Don't Forget All Politics Is Local, Mayor Says

Most of the focus at the Republican National Convention has been on politicians at the top of the ticket. But Mesa, Arizona Mayor Scott Smith is leading a delegation of mayors to Tampa for the RNC. He talks with host Michel Martin about some of the issues local leaders are hoping the national politicians don't forget.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, this country is facing history again this year. It's a chance to elect this country's first Mormon president. So we decided to ask a group of faith leaders representing different traditions to tell us what role they think religion plays or should play when it comes to choosing the next president. That's coming up later in the program.

But first, we wanted to shift our focus away from the top of the ticket to a local leader who's participating in the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Scott Smith is the mayor of Mesa, Arizona. He's also vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and in that role, he's leading the group's delegation at the RNC, and he joins us now from Tampa.

Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for joining us.

MAYOR SCOTT SMITH: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: As a mayor, what are you hoping to accomplish at the convention?

SMITH: Well, we're hoping to accomplish - not only at this convention, but throughout the presidential campaign - is for those who are running for office in Washington, especially at the top of the ticket, to understand that the action is in the cities. What we found out through this deep recession is that the one level of government which has responded almost universally - I mean, there's been a few anomalies, but almost universally, the one level of government that's responded is the cities, because we have to balance our budgets. We have to continue to provide services. We don't get to kick anything down the road.

And so you've seen cities get creative. You've seen them get innovative. You've seen them deal with horrific budget deficits and still continuing to provide services, and to adjust to what we call our new reality, which is an existence where we're not going to see as much money coming from the states, and certainly not from Washington.

MARTIN: OK, but what's your message to these federal officials? And I do want to ask, also, while you're thinking about that, is that many people in your party say - this is certainly an important message from the top of the ticket - that they want to get serious about cutting federal spending.

And one of the ways that that has traditionally been done is to either cancel local funding or cancel funding to states and local governments, or to put a lot of funding from a lot of different programs into block grants which then generally have less funding in them than they had had previously.

Is that acceptable to you, if that's one of the strategies that they employ to cut the budget?

SMITH: Well, we get it that the budget in Washington is going to be cut, and we just understand that that's the way it's going to be. I mean, that is part of the new reality. What we want to see is when there are cuts, that they're smart cuts. And in the cities, we had to do things that made us more efficient, and we had to cut in areas where there was real fat.

We don't see that in Washington. For example, we see cuts in investment programs and capital programs, because there is no such thing as a capital program in Washington. So when they cut local governments, they cut out things like investments in bridges and streets and rail and things that actually drive our economy, things that give real economic returns. Those are the things that Washington is cutting.

I want them to cut the fat. I want them to cut out programs that don't add to our economic vitality. But what we see is that's not what's happening. That's what mayors are saying.

MARTIN: Well, you know, one person's fat is another person's meat. Is your argument that if the federal government invests in anything on the state and local level, it ought to be in infrastructure? Is that the number takeaway that we should draw from what you're saying?

SMITH: Well, infrastructure's an example. When you say fat and meat, actually, the numbers don't lie. And the reality is the facts show that when we invest in highways and bridges, that there's a real economic return. You know, one study showed that the return on investment in the interstate highway system was a six-to-one return. You know, that's a smart way to spend government money because we end up making money off of our investment.

MARTIN: I'm talking with Scott Smith. He is the mayor of Mesa, Arizona. He is also leading the U.S. Conference of Mayors delegation at the Republican National Convention. We caught up with him there. You can hear the activity at the convention center all around him, as delegates gather for the day's business.

You know, to that end, you know, Arizona, I think most people know, has been really at the heart of this country's debates over immigration, particularly illegal immigration. And Governor Jan Brewer recently reacted against the president's deferred action policy for young undocumented immigrants, and she ordered state officials not to provide any public benefits for young people who are allowed to stay in the country through that program.

And we've talked a lot about that on this program, and certainly other news programs. What's your take on this? Is that acceptable to you? Is her point of view in this one you share?

SMITH: Wait. There's an immigration issue in Arizona? I hadn't noticed.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Really?

SMITH: You know, the governor - Arizona is an interesting area, because you have, really, two different arguments going on, here. One is immigration as an issue. The other one is this tension between the federal government and the states. And I think what most people around the country don't understand - because they're not there - is to recognize that Arizona is the funnel.

This is where most of the illegal immigrants, most of the drugs come through, and so we experience it on a daily basis. We have certain constitutional provisions that were enacted by voters over the last 10 years that prohibit certain benefits to going to illegal immigrants. And I think what the governor was doing was reacting and saying, OK, what do I do when I have these state issues that are in our constitution, and I also have a federal mandate which is - certainly in Arizona - is very controversial?

I think when you see Governor Brewer reacting, it's hard to understand if you don't live in Arizona. Sometimes it's hard to understand if you do live in Arizona. But it comes from a different point of view, and it's one out of frustration. I would love to see immigration fixed. It's broken. We need to control our borders.

