Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has mounted a new national stage, to go along with his climate-change leadership role. This one is about metropolitan regionalism. The mayor is joining a national crusade by the Brookings Institution, hoping to steer more and wiser funding to American metropolitan regions. The key argument, not exactly a new one, is that cities generate most American wealth and innovations, so the rural-oriented Congress ought to get on board.
Mayor Nickels was a late, sudden, but passionate convert to the global warming cause. Likewise, he's not exactly been known for his regionalism, despite years as a King County Councilmember. Nickels doesn't really do partnerships, preferring to stake out a Seattle-centric position and hold his ground. So these words from his speech Thursday at a Brookings forum might seem both odd and hopeful: Seattle is the biggest city in the Greater Seattle region, which includes 80 smaller municipalities, each with its own way of seeing the world. We need to step away from our narrow interests and achieve broad agreement among our cities and towns. If we do this, if we work together with our state and federal leaders for the common good, we shall ensure our urban regions remain a hotbed of creative entrepreneurship and make long strides toward our goals of economic opportunity and environmental protection.
You can read the full speech here. It all makes a lot of sense. By pulling together cities and surrounding metro suburbs, the lobbying clout increases in Congress, and it suggests a more rational allocation of federal resources. By associating metro regions with economic prosperity, that makes a better case than citing welfare needs, threats of "long hot summers," or neglected infrastructure. And it helps position Nickels as a national leader of attractive cities such as Seattle, which are not only churning out jobs but also leading the green parade. This platform could help if Nickels is in search of a national job with an Obama administration, as both he and King County Executive Ron Sims seem to be, or just to give him more clout when he comes calling on Congress for the next transit infusion.
No doubt Sen. John McCain will continue to stigmatize cities as bastions of sinister liberalism. Most Democratic candidates also rarely mention urban issues, lest they be tarred. Sen. Barack Obama has kept to this course so far, but he truly is a city guy, and his home town Chicago (Mayor Nickels' birthplace) is one of the most vibrant and innovative American cities.
That said, regional cooperation is a bear to pull off, and Seattle has one of the worst records of all. Examples are our congestion, the failure of Proposition 1 (roads and transit), and the very weak regional governance. Nickels candidly noted this in his keynote address, pointing out that "the Urban Land Institute just named us the top city for unfunded critical infrastructure."