Preface to “Local Governance when all Politics is National and Global”

 

 

 

 

I may regret this but… I have been trying (on and off, mostly off) to write a short book about my experiences on the City Council in Davis, CA.  It is meant to be a reflection on a number of the things I experienced while in office that I never expected.  It is also about the ways that “the local” is connected to the “global.”  What follows is a re-write of the preface I wrote several months ago.  Still not happy with it but it will stand for now.  Chapters in this book will include (at this point):

  1. Introduction: Confessions of a Globe-Trotting Cosmopolite
  2. Sustainability: Environmental, Fiscal, and Social
  3. Privilege Means Never Having to Accept “No”
  4. Housing I: Our University Town Would be Great if it weren’t for the Students
  5. Housing II: “Your Job is to Make Our City as Inhospitable as Possible for Homeless People”
  6. Welcome to Davis Mr. Gandhi
  7. When Hate is Local
  8. Justice that Restores: We all Want it Until we Don’t
  9. Sanctuary During the Return of the Nativist
  10. Our Police, Ourselves: Oversight of the Police we Have Demanded and Militarized
  11. A Localist Vision: Identifying Giftedness and Giving Thanks

Preface

Her voice shook with anger (fear?) as she addressed us:

“You… you will be responsible. You have GOT to do something. Now. You have got to do something before someone else gets killed.”

She was one of a dozen who spoke during public comment about a police use-of-force incident in our town. They had been coming to Council chambers for weeks—and would return for many weeks more. Their anger palpable, their accusations of wrongdoing surprisingly personal, their demands clear: we needed to fire the police chief, the City Manager, and anyone else who stood in the way of justice for the young people involved in the incident.

But no one had died. The incident in question (which led to the creation of a new police oversight system and a public accounting of the inappropriate actions by the police) had left officers with a few cuts and bruises and the young people with whom they had the altercation, with no known injuries. The young people were charged with felony assaults and resisting arrest–charges that were later dropped. But no one had died, at least not in our city.

I cast a sidelong glance at my colleagues after her statement, and it was clear that we were all wondering what she meant by “before someone else gets killed.” People had died at the hands of the police, of course—in Ferguson, New York, North Carolina, and elsewhere. But not here.

That is when the message came home to me. What happens “out there” is felt profoundly “here.” People’s sense of connection to broader national and global issues conditioned their reactions to what was happening in their city. It was a profound realization and explained a great deal of what I had experienced as the Mayor of this small city of 70,000.

By the time I decided to run for local office (City Council, Davis, California), I had a pretty good sense of the significant challenges ahead if I were to be elected. Our city’s fiscal situation, like most cities in California, faced significant challenges related to years of inattention to necessary infrastructure, lack of affordable housing, budgetary instability caused by underfunded pensions, and a variety of so-called “social” challenges—led by homelessness (a syndrome with widely misunderstood causes).

I knew that I would be dealing with these and all their attendant issues—painful budget cuts and priority setting, contentious land-use decisions, employee negotiations, tax proposals, social services planning, etc. I spoke about my understanding of and proposed approach to dealing with each of them in my campaign literature, small group meetings, and public debates and forums. I prepared carefully to address them in all their complexity. I expected them to take up most of my time.

I was not wrong to have so prepared, and collectively, they took up most of my time. Local government is very pedestrian, and its focus will always be on creating a sustainable, safe, and livable community by looking after the essential mundane.  

This book is not (primarily) about any of these things. They indeed form the backdrop of what I share here, but this book is about things I never expected, never consciously prepared for, and never anticipated spending time on. In the end, these other things consumed hours, days, and whole weeks of my life, and at times felt all-consuming.  

That I did not anticipate them does not imply that they are not vital. In their way, each of them is as critical to creating a thriving community as budgets, water and sanitation, and firefighting. As I hope to demonstrate, responding to them and walking with the community through them constituted some of the most important work I did over my four-year term.

The aphorism “all politics is local” is undoubtedly true. I would say that all politics is hyper-local. People rarely write about “community” concerns or “city” concerns. Instead, they want help with their park, their neighborhood, their street, their tree.

But in another sense, all politics is linked to broader social, political, and economic forces. All politics is regional, all politics is national, and all politics is, in certain ways, global. I mean this in a precise way—how we react locally to the world beyond our city’s borders. One feature of our networked world is that what happens “out there” elicits reactions here. Only that could explain the comments of the woman who addressed us, and it pushed me to believe that, potentially, every national and global issue of concern would find its way into our Council meetings on Tuesday nights. Many did.

Global terror showed up in the form of local imam’s sermon. Police brutality and militarization in a “mine-resistant armored protected” vehicle and the use of force incident. The consolidation of economic power and income inequality in calls to disinvest from Wells Fargo. Global retrenchment and xenophobia in hate crimes and calls to stand against white supremacy and create sanctuary. And the list goes on. From global climate change to Indian politics (yes, even that), from criminal justice reform to white flight in the form of “NIMBYism,” issues playing out around the world played out in my hometown.

What follows is simply about how I, as one city council member and, for a time, Mayor, perceived these global/local issues and how I tried to respond. The response is what still matters to me most.  

I entered office (and left it!) as a localist. What I mean is that I believed then and believe now that we can face many of the most challenging issues of our time effectively ONLY at the local level. Despite the constraints imposed by state or federal statute or limited resources, I still believe that local communities are where resilience starts and where we find human solutions to our challenges. Because of this, I thought it was my job to help create a more resilient community—one able to face the inevitable shock related to climate change, recessions, disasters, and changing legal requirements. And so, I viewed my response to these global/local issues as critical to strengthening my community. 

 

I felt (and feel) that they were not merely issues to be “managed” but rather opportunities to help build the social infrastructure to make us better able to withstand the challenges each community must face. This book reflects how I tried to respond to a variety of these global/local issues. I will leave it to others to decide whether these efforts accomplish the hoped-for goal of greater resilience.

I want to thank the four other members of the City Council who served with me during those four years: four members but five committed and thoughtful community members who gave up large chunks of their lives for the often thankless job of trying to lead our city—our home. 

I want to thank the dedicated but too-often-maligned City staff who does the day to day work of running this town. 

I would like to thank the dozens and dozens of community members who faithfully served on a variety of city commissions, task forces, and working groups. These groups provide input, act as sounding boards, and do a high-level technical review of thousands of pages of reports and other documents. Their dedication adds a layer of transparency to our public processes that should be the envy of every city. 

I will avoid using any of these people’s names (or any names for that matter) throughout this book. Their identities may not be hard to figure out in some cases, but this story is not about holding them to account or holding up their failings for public review. They will go unnamed. Finally, I want to thank my wife, who agreed to let me run and serve but told me I “better never bring any of that stuff home.” I honored her command (for the most part).

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