All Politics Is Local


We are still a few months away from the first votes being cast and many voters are already sick and tired of presidential politics.

Whether it’s fatigue with the latest “Trumpism” or exhaustion with the Clinton’s history, Americans seem restless, more than a little anxious and increasingly wary that solutions are going to come from Washington.

The latest Rasmussen Poll says 63 percent of Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction; a whopping 35 percent more than the 28 percent of Americans who like what’s happening.

The President’s approval rating is in negative territory and voters seem to prefer root canal to Congress.

But all across America, citizens seem happier with their local government. With the notable exception of Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, Mayors across the USA seem to be thriving. We are in a golden age for cities, with new investments being made in the arts, housing, infrastructure and placemaking.

Jobs are being created, technology hubs are incubating new businesses and entrepreneurial ecosystems are being put together—sometimes in unlikely places.

Baby boomers and millennials are seeking compact, walkable and vibrant communities. Even suburbia is beginning to add urban amenities to attract talent and investment.

I see it in South Florida, where Miami is exploding with energy and smaller towns such as Delray and Boca are attracting record investments and interesting entrepreneurs seeking small town charm with big city amenities that include culture and an incredible food scene.

Austin—long a bastion of cool– is riding its music scene, the South by Southwest Festival and the University of Texas to great heights—literally– with investments that include The Independent, a 58-story “jenga” style condominium that is said to be the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi River.

Story after story is being written about Detroit’s renaissance, the marvelous investment by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert in the downtown and the wonderful resilience of Detroit entrepreneurs who are breathing new life into abandoned buildings and neighborhoods.

Oklahoma City, a bastion of conservatism, has invested in its downtown and has become a magnet for businesses and an example of how quality of life can improve as a result of local leadership and strategic government spending.

All across the U.S., Mayors are not bogged down by partisanship and city governments are free of Washington’s pathologies (special interest money, endless politics, a byzantine legislative process) and therefore can innovate and gasp…actually get things done and move a community forward.

Imagine that.

I think most Americans do; which is why there is so much anger and discontent from sea to shining sea.

Americans are doers, problem solvers, leaders. It’s in our DNA as a nation. But Washington no longer reflects that American ethos. And it hasn’t for a long time.

The best leaders in our nation are sadly not running for president, but a few are running for local office and many are seeking to solve the world’s problems through entrepreneurial efforts. In the best case scenario, those who aspire to build their cities can work with entrepreneurs to grow their local economies and solve some of America’s challenges. We are seeing that in Ithaca, NY where a young mayor, Svante Myrick, has created innovative job programs and has linked environmentalism to urbanism and vice versa.

Perhaps we can get our country moving again by focusing less on the bombastic, cynical and nasty nature of our national politics and more on the practical, solution-oriented and potential of local leadership.


Adventures in Local Politics

Cross one item off the bucket list

Cross one item off the bucket list

I wrote a book.
It took me years to finish and I must have started and stopped 100 times but I got it done. Finally.
“Adventures in Local Politics” is a personal story but it’s also the book I was looking for during my seven years as an elected official in Delray Beach.
The shelves are pretty bare when it comes to books on what local politics are really like. Sure, there are plenty of books written by “big city” mayors but most of America is not like New York, Chicago or Boston.
Elected officials in small cities face far different issues than their big city brethren. But the issues are complex nonetheless and personal too.

And if local officials choose to make their terms about something other than playing dodgeball with the tough issues, they can actually make a positive and lasting difference in their communities.
The commissioners I served with called it moving the “big rocks”; a concept we have turned to frequently on this blog.

And in our case, the big rocks  meant tackling attrition and retention issues in our police and fire departments, trying to improve race relations, crafting a downtown master plan, passing a parks bond, moving the library to a more central location (and freeing the old site up for meaningful redevelopment), creating a community land trust, wrestling with workforce housing, passing a parks bond and re-envisioning culture, Congress Avenue and the four corners of Military Trail and West Atlantic Avenue. There was more: beautifying Pineapple Grove, passing and implementing the southwest plan, moving the high school, building a warm and entrepreneurial culture at city hall, revamping our historic preservation rules and encouraging downtown housing while improving communication with our stakeholders.
Am I bragging?

