My first real job, after college, was covering local government for a newspaper in a mid-size city in Georgia. I came to it with a good deal of curiosity and seriousness of purpose but not much genuine understanding of local government. And in the brief time I covered city hall there and in a second newspaper job in Michigan, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t learn much.
Don’t get me wrong. I was energetic, as accurate as I could be, and interested in a lot of subjects (like downtown development, public housing, local politics, race relations, criminal justice, and economic development) that helped me see how cities worked. But I never truly “got” local government.
Partly it was the result of college political science classes that had taught me about Congress and the White House. Where in city hall, I wondered, were the caucuses, the white-shoe lobbyists, the reform groups, the entrenched interests, the partisan battles, the momentous decisions? The men and women I met in mayors’ offices and city councils, budget offices, planning departments, police stations, courts, water departments, and public works agencies seemed sincere and reasonably competent, but not very inspiring. And certainly nothing like what I expected to find if I ever got to cover Congress.
It has taken me a long time to understand local government, aided by side trips into business journalism, magazine publishing, and now consulting. (Thank goodness I got off the journalism track that might have taken me to Washington.) What helped with my education was getting to know some corporate CEOs as a business reporter and, later, editor. Many of the CEOs I met in the 1980s had two interests outside of running their businesses. One was their industry’s wellbeing, which involved them in state and national politics. The other was their city’s wellbeing, which did not seem to be as much about their own narrow interests as something bigger. It appeared to me that they genuinely wanted their cities to be better places (or, at least, what they defined as better), and the things that interested them were physical: downtowns, universities, airports, arenas, highways, transit systems, and so on.
That’s when it first occurred to me that local governments were different creatures than federal or state governments, and not just their kid brothers. And trying to see Washington-style politics played out in a city council or county commission might not work.
But if local government wasn’t about partisan politics, public policy, and the clash of great interests, then what was it about? The central issue for cities, I learned over time, was something older and more basic. It was about people and places, how they interacted, and how they could made to interact better.
Now, let me pause for a disclaimer. I don’t mean to suggest that local politics are always noble. There are ugly aspects to local government in many places. One is ethnic advantage, where one group uses its influence to hold down other groups while favoring its own. Another is corruption, which sees government as an opportunity for plunder.
And beyond the bigots and the crooks, there are the clueless, the perpetually aggrieved, the showboaters, the time wasters, the bureaucratically rigid, the lazy—as well as the thoughtful, the inspiring, the determined, the philosophical, and the dedicated. In other words, local government is a slice of humanity.
But being about people and place and the interactions of the two does mean there’s something that grounds local politics, something missing from state and national politics. This doesn’t mean local governments don’t have conflict. They do, but the conflicts tend to be about things quite different from those in state capitals or Washington, D.C.
In the weeks ahead, I will get into some of these conflicts—and the real forces that drive local politics. I’ll present this as a guide for journalists and bloggers who want to cover their local governments in a more informed way, but these postings may be helpful as well to citizens and leaders who sometimes have trouble seeing the community forest for the squabbling among the trees.
I invite your comments along the way. If I agree with you, I may go back and change some of what I write. After all, this as an exercise in sense-making, not an apology for local government. Like all human institutions, local governments are flawed. But beneath the flaws are patterns we should pay attention to. What follows are some of the patterns I’ve noticed.
This is the first of a series of postings about better ways of understanding local government and writing about local politics.