Radical Practicality

We all know that mayors are where it’s at. Presidents and governors give speeches, senators hold hearings, Congressmen where nice buttons on their lapels. But mayors do stuff.

Even the loftiest of politicians, once they become mayor, quickly transform into the purveyors of nuts and bolts. They might come into office talking about “new urbanism” and seeing things through one “lens” or another, and yadda, yadda. But within a year, if not a week, they’re scolding people for driving too fast and promising to pick up the leaves before the snow flies.

I bring this up now because a couple of weeks ago Cavalier Johnson became the new Mayor of Milwaukee, replacing Tom Barrett who resigned to become Ambassador to Luxembourg, and yesterday Eric Adams became the new Mayor of New York, having bested more liberal candidates in the Democratic primary last summer. In their inaugural addresses they sounded like they had had the job for a decade. They went straight to the nuts and bolts.

And, along with current San Francisco Mayor London Breed, they’re showing the Democratic Party the way to reconnect, ironically enough, to voters in far flung rural communities, small town and suburbs.

The simple idea is to, as Trent Lott (of all people) once said, “make the main thing the main thing.”

It’s important to point out, for starters, that all three mayors — Johnson, Adams and Breed — are people of color, and yet all three are making public safety and order a priority because those are the most pressing issues to the majority of citizens right now. They’re not talking about “intersectionality”.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson

In his inaugural address Milwaukee Mayor Johnson said he would emphasize a crackdown on shootings and on wreckless driving in the city. Breed has launched a war on crime, moved to add more cops, and she has declared a state of emergency in the anything-goes Tenderloin district. Adams said that he would practice “radical practicality.”

Here’s what Adams told liberal journalist Ezra Klein in October, after Klein asked him why Democrats did 1% to 2% worse with African Americans and 8% to 9% worse with Hispanic voters against Donald Trump in 2020 than they did in 2016. Adams said:

I believe that we’re not spending enough time on the ground. We’re not dealing with those kitchen table issues. New Yorkers and Americans are not complicated at all. They want to get up in a place that’s their own. They want to go to a place where they’re gainfully employed — an honest pay for an honest day.

They want their children to be educated in an environment where they can be ready for the future. And they want to be safe. And so the covenant between the city and its residents, it’s a clear covenant. They pay their taxes. The city through its agencies provides the delivery of goods and services.

Residents have done their jobs for years. The city has not. And it’s just time for the city just to do (its) job. And until Democrats understand that is all Americans and New Yorkers are asking for, we’re going to continue to lose people in the party. We have to rethink it. We’ve become too complicated. And we just have to communicate to our constituency as the average person: We govern.

And there you go. The kind of basic, no-nonsense answer you’d expect from a mayor. If Democrats at more theoretical levels of government would just start thinking like that, if they’d only start making the main thing the main thing, they’d have a chance to defy the odds and keep their majorities in Congress. They might even reclaim the mantle of being the long-term governing party in the country.

Welcome to the 318th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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