Donald Trump is the first American president to live his whole life in a city, but the war on American cities in his presidency so far has put him and congressional Republicans on the wrong side of a “a moral battle,” said Steve Benjamin, the new president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Last week, Benjamin, who is in his third term as mayor of Columbia, S.C., took over the bipartisan group with a pledge of inclusion. But one day into his new job, he was out with a statement responding to the White House’s proposed $60 billion in cuts to the spring spending bill, including $15 billion in social safety-net spending, almost half of which targets the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The move, said Benjamin, would be “disastrous for cities from coast to coast.”
The proposed cuts are the latest split between the White House and the mayors who lead America’s cities. At stake: policies that shape the lives of the over 80 percent of Americans who live in urban metropolitan areas.
The bipartisan group of mayors has taken on Trump over his proposed Obamacare repeal, the elimination of the state and local tax exemption, the crackdown on sanctuary cities, infrastructure proposals that seem to go nowhere in Washington and the Trump administration’s addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census—which many mayors fear will lead to an undercounting that will reduce the federal funding and representation their cities receive.
Benjamin is now the leader of those mayors, forced to try and find a balance between the intense anger many have over the administration’ policy decisions and the pragmatic need to find deals that can be made with the administration.
When I asked Benjamin in an interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast if he has an honest broker in the White House, he said, “Honestly, some days I am not sure what we’re dealing with.”
Asked repeatedly if Trump himself is an honest broker, the most Benjamin would say: “He’s the president of the United States of America.”
Does the president care about cities and the people who live in them?
“I don’t know exactly what the president cares and doesn’t care about,” Benjamin said.
Does he act like he cares?
“If you look at the president’s budget from last year and some of the issues that he’s advanced,” Benjamin said, “I don’t feel that they speak to the needs of American citizens, not on the whole, but certainly not to the very special needs of American cities that are driving our economy.”
Benjamin is taking a careful approach coming into the new position. Mayors love to say that cities are where government is actually working—as opposed to in Washington or state capitals—and where people are held responsible when government doesn’t work. He and others will also point out that pretty much everywhere across the country, local government is regularly four or five times more popular than the federal or state government. And Benjamin doesn’t want the group to become just another player in the new national political pastime of angry finger-pointing and Twitter flaming.
“For some reason, cities have become the whipping boy for certain Washington politicians who want to distract us from their inaction,” said Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles mayor who many believe is looking at going up directly against Trump as a 2020 presidential candidate. But Garcetti cautioned that the big political blow-ups mask the lower-level cooperation underway. He’s in constant contact with government officials, he said, including meeting with the head of Customs and Border Patrol, and having his staff talk with members of Congress on a range of issues.
By Garcetti’s estimate, 8 out of 10 interactions with the federal government are positive.
“It’s a strange thing,” Garcetti said. “You’re simultaneously on offense and playing defense every day, where the distractions of the ideological extremism slows down some of the other work that we’re doing.”
Benjamin is trying to thread a way through, and calling on his own experience to do it. He’s figured out how to be popular enough as a black Democrat that, in a city that is 48 percent white, 41 percent black and has a significant population of Republicans, his election last year was officially canceled because no one ran against him and he automatically got a third term as mayor. He had a great relationship with Republican Nikki Haley when she was governor, and still texts with her now that she’s at the United Nations, and has a good one as well with new Gov. Henry McMaster, one of Trump’s strongest allies.
Officially, he goes at Trump gently. “If you look at the president’s budget from last year and some of the issues that he’s advanced, I don’t feel that they speak to the needs of American citizens, not on the whole, but certainly not to the very special needs of American cities that are driving our economy as we speak,” said Benjamin.
Meanwhile, Benjamin is continuing the Conference’s lawsuit against the federal government over the citizenship question on the Census, and railing against the White House and Justice Department for trying to crack down on sanctuary cities while the immigration bill is so far off Trump’s radar and mired in Congress that 15 Republicans have joined the discharge petition to try and force it into a vote on the House floor.
He’s glad he joined the other mayors who canceled their White House meeting in January, scheduled for the afternoon after the Justice Department threatened 23 cities and counties with subpoenas over their sanctuary cities provisions. Back when John Kelly was still Homeland Security secretary, Benjamin and other mayors met with him and Attorney General Jeff Sessions over sanctuary cities, but said that he thinks they still don’t get the values “that go to the core of who we are.”
Rather than slamming Trump directly, Benjamin talks more in terms of opportunities missed, talking up his “three ‘I’s” agenda—innovation, infrastructure, inclusion—and hyping that he’s a Southern Democrat whose vice president at the Conference of Mayors is Bryan Barnett, the Republican mayor of Richmond Hills, Minnesota, a suburban city of 75,000.
“The American people are tired of the approach you see out of Washington where you vilify the people who are in opposition to you and if you speak louder than the other guy, you win. I don’t think those are real wins,” said Barnett.
But Barnett struggled to name any significant specific issue which he could see the Conference or many of its mayors working with the Trump administration any time soon—which makes for uncomfortable times for Republicans in the group. In January, Barnett stood alongside Benjamin, Garcetti, then-Conference president and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as they ripped into the president over the sanctuary city subpoenas, but he was visibly uncomfortable afterward with a posture of opposition to Trump, and attended a speech by the president later that afternoon at the White House.
“I’m going to agree with my Democratic colleagues a lot over the next few years, and that may make some Republicans uncomfortable, but if it advances an agenda that benefits my residents, I’m OK with that,” Barnett said. (“I have not been invited to play golf,” he added. “But if I need an answer from the White House, I get one.”)
Benjamin is trying to contain a group of mayors who skew heavily Democratic, and as Democrats, skew heavily toward hating Trump on everything. But he’s also trying to call attention to the reality that all of them, Democratic and Republican alike, feel left behind.
“We need a partner. We need the federal government,” Benjamin said.
Asked if mayors have that partner, Benjamin’s answer was short and simple: “we do not.”