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Mayors describe fraught relationship with Trump White House

Mayors describe fraught relationship with Trump White House
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Mayors of major American cities — many of them Democrats — say the long-standing bipartisan relationship between urban leaders and the federal government is atrophying one year into the Trump administration.

Some mayors say their calls to government agencies or the White House go unreturned.

Others said they do not know to whom they are supposed to reach out in an administration still struggling to staff up.

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“There’s no relationship today between our cities and this White House, and that to me is very unfortunate,” said Michael Hancock, a Democrat serving as Denver’s mayor. “We feel like we’ve lost our relationship with the White House that we shared with previous presidents.”

Partisan squabbling has infected a once-productive relationship between big cities, which increasingly drive the national economy, and the federal government.

That schism was on display last week, when the U.S. Conference of Mayors met at a Washington hotel just blocks from the White House. The Trump administration broke decades of bipartisan tradition when it left some mayors off the list of invitees to attend a meeting with President TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE.

“I have not heard a peep out of the intergovernmental affairs office in the White House, or anybody else at the White House. If they are interested in communicating with mayors, I’ve seen no evidence of it,” said Pete Buttigieg, a Democrat and the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who was one of those left off the guest list.

The White House said space constraints in the East Room, where the event was held, were the only reason some mayors were left out.

The Trump administration said it is handling city, county and state relations differently than previous administrations.

Justin Clark, who directs the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, has held “State Days,” in which officials from states are invited to the White House for a day of presentations and introductions. Officials from about 15 states have been invited so far.

The administration has hosted more than 1,000 mayors and county commissioners on the White House campus since taking office, said Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman. And the administration has dispatched its top infrastructure expert, D.J. Gribbin, to meet with mayors at conferences in Washington and Miami.

The White House pointed to several cities where mayors say they have had good experiences with the administration so far.

“We’ve had a great experience with them,” said Martin Sullivan, chief of staff to Savannah, Ga., Mayor Eddie DeLoach, a Republican. “I didn’t even have a contact in the last administration.”

Sullivan said his point of contact in the office had directed him to federal law enforcement grants that might help the city tackle some emerging law enforcement challenges.

Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, said the Trump administration helped the city qualify for a $46 million loan to fund repair work on a flood control project before Hurricane Harvey hit the city. Turner met with Gribbin in Washington last year to discuss a bullet train connecting major Texas cities.

Bernstein also said Houston was satisfied with its interactions with the White House’s intergovernmental affairs office.

Some mayors held out hope for a better relationship in the future, especially if the administration turns its attention to issues that can attract bipartisan support, like infrastructure spending.

“I think it’s evolving,” San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer (R) said of the White House’s approach. Faulconer, a rare Republican to run a major city, pointed to Trump’s focus on infrastructure spending. “I’m optimistic that that is one area where you will actually see consensus.”

Some see evidence of partisanship in the Trump administration’s actions, and note that many Democratic mayors and their cities backed Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHarris lists out 'racist' actions by Trump in '60 minutes' interview: 'It all speaks for itself' Trump has list of top intelligence officials he'll fire if he wins reelection: report Clinton says most Republicans want to see Trump gone but can't say it publicly: report MORE in the 2016 election.

In previous administrations, the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs has allowed the White House to build a bridge to cities and states run by officials in both parties. Veterans of the office say it has a valuable ability to advance an administration’s goals in areas of bipartisan agreement.

“You are the resource for the mayors, the governors, the county officials who call and say, ‘We saw this is going on and we’d like the participate,’” said Jerry Abramson (D), the former mayor of Louisville, Ky., who served for two years as the director of intergovernmental affairs in the Obama administration. 

Under former President Obama, Abramson had a West Wing office. His team would hold conference calls with intergovernmental affairs offices at each Cabinet agency once a week, and face to face meetings once a month, to keep tabs on issues of concern to state, city, county and tribal leaders.

The intergovernmental affairs team helped push Obama’s agenda on everything from education to the Affordable Care Act to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Abramson said he worked particularly with then-Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican and now Trump’s ambassador to China, to lobby Iowa’s two senators to support the massive trade deal, which would have opened international markets to the state’s agriculture products.

“We’re listening and trying to respond to their needs. On the other hand, we’re taking the domestic agenda of the president, sharing it with mayors and county officials and governors and asking them for help,” Abramson said.

In the Trump administration, the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs is headquartered across the street from the White House, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Some mayors said that, under the Trump administration, the relationship between the federal government and cities has often devolved into a fight over immigration policy. 

“Every time that there’s an issue that becomes controversial, we end up going back to the conversation on immigration. We’ve got to move beyond immigration,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a Democrat.

The day before mayors were invited to the White House, the Justice Department threatened to subpoena 23 cities, counties and states the department said were acting as sanctuaries for immigrants in the country illegally. Several mayors, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), boycotted the White House meeting in protest.

“The relationship is very different, and I think the White House will realize it,” Walsh said. “I just don’t know if it will be too late when they realize it.”