Editor’s note: The following is a letter sent to all the Presidential Democratic Party candidates from mayors in four Southern cities: Columbia, South Carolina, New Orleans, Louisiana, Jackson, Mississippi, and Birmingham, Alabama.
It is customary for presidential hopefuls to visit the South because the primaries in those states are early, in February or March, and early victories mean candidates can expect to do better as other primaries take place.
It is also customary for Democratic Party officials in every state to expect things from a candidate they support if they get elected. But since most of the Southern states are red, Southern party officials exact promises during the primary season because that is when they have leverage.
But 2020 is different for two reasons: first, despite widespread voter suppression in every Southern state, in 2016 there were very close races in Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and Texas. And next time, maybe more women and minority candidates will win. The second difference is that in these four major Southern cities, they already have won.
This letter is essentially a blueprint for rebirthing American democracy, not just in the South but in every state in the union. It’s release last month is unprecedented in both the scope of its vision and the audacity of its authors.
Dear Presidential Candidates:
Our Southern cities represent some of America’s most dynamic local economies. Yet, national conversations around urban agendas are far too often centered around larger urban centers located outside of the South.
The undersigned mayors collectively represent the voice of four Southern cities, representing approximately 1.7 million residents, including more than 345,000 Democratic voters, and importantly, 196 Democratic delegates in 2020 from the states our cities serve. And because our states’ presidential primaries occur in the first few months of the presidential primary season, we fully intend to make the challenges our cities face and the priorities of our Southern communities front of mind for your campaigns.
This letter will serve as a roadmap for your campaigns to engage with us if you wish to seek any of our individual endorsements.
Mayors must often stand in the gap when Washington is unable to solve America’s most challenging issues. Our safety net hospitals disproportionately bear the burden of uncompensated care. Decades of divestment in affordable housing leave us with limited tools and resources to meet the housing needs of our residents. The collective failure to enact sensible, national gun laws push our police departments to their limits — endangering our communities and our officers.
Decades of underinvestment in federal workforce development programs leave us with limited tools to close the skills gaps to meet the needs of a global economy. We must respond to asthmatic children in our communities who suffer when federal air quality enforcement is permissive. Underinvestment in our emergency preparedness, disaster mitigation, and recovery efforts leave our communities vulnerable to extreme weather events. And, when federal food programs go underfunded — and our residents go hungry — our schools, churches, and food pantries often look to us to help fill funding gaps.
These are real issues we encounter in addition to the everyday responsibilities of safeguarding our communities and operating effectively. Our jobs become even more difficult given that we are often located in states where our state government restricts our ability to respond adequately to the challenges our cities face. Therefore, as a prerequisite for securing any of our individual endorsements, we ask that each of your campaigns put forth a robust federal agenda that reflects the unique realities of our jobs and reverses decades of disinvestment in our cities.
Specifically, we seek details from your campaigns regarding each of the following:
- A comprehensive agenda to expand the federal government’s investment in affordable housing to help us battle rising housing prices and gentrification, with specific estimates for how you intend to increase funding for the National Housing Trust Fund, McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants, Special Purpose Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, Capital Magnet Fund, funding for middle-income and workforce housing, expansion and improvement of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, as well as your plans for expanding resources to eliminate blight, providing relief for renters, upgrading and modernizing public housing, earmarking federal investments for supporting community land trusts, and encouraging home ownership;
- Dramatically expanding Community Development Block Grant funding and the allocation authority for the New Markets Tax Credit Programs and mandating impact reporting for Qualified Opportunity Funds to ensure that Opportunity Zone investments benefit long-term residents of Opportunity Zone communities;
- Expanding the Economic Development Administration’s budget to support grants and technical assistance to economically distressed communities like many of those we represent to create and retain jobs and stimulate economic growth;
- A plan to dramatically expand the Small Business Administration’s commitment to employee-owned, minority-owned, and women-owned businesses across the Administration’s lending and investment programs;
- Mandating tougher standards for large financial institutions to comply with the Community Reinvestment Act so that more resources are directed to our communities for community redevelopment and investment;
