra. Gallup has congressional approval at 10 percent, yet another historic low.
LaPorte Mayor Blair Milo’s column on page 1 hits a number of points that are resonating. And it underscores a recent piece by conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks on what he calls the “power inversion,” the rise of city states and regional governments that fill the void left by the partisan polarization in Washington.
Brooks cites the book “The Metropolitan Revolution” by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution, saying: As the federal government becomes less energetic, city governments become more so. Katz and Bradley describe a country that is segmenting slightly into divergent city states. Demographically, society is clustering. In an era when the nuclear two-parent family was the key demographic unit, it made sense to think of America as a suburban economy with common needs. But now two-parent nuclear families account for only a fifth of all households. The young, the old and the single make up a huge slice of the population, and they flock to density. According to Robert Puentes of Brookings, the share of young people with driver’s licenses is plummeting. Public transit ridership rose by 32.3 percent between 1995 and 2011.”
I thought it was so strange over the past several years when both of my sons were utterly indifferent about getting their driver’s license on the first day they could. Baby Boomers would almost camp out at the BMV in the old days.
In the “Metropolitan Revolution,” the authors note that economic changes reinforce regional concentration. For decades, companies sought to protect their intellectual property by isolating their research-and-development functions in suburban research parks. But now scientific breakthroughs are less likely to come from discrete teams. They tend to come from large, loose networks of researchers brought together in physical proximity. It makes sense to locate research facilities in urban districts, often around urban universities, where researchers will make wider and more flexible contacts.
In Indiana, we have such clusters, like the orthopedics in Warsaw and the life sciences triangle between Bloomington, Indianapolis and West Lafayette.
When I think about who’s getting stuff done, who’s changing the dynamic, I think of Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, who is already systematically changing transportation. There are bike lanes everywhere, bike depots (and I’m seeing more and more people pedaling these days); his electric hybrid city fleet, and coming soon, the electric vehicle sharing system.
This is all happening while the Indiana General Assembly debates the old-fashioned concept of mass transit, some appearing oblivious to the population behavior shifts happening right before their windshields.
Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight has started a free public trolley system. Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott is using casino money to send local kids to college.
These public servants are changing the equation and getting things done.
Brooks points out that because issues on the regional level are so tangible, it is possible to debate new proposals without getting immobilized by the big government-versus-small-government frame. Republican mayors tend to be more activist than their congressional counterparts, and Democratic mayors tend to be more business friendly.
They become pragmatic problem solvers.
I’ve long said that mayors have a tough time moving up the perceived political “food chain.” Former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut was a fine executive and would have made a great governor, but he was excoriated in the 1990 secretary of state race by Joe Hogsett for “raising taxes” more than a dozen times. Translated into the polarized federal dynamic, most mayors have too much pragmatic baggage to fit into ideological cookie cutters that Washington demands.
In the television age of Hoosier politics, only Dick Lugar, Vance Hartke, Joe Kernan, Robert Rock, Nancy Michael, Winfield Moses and Frank McCloskey were able to forge a political career after City Hall. Paul Helmke, Stephen Goldsmith, Mike Harmless and Bill Hudnut couldn’t and the voting jury is still out on Jonathan Weinzapfel, who had to pass on the 2012 gubernatorial race due to mayoral baggage.
Now I’m beginning to wonder if being mayor is in a position to eclipse the power of a Member of Congress. We’ve seen many top resume political figures pass on U.S. Senate races across the nation.
Why trap yourself in a maze of hectoring ideologues and people who know how to pick a fight, but can’t get anything done because compromise and pragmatism are dirty words?