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What 100 Mayoral Speeches Say About Urban America

Kansas City Mayor Sly James, center, speaks at the White House in January. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Mayors are talking about jobs, business growth and policing more than anything else, based on an analysis from the National League of Cities looking at 100 state of the city speeches from around the country.

The 2016 State of the Cities report, released Thursday, represents mayors from across the country, including large cities like Los Angeles and Austin as well as midsize and smaller cities such as Eugene, Oregon, and Duluth, Minnesota.

“We do this report because it’s important to understand mayoral priorities in a national context,” Clarence E. Anthony, CEO and executive director of the National League of Cities, said during a conference call with reporters on Thursday as he discussed the report.

The findings showed that economic development was the top topic for mayors for the third year running, with 75 percent of mayors devoting “significant coverage” to the theme in their speeches. The conversation around economic development largely focused on jobs, arts and culture, business growth and downtown development. Budgets were also focused on by over half of mayors.

Public safety also received significant coverage in 70 percent of speeches, with specific attention paid to police departments and community policing. A quarter of mayors mentioned body cameras specifically.

More mayors talked about housing issues than ever before, largely driven by discussions of affordable housing. Demographics also received double the attention of last year, with many mayors attempting to address racial inequities in their communities.

Nearly half of mayors highlighted infrastructure needs, with 48 percent focusing on roads and 32 percent discussing the need to boost bike infrastructure. Several mayors, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, mentioned their Vision Zero goals. Mentions of the broader topic also pointed to concerns about lead in water supplies after the crisis in Flint, Michigan, showed the devastating effects that infrastructure decisions at the municipal and state level can have on a community.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James said during the conference call that mayors across the country are all “talking about the same things,” and that these broad issues are personal when they impact a community.

James said policing concerns are driven in part by the highly publicized police shootings of African-American men in recent years. “We struggle with it, because we know it could happen in Kansas City,” he says. “It could happen in Omaha. It could happen anywhere where police officers come into contact with citizens.”

He says he has that same feeling of vulnerability about mass shootings, and said many mayors say they want fewer guns on their streets. “The proliferation of guns on city streets doesn’t make people safer; it makes them less safe,” he says. “But unfortunately, most of us mayors have very little ability to impact gun legislation on our streets because our state legislation robs us of that.”

Kelsey E. Thomas is Next City’s associate editor.

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Tags: jobsmayorsbudgetspublic safety