James Fallows of The Atlantic has been touring the United States with his wife, stopping in small and mid-size cities to try and get a picture of what is actually working in American politics. He says they’ve found it in the nation’s mayors, who are exercising a strong hand of leadership to bring the best insights of urban planning and town development to their constituents, and revitalizing even economically stricken towns like former textile stalwart Greenville, South Carolina.
He recently got a response from a small-city Midwestern mayor currently on military duty in Afghanistan, who told him that “There has been lots of good buzz and coverage lately about cities and mayors, but a story still waiting to be told is the quality of people coming to work for them.” The young mayor went on to postulate that “The kind of people who might have gone to NASA in the 1960s, Wall Street in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley in the late 1990s are now, I think, more likely than ever to work in municipal government,” because it is increasingly becoming a place where people of talent and industry can get things done:
In recruiting talented professionals, we have been able to punch above the weight of a small city like ours, drawing people with international careers in architecture, government, consulting, and engineering to work for five-figure salaries in a small Midwestern city willing to try new things.
Is this a side-effect of federal dysfunction, that public-minded young professionals are far less attracted to the Hill as a place to make their mark and now look to the local level instead? Or something to do with the economy? I don’t know, but I think there is something to this untold story of the kinds of people newly drawn to local civic work.
I’d like to see some hard numbers before jumping all the way on the small city optimism bandwagon, but as Fallows remarks, “We have not yet been to his city, but what he says resembles what we have heard elsewhere,” where many of the people they encountered were driven by “the chance to make a difference, and be part of a success” emphasis original.