In an earlier 30 for 30 post, I shared the Preface to a book I am writing about my time on the City Council in Davis. After I published it, I received feedback about the opening anecdote I shared.
I offered the anecdote to explain how it had opened my eyes to a reality that I had not realized before. As I wrote:
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.
While it is true that the event described in the anecdote was my personal “a-ha” moment, it was not the first time that I experienced this sense of “connectedness” of our City to the world “out there.”
The feedback I received about the anecdote was that it appeared to denigrate the genuine concerns of a citizen who spoke during public comment at a City Council meeting on an important concept. Even though that was not my intent, in re-reading the section in question, I fully understand that critique and accept it.
As I said, this experience was not the first time I had experienced this connectedness, but it was the first time I realized what was happening. The very first time was my third City Council meeting. So, I have re-written the opening anecdote to reflect that experience.
I sincerely appreciate the feedback several people provided, and I believe it will make for a better opening to this book. Here is the post in full. I have highlighted the new section and left the rest as it was.
In the weeks before my third meeting on the Davis City Council, as “Mayor Pro-Tempore,” during the annual Council summer break, the Davis Police Department took delivery of a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) from the US Department of Defense as part of its “1033 Program” of distributing surplus military equipment to local police departments.
I had only vaguely heard of the 1033 Program. The MRAP acquisition was, apparently, so non-controversial that the Police Department never informed the City Council of its request.
The MRAP that arrived in Davis was designed to safely transport soldiers on mission in Iraq down stretches of road mined with improvised explosive devices (IED) laid down by opponents of the US invasion of their country. IEDs had been particularly deadly, and the MRAP’s design allowed it to withstand the explosion and protect those inside.
The first MRAP used in Iraq arrived in 2007, and nearly 12,000 were used throughout the conflict. And then the fighting subsided, and there was no place to go with the equipment. So it came home, and the 1033 Program sent MRAPs out across the land to police departments that merely asked for one.
I will delve more into what happened after it arrived in Chapter X. What is essential here is that the arrival of the MRAP in Davis created an odd connection between our City and a war on the other side of the planet, the people affected by that war, US soldiers who fought that war, and the entire military-industrial complex that could pay to create, ship-out, use, reship-in, store, and then distribute (for free) this particular piece of materiel.
While most people did not dwell on that connection, I thought about it a great deal and realized that our City that some said lived in a bubble was deeply connected to issues far beyond its borders.
This issue was the first time I experienced the reality that things that happen outside the City, in the world, can and will impact life in the City. It was only later, through other similar experiences, that I was able to name what was happening. What happens “out there” can profoundly affect us “here.” Our connection to these national and global issues should not have surprised me. We live in a globally interconnected world, and Davis, despite its size, is an international City. It was the beginning of my apprenticeship as a localist mayor in a globally-connected world.
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).