The final full day of the United States Conference of Mayors’ 89th Winter Meeting, led by Conference President Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, brought mayors together with some of the biggest names in American politics to discuss the biggest challenges facing the country. Mayors were especially honored to welcome President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to the Winter Meeting, where he discussed his commitment to work with them to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and its related crises.
The day started with mayors welcoming back a former member of the Conference in a mayoral listening session with Transportation Department Secretary Designate Pete Buttigieg. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Secretary Designate Buttigieg engaged in discussion with several mayors in a session moderated by Mayor Michael Hancock of Denver, CO, Chair of the Conference’s Transportation and Communications Committee. Mayors had questions about the federal government’s priorities for investing in the infrastructure in cities, including bridges, public transportation, and walking paths. Noting that our most vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected by decades of transportation policy that has neglected the needs of those who rely on public transportation as a means to access everything from education to health care to jobs, Secretary Designate Buttigieg said, “The federal government needs to harness some of the creative problem solving that’s already happening in cities across America.”
Kicking off the plenary session, Austin (TX) Mayor Steve Adler gave mayors a hopeful preview of what may be the first in-person meeting of the Conference later this year. The 2020 USCM Annual Meeting was set to take place in Austin, but the pandemic prevented mayors from gathering there, and the Conference met virtually instead. Mayors are hopeful that in June they will be able to convene in Austin for the 89th Annual Meeting, live and in person.
Next, mayors heard from Kathy Maness, Council Member from Lexington, SC and the current president of the National League of Cities. USCM and NLC have a long history of collaborating to drive solutions to problems facing American cities, and Council Member Maness talked about how important local leadership is needed during this time of crisis.
Cities are always innovating, launching new initiatives, and leading local programs to help improve people’s lives, and today, several cities were recognized for this work. Katherine Lugar, President and CEO of the American Beverage Association announced this year’s winners of the Childhood Obesity Prevention and Environmental Health and Sustainability Award. And Columbus (OH) Mayor Andrew Ginther and Kim Wilkerson, representing Bank of America, named the cities that are this year’s recipients of the DollarWise Innovation Grant Awards, which rewards programs promoting economic mobility.
President Fischer then led a fascinating and engaging conversation with celebrated author and journalist Tom Friedman. They explored the acceleration of change in society, and how it requires new thinking about jobs, education, and government safety nets. Friedman talked about how different people are experiencing today’s change differently, and how 21st century challenges require collaborative ecosystems of people working together to solve problems – ecosystems that fall outside of the traditional political boundaries. We think in “left, right binary politics,” Freidman said. “But it’s not a binary world anymore.”
Later, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced his home-state senator and new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Senator Schumer spoke about the intersectional crises we’re facing as a country, as well as the horrible attack on the U.S. Capitol that he experienced on January 6th. Leader Schumer outlined his priorities in the Senate, including quick passage of the Biden rescue plan. Importantly, Senator Schumer said, “Let me be clear about one thing: the Senate Democratic Majority will make sure the next COVID package will include aid for states, but direct aid as well, for local and municipal governments.”
To close out the opening session, mayors welcomed our new president, Joe Biden. In one of his first addresses since becoming assuming office earlier this week, President Biden spoke about his long working relationship with American mayors and restated his commitment to making mayors a critical part of his plans to rebuild the country. “You have a partner in the White House, Vice President Harris and me. A partner you can trust, who will listen, who will work to get you what you need.”
The president spoke in great detail about his American rescue plan and acknowledged that cities have been hit hard by the pandemic. He talked about $350 billion for state and local governments included in his plan, a top priority for America’s mayors who have been on the frontlines of this pandemic, but now face devastating budget shortfalls. “We didn’t get into this mess overnight. It’s going to take time for us to turn things around. But we also have to act now – now – with urgency and unity as the United States of America, the president concluded. “We’re your partners, we can do this together.”
Following the plenary session, mayors joined breakout sessions for two separate conversations on current immigration issues and city climate priorities. Moderated by Mayors Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, Jorge Elorza of Providence, and John Giles of Mesa, a conversation on immigration policy with mayors featured Esther Olavarria, Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council for Immigration, and Tyler Moran, Special Assistant to the President for Immigration for the Domestic Policy Council. The reviewed President Biden’s recently signed Executive Orders pertaining to immigration and his vision on immigration for the coming months. The discussion highlighted the importance of the partnership between the federal government and mayors to identify solutions that can garner bipartisan support, essential to finding a path forward on federal immigration legislation.
The environmental breakout welcomed U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton (D-AZ), and a former mayor himself, and was led by Mayors Rick Kriseman (St. Petersburg), Chair of the Environment Standing Committee, David Berger (Lima), Chair of the Mayors Water Council and Jon Mitchell (Ned Bedford) Chair of the Energy Standing Committee on cities environmental priorities. The discussion covered critical areas like clean water, drinking water, solid waste, recycling, and brownfields redevelopment, and highlighted how federal-local-private sector partnerships can improve the environment and protect public health.
Finally, the day concluded with an important conversation on a major priority for mayors: climate solutions. Mayors welcomed President Biden’s Special Presidential Envoy on Climate John Kerry and National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy. In a conversation led by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Kerry and McCarthy spoke about the opportunity that exists in a renewed national commitment to fighting climate change and outlined the Biden vision for solving the challenge. “The green economy, the new energy economy that we need to create all over the world is not a choice between… having the environment or the economy,” said Kerry. “And all of you understand that. It is the economy. It is the future. It is the jobs of the future.” He and McCarthy stressed the leadership role that mayors have been playing on climate issues and how they will be an important part of the Biden administration’s efforts to meet its climate goals.
At the close of Saturday’s sessions, Conference President Fischer reflected on the three days of the Winter Meeting, “While we weren’t able to meet this year in person, this virtual meeting gave me hope. That’s what this meeting always does for me, and has done again, even if virtually. It gives me hope. Hope for my city, hope for our nation, and hope for our people.”
There is one final, very special session at this year’s Winter Meeting. On Tuesday, mayors will officially conclude the 89th Winter Meeting when they will hear from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.