Ordonez: Elections distort federalism distinctions

Ordonez promotes awareness about the national election and its municipal repercussions.

Laura Ordonez

Laura OrdonezAs Nov. 6 approaches, we need to clarify how our votes are regarded during national elections. To do so, we must go beyond our craving for primetime debates and sound bites and take a look into the effects the presidential election has on our local communities.

In Philadelphia, these effects are exemplified by Mayor Michael Nutter’s relation with the Obama administration.

“Whose values do you want in the Oval Office?” Nutter asked at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. “Well I know who I want, I know who Philly wants, I know who Pennsylvania wants…and I know who the middle class needs: President Barack Obama.”

Whether he knows what Philly wants doesn’t matter. Even if the he was the lone Democrat in an entire city of Republicans, Nutter would still be expected to prompt us to reelect his party’s leader.

From the Democratic platform to dozens of appearances on national television, Nutter is out to prove that a good relationship with the White House translates into benefits for the city.  Those benefits include federal grants, which Nutter is trying to obtain by campaigning for Obama.

Joseph P. McLaughlin, director of the Institute for Public Affairs, said Nutter’s actions are neither unusual nor worrisome.

“Democratic presidents have had strong relationships with mayors of the nation’s big cities since the New Deal,” McLaughlin said. “Roosevelt believed that cities could not recover without direct federal aid, and that was the beginning of a relationship that has persisted for more than eight decades.”

Since the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, Philadelphia has received 50 grants totaling $351 million. According to the city’s website, the bulk of that money — $131.7 million — has gone into the Philadelphia’s economy and workforce. The rest went to fund transportation and infrastructure, public safety, sustainability and shelters for the homeless.

There is no doubt these programs provided the city with a solid ground for economic recovery, however, the influx of federal aid needs to be extended if the city wants to sustain such recovery.

The Philadelphia School District has submitted an application for the federal “Race to the Top” competition, which involves the distribution of more than $400 million to school districts that wish to finance education reform programs. Wouldn’t it be nice if the mayor could bring some extra grant money back for the city’s struggling education system?

Hence, Nutter’s engagement in the campaign is aimed at catching the eye of the Obama administration. If Obama is reelected, Nutter is hoping to count on strong funding for his last two years.

“Big cities don’t have the kind of voting power they used to have — the nation has become more suburban — but city residents are a critical constituency for Democrats,” McLaughlin said. “The cities are overwhelmingly Democratic, but turnout is often problematic, and Democratic presidential candidates tend to propose policies that will help with turnout.”

Nutter, in his capacity as the leader of the United States Conference of Mayors, is attempting to persuade big-city mayors to endorse the White House by boosting voter turnout.

Would the situation be different under Mitt Romney’s administration?

“Nutter’s aggressive campaigning for President Obama will help Philadelphia, provided that President Obama wins the election. If Romney wins…not so much,” McLaughlin said. “Republicans would generally cut aid programs.”

However, the aggressive campaigning may have more than one purpose. It is possible that Nutter is canvassing so intensely in hopes of securing a cabinet position if Obama is reelected. If that is the case, we cannot disregard the possibility of Nutter’s personal ambition being bigger than his desire to help the city. So far he has denied he would accept a job at the White House.

The election in November is not about choosing one man, but a complex set of relationships. In Pennsylvania, the election is a choice between Nutter-Obama and Romney-Corbett policies, each one consistent with their respective party’s platforms.

Whether you are a Democrat, Republican or an ambivalent independent voter, you need to understand the important link between campaigns and local policies. Only then will you understand what the options are.

Laura Ordonez can be reached at laura.ordonez@temple.edu.

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