Oct 2, 2019

Golden age of local leaders

Illustration of a golden podium on a pedestal

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

While approval ratings of Congress are at all time lows, people in both parties still largely trust their local and state elected officials.

The big picture: Congressional gridlock and partisan divisions in Washington will likely deepen leading into the 2020 presidential election. But at the city level, officials are able to move quickly to address their communities' problems, from housing zoning to climate change to gun control.

  • “It’s the worst of times for national America, and it’s the best of times for local America,” says Richard Florida, an urbanist at the University of Toronto.

Americans view local elected officials much more favorably than members of Congress, per Pew Research Center.

  • Tw0-thirds of U.S. adults think local elected officials care about the people they represent "all or most" (14%) or "some of the time" (53%). Just half say the same about members of Congress.
  • Similarly, 64% say local elected officials provide fair and accurate information to the public at least “some of the time," while fewer than half (46%) say members of Congress do.
  • Public school principals and police officers get the highest marks for public trust.

Local officials are also viewed more favorably than state elected leaders, per a 2018 Gallup poll — the continuation of a 10-year trend.

  • 72% of U.S. adults say they have a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of trust in their local government. 63% say the same about their state government.
  • Both Republicans (74%) and Democrats (78%) share relatively high levels of confidence in local governments.
  • Democrats' trust has risen since 2016, Gallup notes, as they have turned to mayors and local officials to pick up the slack for the federal government.
"Cities can't wait for political change. Cities have problems, and cities develop solutions to those problems. And then they export those solutions."
— Andrew Young, Jr., former member of Congress, mayor of Atlanta and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaking at a conference in Atlanta

What's happening: States have been increasingly active during the Trump administration, with attorneys general challenging policies on immigration, energy and health care.

  • This week, a court confirmed states’ authority to enact their own net neutrality rules, which is expected to open the door for statehouses to draft a variety of new internet protections.
  • California has aggressively pursued consumer privacy laws that could become the defacto national standard. Nevada's own privacy rules went into effect this week.

At the local level, mayors and city councils have passed ordinances to address their communities’ priorities — including issues where national leaders are stuck.

  • Mayors from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Columbia, South Carolina (and several others) have passed gun control ordinances in response to gun violence in their towns.
  • Los Angeles and Miami have launched climate change initiatives.
  • Minneapolis became the first city in the country to eliminate single-family zoning to tackle its affordable housing crisis. Oregon followed suit.

"I really think we're the last bastion of bipartisanship. That gives us the ability to be heard a bit differently," Bryan Barnett, mayor of Rochester Hills, Michigan, and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Reality check: Local leaders aren't completely unassailable. Similar to how they view members of Congress, U.S. adults have negative opinions of local officials' ability to admit and take responsibility for mistakes, per Pew.

  • A majority (57%) say local elected officials take responsibility for their mistakes only a little or none of the time, and 41% say they take responsibility at least some of the time.
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