America’s Mayors Discuss Politics at SXSW

Amid the political unrest under the new federal administration, local governments are facing new demands and challenges. On Friday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer joined Emily Ramshaw, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, on a panel discussion about the evolving state of politics.

In order from left to right, Mayor Greg Fischer, Mayor Greg Stanton and Mayor Steve Adler join editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune Emily Ramshaw, right, in a discussion about the U.S.'s political climate. Photo courtesy of Jordon Brown for SXTXState.

In order from left to right, Mayor Greg Fischer, Mayor Greg Stanton and Mayor Steve Adler join editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune Emily Ramshaw, right, in a discussion about the U.S.'s political climate. Photo courtesy of Jordon Brown for SXTXState.

Story by Zoya Zia

The panel, entitled “America’s Mayors: Holding the Line,” started with brief introductions. Adler, Stanton and Fischer serve as Democratic leaders in states that often vote against their stances on a variety of issues. Their cities are recognized as liberal enclaves in conservative landscapes. As a result, they have difficulty navigating their relationships with state legislatures.

When asked about the Trump administration, Adler admitted that there is a higher degree of uncertainty for what the future may hold. “We don’t know what the policies will be with respect to immigration or cutting budgets to cities that pay for housing and nutritional programs,” Adler says. “The level of anxiety and uncertainty is making people scared and creating significant doubt.”

On a similar note, Stanton argued that everything has been “so far, so bad” with the new administration. Given the talk of the wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, Stanton says he aims to build bridges, not walls. Although he also voiced concerns about climate change and the immigration ban, he appeared optimistic. “American mayors are ready to lead,” Stanton says. “They will not let the election of one guy affect the leadership they provide to the American people.”

Following along with optimism, Fischer described the “Rally for American Values” held in Louisville, Kentucky on Jan. 30. “Overwhelming amounts of people showed up to say they have been energized by D.C. and want to be heard,” Fischer says. “These levels of civil activation have never been seen before.”

Fischer also noted that some are attempting to break “horizontal trust” between citizens of different backgrounds and “vertical trust” between the media, businesses, and government officials. Along with Stanton and Adler, he shared the view that local government can still do something good for people.


Post-Election Developments

The first part of the panel focused on immediate and ongoing impacts of the election. Ramshaw asked the speakers whether they were surprised by the results and if it affected the way they approached their jobs.

As the federal administration tries to get involved in local politics, Stanton admitted that he has been battling for control with the state legislature. In addition to advocating for “pro-people” policies towards immigrants and refugees, he argued that building a more export-based, innovative economy is key, especially in a border state like Arizona. “Our values have to remain the same, not for short-term political points, but for long-term benefit,” Stanton says.

Fischer added that the state legislature in Kentucky has been able to ally with the business community. Some of the Republican politicians and businessmen who voted for Trump are beginning to realize that his actions are not what they had mind. “This has leveled out some of the more extreme reactions in the House,” Fischer says.

After addressing the political climate, Ramshaw shifted the conversation on the fear surrounding ICE raids in immigrant communities. Adler says he wishes there were better answers to provide. Although he believes “the culture, spirit and soul of Austin” remain the same, Adler recognizes that immigrants and refugees are waiting for authority figures to put the community’s safety at the highest level.

Earlier in February, Austin City Council voted to appropriate funding for nonprofit organizations that defend immigrants and refugees. Still, Adler admits that when he has one-on-one meetings with immigrants or their children, any answer that he gives will be insufficient. Over the past month, at least half of those arrested in raids in the Austin-San Antonio area did not have criminal records.

Taking this into account, Stanton sees a need for a comprehensive immigration policy. Stanton says he wants to reassure the community that along with other mayors, he is not going to sign any agreement with the Trump administration that will enable mass deportation. According to Stanton, mayors of cities as diverse as Phoenix and Austin will not cooperate with proposals that violate their own value systems.


Reflecting on Community Needs

The latter half of the panel elaborated on the question of safety and how people can be protected from hate. Ramshaw noted that communities are hurting and asked the speakers what steps they are taking to address their concerns. She framed the question around Senate Bill 6 and the state legislature’s attempts to strip the rights of the LGBTQ+ community at large.

People across the country are speaking in loud numbers against the state legislature. According to Adler, over twenty groups have told the Austin Convention Center that if the bill passes, they will no longer come. “The bill is a horrible solution to a non-existent problem,” Adler says.

Fischer agreed with Adler, arguing that the bill “lacks collective wisdom” and that anti-LGBTQ+ policy is the “single most destructive thing” to do to the economy. He contrasted North Carolina’s anti-LGBTQ+ law and Senate Bill 6 with the compassion and inclusiveness of Louisville.

For Adler, communicating with Austinites about shared values is an important step to responding to hate. He praised the South by Southwest spirit that Austin embodies. Referring to the motto of keeping the city weird, Adler says that what is weird to some is home to people who are innovative and creative.

Along the same lines, Stanton noted that divisiveness does not benefit local governments and the communities they serve. Instead, mayors and other lawmakers should focus on forming human rights policy and earning the vote of every single person, regardless of their background. “A diverse population is the greatest strength,” Stanton says.

When “the other side” demonizes immigrants and other communities, Stanton argues that they will lose people for generations to come. All three mayors at this panel acknowledged the importance of local government in the upcoming months. Change can start at the local government level by engaging with communities and constantly working to meet their needs.