- A comprehensive infrastructure agenda that details how your Administration will expand the federal government’s investment in mass transit, broadband deployment, modernization of our water infrastructure, roads, bridges, and airports;
- A comprehensive criminal justice reform agenda that ends mass incarceration, ends the War on Drugs, expands the federal government’s investment in returning citizens and court diversion programs for nonviolent and first-time offenders, and that provides additional resources that help our cities tackle the root causes of crime;
- A national strategy for workforce development that works directly with local governments to direct resources to close the skills gap for the long-term unemployed, returning citizens, and our youth;
- A national food policy that expands school-based breakfast and lunch programs for meals after hours and in the summer for low-income students and expanding tools like the Healthy Food Financing Initiative that helps our cities combat food deserts;
- Comprehensive plans to combat climate change, foster climate equity, and invest in the disaster resilience capacity of our cities — including plans to streamline the process to ensure more timely deployment of emergency resources to respond to natural disasters;
- An agricultural policy that prioritizes small farmers and restores and expands SNAP benefits. Such a policy should articulate how your administration would expand the role of our Historically Black Land Grant Universities regarding research and development around environmentally-sound agricultural innovation and for increasing black farm ownership and food production;
- A just and humane immigration policy that creates a realistic and dignified pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents;
- A clear commitment to gender equity as reflected in expanded resources for ensuring pay and workplace equity and expanding the Department of Justice’s resources available to cities for a variety of programs — from clearing rape kit backlogs to expanding resources for community-based responses to domestic violence — under the Violence Against Women Act;
- A dignity economy agenda that recognizes the dignity of all work by establishing a fair national minimum wage, supporting workers’ rights, and allowing seniors to live and retire with dignity;
- A health equity agenda that not only includes a plan for providing comprehensive and affordable healthcare, but also an agenda that expands investments in Superfund and brownfields, restores funding for Clean Air and Clean Water Act enforcement, and addresses healthcare disparities in our communities. Cities are often on the frontlines in responding to the mental health challenges of our residents, so we believe that any health equity plan should expand our resources to treat mental health. We also ask that you provide details on your plans for women’s health — including maternal health for Black women — for indigenous communities, youth and families, as well as women and girls impacted by sexual violence, trafficking, and domestic violence;
- As mayors of cities with either majority or substantial African-American populations, we ask that your campaigns provide actionable plans for addressing the racial wealth and opportunity gap, including your campaign’s approach for reducing the racial homeownership gap, entrepreneurship gap, school funding equity gap, racial wage gap, and for equitable investments to be made in our Historically Black Colleges and Universities;
- A plan for creating a permanent, federal commitment to modernizing the information technology infrastructure of our cities through leveraging the U.S. Digital Service to work directly with municipalities and local governments. As the level of government with the most constrained tax and fee base, we are often the least equipped to invest in modernizing our information technology systems. At a time when residents are interfacing with local government digitally more than they ever have before — for everything from business licensing to paying local taxes to paying for court, library and parking fines — this kind of investment in our cities can help us raise and collect the revenue we need to run our cities; and,
- Incorporating into federal program policy design and administration more direct engagement with mayors and municipalities where funding and resources are administered directly through cities and mayors as opposed to states and governors. Examples of this include the State Small Business Credit Initiative, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, and the Investing in Opportunity Act’s Opportunity Zone designation process. These are all programs and resources that directly impact our communities, but also key decision points that flow primarily through our state governments. We are seeking details as to how your campaign would incorporate more direct engagement with cities and mayors in your policy design across each of the areas listed above.
The matters listed above represent the kind of human rights and development agenda that is essential for our cities to meet the needs of residents and move our economies forward.
The Democratic nomination runs through our communities. And given the power that we wield in this primary process, we fully intend to use our influence and elevate the interests of our residents to ensure that your campaigns deliver a value proposition consistent with their distinct needs.
We appreciate your attention to our concerns, and we look forward to hearing directly from each of your campaigns regarding plans to address the matters raised above. We can be reached at SouthernMayors@gmail.com.
Columbia, South Carolina
New Orleans, Louisiana
Chokwe Antar Lumumba