Nov 19, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Biden's Day 1 challenges: Cities getting desperate

Illustration of a city skyline surrounded by lines and shapes.  

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Dire budget problems in cities from coast to coast mean that furloughs and layoffs of essential workers could ring in the new year. So President-elect Joe Biden will face instant, high-stakes calls for relief. 

Why it matters: Suffering municipalities say there's no way they can tackle COVID-19 and all their other problems without direct and immediate aid.

"If we don't see this relief package, it's going to be hard for us to keep the lights on" and continue responding to 911 calls, says Joe Buscaino, president of the National League of Cities and president pro tempore of the Los Angeles City Council.

  • City leaders — mostly Democrats, but not all — are ecstatic because they see the Biden administration as a friendly one that will keep their concerns front and center.
  • Many are elated by Biden's choice of Julie Chávez Rodriguez, a Biden deputy campaign manager who previously advised Kamala Harris' presidential campaign, as director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.
  • Biden's first elected office, in 1970, was on the New Castle County Council in Delaware. "He gets us, he understands us," Buscaino said. "The Trump administration really did not have a direct commitment to local elected officials."

Where it stands: Both the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities have put out priority lists for the incoming administration, which include perennial wanna-haves like building infrastructure and affordable housing, workforce training, and reducing gun violence.

  • But the urgency of addressing COVID-19 surmounts and supplements these lists.
  • "We don't have any other choice but to do it at once," says Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark, N.J.

There's a lot of ground to be made up, municipal officials say. "We’ve lacked a domestic policy in this country for the last four years," Mayor William Peduto of Pittsburgh tells Axios.

Addressing structural racism also tops the priority list. "The most glaring and persistent of our entrenched problems is racism, a complex, self-defeating system of beliefs and behaviors grounded in the presumed superiority of the white race," per the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

  • To address this, "we must engage both the government and the private sector in efforts to dismantle the accumulation and incorporation of long-standing racialized practices.”

What they're saying: Mayors say the Biden administration will respect them and acknowledge the role of cities as drivers of America’s economic growth.

  • "The number one priority has to be the approval of a stimulus package for our cities," Peduto says. "You can’t allow the centers of our nation’s domestic productivity to be in financial straits or facing bankruptcy."
  • Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio, wants a "true infrastructure bill" and an immediate pandemic relief bill. She's concerned about the expiration of evictions moratoria on December 31.
  • "Just the fact that we’ll have a partner in the White House will be very welcome," says Mayor David Holt of Oklahoma City. "That’s not a policy item, but it makes all the other policy items possible."
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