You bet I am. I’m very proud of the team and the hundreds of residents and business owners who invested their time, talent and money to move a city forward. We inherited a great hand from our predecessors and did our best to move the ball forward.
Did we get it all right?

Not on your life.

Did we make mistakes? Yep, a whole bunch. But we got a lot right too.

And I would put our city’s accomplishments up against any city in our region and beyond. We have built a great city. Not a perfect city, but despite our myriad challenges and problems we have an awful lot to be grateful for and our civic pride is well placed.
My purpose in delineating some of the big rocks is to point out the incredible opportunity local officials have if they are willing to seize the moment. If they have vision, courage and the ability to collaborate with their stakeholders and motivate their staff and affiliated agencies and partners they can make a difference.
My book speaks to this opportunity. So while it captures my personal experiences, it has universal themes as well. Such as: Community policing works, but it has to be authentic and a forever commitment. New urbanism principles work if you have the courage to educate residents and design places for people not cars. Community visioning works if you are serious about engaging your community and work hard to bring new voices to the table.
It felt good to finally finish the book and it’s gratifying to speak to local groups about some of the “adventures.”
Local government is the government closest to the people. Washington is broken, maybe hopelessly so (but I remain optimistic). Tallahassee is remote and partisan. Our hometowns are where we can make a difference. But it’s a choice: major in the minor or play dodgeball or move the big rocks.
I’m looking for those willing to take risks and build. I’m looking for uniters not dividers. We have enough of that horror in Congress.
The big rocks are all around. And they are the most fun to move.

Adventures in Local Politics is available on Amazon and Barnes & If you’d like to schedule a talk or raise funds for your group, please email us at Portions of the sale of Adventures in Local Politics can be donated to your charity of choice.

Water Cooler Wednesday: Engage Or Lose Trust

Hard to earn, easy to lose, really hard to regain

Hard to earn, easy to lose, really hard to regain


The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released a survey on stress last week.

It seems that politics is one of the top daily stressors in the lives of Americans; second only to juggling schedules of family members and more stressful than car trouble and commuting hassles.

Congress has approval ratings in the single digits; colonoscopies and root canals are rated higher than congressmen.

Even the Supreme Court –long respected by Americans in polls– has an approval rating of only 47 percent, one of its lowest ratings in the last 14 years.
So what bothers Americans about politics?

  • The inability to get something done.
  • Failure of government to perform basic functions well
  • Failure of government to solve problems.
  • Failure of politicians to find common ground.
  • A feeling that they are being lied to and that government isn’t working for them but for special interests.

Among the various groups polled, “millennials”  have less trust in government than ever and tend to trust government to solve problems less than older Americans, according to the Foundation’s findings. That doesn’t bode well for the future. Something has to change.

A few years back, the Florida League of Cities produced research showing that the most trusted level of government was local government, the type closest to the people. Polls also showed that people trusted their mayors more than their Congressional representatives.

I wonder if that still holds true.
Locally, Boca and Delray were able to progress because voters trusted local government’s ability to deliver. In Delray, every bond issue brought before voters passed and usually by overwhelming margins.

Because elected officials took the time to engage the community on issues ranging from infrastructure needs and parks to a new library and the need to support a beautified downtown. But referendums also passed because taxpayers believed in their local government’s ability to deliver on citizen’s visions. They viewed City Hall as an extension of the community, not some alien building full of faceless bureaucrats but rather a place that was engaged with them in solving community issues and seizing opportunities.
That trust is the most valuable commodity imaginable. It’s hard earned, can be easily lost and once lost hard to regain.
That’s why it’s important to constantly engage stakeholders on issues large and small. Governments that skip this piece do so at their own risk. Citizen engagement takes more time and effort but it’s essential and once you have buy in great things happen. Just look at Boca’s amazing parks and Delray’s dynamic downtown.
Larger governments find it harder to engage citizens and are more susceptible to monied interests.
Special interests also play locally–but city government is still the level of government where people matter most. But…that is true with one giant asterisk… only if they pay attention, engage and vote.
You have to do all three. There are no shortcuts.