Elected officials rarely get the chance to pause and reflect. For many of us, elected office is a second—or third—job, and there is always another project to complete, another problem that must be solved, or a council meeting to attend.
The truth is—most of us like it that way. As local leaders, it’s in our nature to keep busy. But the holidays, and Thanksgiving in particular, give us the opportunity to reflect on the things we can be grateful for. And while the nightly news might be filled with stories of despair and disruption, we as city leaders have so many reasons to give thanks.
Here’s my top 5:
Civic engagement is on the rise
Just a few weeks ago, Americans went to the polls in droves – not only to choose who they wanted to lead them, but also how they want to be led. And they did it at the highest rate for midterm elections since 1914. Red or blue, Republican or Democrat, that is good news for our democracy. Whatever the election outcome, the increase in voter participation indicates that we are leading engaged and passionate communities.
Beyond voting for elected officials, residents in 37 states voted on 155 statewide ballot measures this November. These ballots reflected important issues for local governments – issues like redistricting, legalization of medical and recreation marijuana, minimum wage and energy policy that will define the way we govern for decades to come.
Local democracy is winning
2018 was a milestone year for local democracy.
You have to look no further than our 49 state leagues for evidence. State leagues in Iowa and Florida celebrated 50 years of Home Rule in their states, while many others spent the year focused on local decision-making and pushing back against state overreach. We also saw cities in several states join forces to defeat preemption bills, like in Florida, where every preemption bill was knocked down in the 2018 legislative session, thanks to the coordinated efforts of local leaders in the state.
And through the National League of Cities, local leaders are coming together to share experiences with state preemption and to develop strategies for pushing back against it. We set the stage this year to redefine what local democracy looks like in the 21st Century, and I am hopeful for the tools and resources that we will develop in the year ahead.
Leadership in the face of tragedy
As local leaders, we are increasingly faced not with the question of whether a tragedy could occur in our own communities, but more a question of when.
This year, unfortunately, we experienced a lot of loss. From the devastating hurricanes that hit Florida and North Carolina, to the wildfires that continue to rage in northern California and the tragic mass shootings in over 150 communities that resulted in the loss of more than 1,100 people – local leaders are on the front lines when disaster strikes.
But while we continue to mourn the loss of life and sense of security our communities once held, I believe that local leadership, especially in times of tragedy, makes the biggest impact on our communities. We lead our communities through the good times, and the bad times. And at the National League of Cities, we support each other along the way.
Love conquers hate
Our national discourse has become dominated by this idea that we’re in a zero-sum game, where you can’t win, unless the other side loses. On television screens and in our social media, there’s a narrative of urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, conservative vs. liberal, east vs. west, citizens vs. non-citizens. But you only have to look at the local level to see that this is not the true state of our nation.
Our recent City Summit proved that when local officials come together – no matter their background or the politics of their home communities – they can work toward common solutions to our biggest problems. Whether it’s housing affordability, the opioid crisis or infrastructure investment, by bridging divides and working across the aisle, we prove that the love we have for our residents is more powerful than the hate that is but a mere distraction for progress.
Local leaders don’t have a choice but to work together. We don’t have time to hide or to get caught up in partisanship and division. We have to lead our communities, and for that, I am thankful.
Local leaders earn respect
Earlier this year, I shared my reflections on the deaths of Aretha Franklin and Senator John McCain. I talked about how these two giants of American culture and politics embodied respect, especially at a time in our country when mutual respect and decency is hard to find.
We see politicians at the national and state level demanding respect. But at the local level, we earn respect. We earn that respect because we don’t ask for a seat at the table to solve our biggest problems. We set the table and bring people together. We don’t ask for others to create solutions for our challenges. We bring those solutions ourselves to our communities.
We don’t ask for our residents to trust and respect us. We earn their trust and respect on a daily basis. I am so thankful for all of the local officials across the country who earn that respect day in and day out.
My hope is that everyone can spend time this Thanksgiving reflecting on the values that make us who we are, and remind us why we ran for office. Happy Thanksgiving to all.
About the Author: Clarence E. Anthony is the CEO & Executive Director of the National League of Cities. Follow him on Twitter: @ceanthony50.