Urban revitalization, conservative-style

Conservative influence in City Hall has been on a downward slide. By late 2013, there were no Republican mayors governing the largest twelve cities in America, down from six in 2000. At present, there’s just one: San Diego’s Kevin Faulconer, elected in February.

The voting trends in legislative and presidential races are equally striking. If you break down the nation’s electoral map on a county-by-county basis, it becomes a sea of red interrupted by intensely populated blue metropolitan areas. We have become a country of Blue Cities and Red Everyone Else.

But demographics do not dictate destiny, nor does political party necessarily dictate philosophy.  While most conservatives tend to be Republicans, some Democratic politicians, including mayors, have successfully implemented conservative policies.

For the best interests of our urban populations, there are compelling reasons why conservatives – whether they be Republicans, Democrats or Independents – can and should become a stronger voice in our nation’s cities. Cities could benefit greatly from the focused application of conservative principles on the challenges confronting them.

While I was mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida, our priorities were improving public safety, promoting economic development, supporting public schools and improving government operations. Each of these must be a constant focus of any city’s leadership.  Fortunately, there are examples of conservative leaders with proven success in each of these critical areas.

Improving Public Safety

In the last two decades, no mayor has been more effective at reducing crime than New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.  Mayor Giuliani’s policies, based on the conservative principles of data-driven responsiveness and accountability, led to record reductions in crime rates and a renewed feeling of personal safety.

The long term impact of Giuliani’s reforms is significant, as summed up in 2012 by Manhattan Institute senior fellow Heather MacDonald:  “Since the early 1990s, New York City has experienced the deepest and most prolonged crime drop in recorded history.  Homicide, robbery, burglary, and auto theft have all fallen by four-fifths; the city’s murder rate is now lower than it was in 1961 . . . The drop in crime in New York is the greatest public policy success story of the last quarter of a century.”

It was a monumental, conservative-led, public safety turnaround.

Supporting Public Schools

In St. Petersburg, we developed a series of programs that supported our public schools and folded into the Florida A-Plus Plan, Governor Jeb Bush’s school reform program.  Florida A-Plus mandated measurement of student achievement and accountability.  As Governor Bush has said, “If you don’t measure, you don’t care.”  Measurement now means that Florida gives each public school a grade (A to F) based on the achievement level of the students, and holds the system accountable for the results. The A-Plus Plan has transformed public education in Florida and become a blueprint for education excellence in America.

The school support programs we created included, among others, 1,000 privately-funded four-year “Doorways” college scholarships for low income sixth graders and “Top Apple,” a program that provided privately-funded rewards (dinners, weekends at the  beach, cash bonuses,  and others) for principals and assistant principals based on the A-Plus grade progress of their schools.

93 percent of the low income Doorways scholars graduated from high school; our number of “A” and “B” schools increased by 260  percent; our number of “A” elementary schools (out of a total of twenty-seven) went from zero to sixteen; and our high school  graduation rates went from  53 percent to 81 percent.  Working together, with the foundation of a strong state measurement and accountability system, a community can have a great and positive impact on school progress. We lived it.

Promoting Economic Development

When I first ran for mayor, I was unabashedly pro-business.  To be attractive to businesses, a city must have a great quality of life, reasonable regulations and taxes, and a government that sends the message to employers that they are wanted, appreciated, and vital to the city’s success.

For example, the building department must protect the city’s public safety and other interests without being seen as hostile or obstructing to development.  During my terms as mayor, I held regular 7 a.m. meetings with the development department head, the permitting department head, and any contractor, developer, or citizen who had ideas or complaints.

This resulted in changes such as new development code rules and permitting procedures. We worked to develop an attitude in City Hall where residents and contractors could get to “yes” faster while still ensuring that the city’s fundamental interests were protected. As one architect told me: “You helped us follow the rules.”

Improving Government Operations

While cities’ elected leaders support many efforts, from economic development to arts, they must never forget that they are responsible for the basic services that people in the community depend on every day – water, sewer, garbage, roads, storm water, parks, recreation, police, fire, emergency medical, and many others.

There is a false choice presented by those who advocate for an ever–expanding bureaucracy.  They believe that government and tax rates must grow if a city is to prosper.  In fact, the opposite is true.  A bloated, inefficiently run government that imposes high taxes and burdensome regulation will chase away jobs and homeowners, leading to urban decline.

In St. Petersburg, during our two terms, we reduced property tax rates by almost 20 percent, more than tripled emergency reserves, and reduced total city staffing by 10 percent.  At the same time, we increased the number of uniformed police officers on the street, lowered violent crime rates – the murder rate fell to the lowest level in decades—saw high school graduation rates and student achievement rates rise dramatically, revitalized our downtown center, led a renaissance in the arts, and dramatically improved our most economically depressed area.

One approach adopted by some conservative mayors to improve city fiscal efficiency is to develop methods of applying competitive forces into the delivery of public services.  Stephen Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis, put competitive bidding into place for swimming pool management, snow plowing, street maintenance, waste treatment management, golf course management, trash collection, and other public services.  City departments were allowed to bid for the work–the Indianapolis Fleet Service won the fleet management contract.  The goal was not privatization but rather marketization, the process of applying competitive forces to save taxpayers money.  Over a five year period, efforts to move city services into the competitive marketplace saved the taxpayers of Indianapolis $230 million.

The Seamless City

In St. Petersburg, our goal was to create what we called a “seamless city.” In a seamless city, when you go from one part of town to another, you never cross a seam, whether a street, interstate overpass, or railroad track, and enter a place where you do not want to be, where you feel the need to reach over and lock your car door; an area with boarded-up buildings, broken windows, and large tracts of urban blight, with drug dealers on the street corner.

These are goals that almost everyone supports.  There is nothing liberal or conservative about creating a better future for our kids in the toughest neighborhoods of our city.  It is simply the right thing to do.  How you do it becomes the point.  In St. Petersburg, I governed as a conservative fiscally and socially – and I have the scars to prove it.  But we also placed a priority on Midtown, the most economically depressed part of our city, an area primarily populated by African Americans, most of whom are Democrats.

We focused like a laser beam on improving the quality of life for the people who lived in Midtown. At the end of the day, we ushered in a remarkable renaissance citywide.  Our downtown became the most vibrant in Florida, at nighttime and on the weekends; our public schools improved significantly; we brought high tech employers to town; our tax rates went down and our service levels improved while our violent crime fell; we became a national cultural center and built a major bike path system; we became a “Green City”; and we did something else.  We led a comeback in Midtown that was, simply put, one of the most successful inner city turnarounds in America during that time.

The voters were paying attention.  In 2005, after serving for four years, we ran for reelection against the county chair of the Democratic Party, in a city where less than 30 percent of the population was registered Republicans.  We won the every single precinct in the city with a 70 percent overall victory margin. Remarkably, we also won over 90 percent of the vote in the core Midtown precincts, where an overwhelming number of voters were African American Democrats.  By comparison, in my 2001 mayoral primary election, these same core Midtown precincts had been won by the chairman of the African People’s Socialist Party.

It is a good lesson for any mayor to remember: the best roadmap to political victory is working every day to get things done for the entire city.

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