An Open Letter to David Axelrod, Re: Urban Politics

Last week, David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President Obama, announced that after the 2012 election season he’ll return to Chicago to run a political institute at the University of Chicago. The program will have a focus on “urban politics” — what should be on the syllabus?

Some pointers for you, sir. Talk Radio News Service

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Last week, David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President Obama, announced that after the 2012 election season he’ll return to Chicago to run a political institute at the University of Chicago. But this isn’t just some political think tank. Axelrod’s ambition is:

to help encourage young people who are going to be the David Axelrods — and better — in the future so that we’ll have a new generation of people who will be active in politics and public life.

He goes on to say that there’s going to be an urban slant to the whole thing:

Mr. Axelrod, a former journalist, will serve as the institute’s inaugural director and said it would lean toward a focus on urban politics, in part because of the city around it.

Doubly interesting. What should David Axelrod do with this new institute with a leaning towards urban politics? Here are a few ideas:

- The next generation of urban leaders wants to be involved in politics, but so many of us are thwarted by the simple fact that it costs an insane amount of money to run a political campaign in any major city. Some of Next American City’s Vanguard members have run for or gotten into office, but they are working in areas where the financial barriers are lower. In major cities like Philadelphia or Houston or Los Angeles, the financial barrier for getting into politics is — to borrow from the Rent is Too Damn High guy and Matt Yglesias — too damn high. So, Mr. Axelrod, if you’re going to be teaching urban politics, perhaps consider a course on urban fundraising — or better yet, think about ways to change the pay-to-participate aspects of urban politics. If it didn’t cost so much to run for office, many more qualified people would do it, upping the quality of our elected officials.

- Another thing about the young generation: They need partners in the establishment. And they also need folks in the establishment to occasionally get out of the way. Too often the establishment fails to hand off the baton (see Rebecca Ryan’s great thoughts on intergenerational leadership using this very same metaphor). Consider having courses co-taught with people from different generations, and not always with the younger person in the T.A. role.

- Think about urban, political best practices beyond the mayoral level. Mayors work together through the U.S. Conference of Mayors and theC40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. But we need to do a better job of getting folks like state senators and those serving on city council to be more in tune with urban best practices from around the country.

- Steal some folks from the economics program to help think about how to deal with municipal finance crises.

- Finally, elected officials aren’t the only ones who represent and care for their communities anymore. Community organizations, community development corporations and others often have much more interface with local constituents than elected officials do. It would be great if this political school would do more to recognize that these informal groups are increasingly bearing the burden in cities and to innovate in ways of fostering collaboration between informal and formal service providers in cities.

These are just a few of my ideas. What else should Axelrod add to the curriculum?

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Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.

Tags: affordable housingchicagogovernancepublic schoolsanchor institutions

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