We need to have a system in place where we know who's coming in and where we can actually take care of a natural flow that comes from Mexico to fill labor needs. We're no closer now - as a matter of fact, we're further away now than we were before. And one of my frustrations with the president's action and the DREAM Act is it actually creates a disincentive to find a long-term solution. It's a band-aid that I think is counterproductive.

MARTIN: Tell me about that. Why? Other people have said that, too. We spoke with senator - Florida Senator Marco Rubio about that. You said it creates a disincentive to really solve the problem, because it's a band-aid. Tell me why that is again. Is that a political argument? Or is that because it inflames political feelings? Or because you feel that people feel that the problem's solved, and then they walk away from it? They don't have a real...

SMITH: I think it's both. I think number one, it enrages people because they believe that what the president did was not legal. And, you know, that certainly can be debated. But the other thing is, on the other side is, I've cautioned my Hispanic friends - and I have, you know, Mesa's 30 percent Latino, so we live this day-in and day-out. I said be careful what you ask for, because this is a band-aid, and it doesn't fix the long-term - the real problem. And what it does is it gives a sense of accomplishment which is almost like a sugar high. It's going to wear off and, you know, in a short while, we're going to be faced with the reality that we haven't solved the problem.

MARTIN: Speaking of frustration, I understand you were standing right next to President Obama and Governor Jan Brewer on the tarmac at the Phoenix airport when they had this famous - or infamous - exchange, depending on point of view. The photos that kind of live on are photos of the governor kind of pointing her finger at the president's face.

And there have been, of course, counter-narratives about who was being disrespectful to whom. A lot of people say, oh, the governor's being disrespectful. You don't point a finger at somebody's face, a grown man, especially not the president of the United States, commander-in-chief, etc. Other people say she has said that he walked away from her mid-sentence. You were there. What happened?

SMITH: Boy, you're the first person that's ever asked me that. Like I like to tell people, that was the week before the Super Bowl. They actually were arguing about their Super Bowl picks, and it got quite animated because they're both big football fans.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: You know, it's interesting. Mayor Greg Stanton of Phoenix and I were the only two that were standing there, and we've decided that the president and the governor have done a very good job of explaining what's going on. I will say one thing that's interesting, because the governor said this. I don't ever recall the governor actually pointing her finger at the president, and I don't recall the discussion getting to the point where the governor was in the president's face.

That was one of those weird moments where a, you know, a camera that was taking multiple exposures caught a finger in a position that looked like she was in his face. But there was never any real finger-wagging or in-your-face or that kind of stuff, but that's what the picture shows. And people will make it what they want to make it, regardless of which side of the argument you're on.

And that's unfortunate, because I think it does highlight an overall lack of civility, lack of discussion. And it's used now as the poster child for the fight either against the evil empire on one side or the unforgiving world on the other side. And to me it's tragic that that has to happen, because, you know, at the city level, a lot of cities are nonpartisan and even those that aren't - and I deal with a lot of Democratic mayors - it's interesting.

I like to say that in city government, most of the time you have a problem put on the table, you start arguing about the problem and discussing the problem, and ideologies come out during the argument.

It seems like, at the state capitals and in Washington, you start arguing about ideology and maybe you might find a problem in there, and they never really get to talking about the problem, and that's why I love being at the city government level because we get pretty animated, but at the end of the day we've got to solve the problem, and mayors are focused on solving problems.

And I think that both parties could learn a lot from both Democratic and Republican mayors about how, at the end of the day, you've still got to pick up the trash. You've got to - when 911, a call comes through, you've got to show up, and so you have to solve problems.

And the frustration we have as mayors, both Democratic and Republican, is that in Washington they're more prone to argue about things like pictures and confrontations and ideology than they are about the real problems that confront this country.

MARTIN: To that end, before we let you go, we've been asking our guests who are participating in these conventions, because we feel that this is kind of one of the central things that, really, both conventions or participants are talking about is - what does it mean to have a successful country right now? So I'd like to ask you that question.

SMITH: I think right now America's trying to figure out who we still are. We're still trying to figure out where we are in the world, and I think part of being a successful country is knowing who you are and where you're headed, and I'm not sure we know that as Americans.

I grew up in the era of the Cold War. It was very clear. The world was in many ways black and white. The world isn't black and white anymore, and I think what people want is they want that reminder that, with Neil Armstrong, for example, dying, it reminds you that America used to be committed jointly to doing great things, and there's a little bit of apprehension that we're not - we don't quite have that edge anymore, and I think that's what people want in their leaders.

The squabbles, the meaningless - I really don't care where, you know, things like birth certificates and tax returns, because that doesn't make America great and I think what people want is they want a discussion as to what can we do to really solve our problems and go to where we need to go and who are we. And we seem to have lost that a bit.

MARTIN: Scott Smith is the mayor of Mesa, Arizona. He is the vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He's leading that group's delegation at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. You can hear the activity all around him at the Convention Center, and he joined us from there.

Mayor Smith, thank you so much for speaking with us. Our best wishes for a successful convention.

SMITH: Michel, thank you for having me.

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