Why Small Town Mayors Face Multiple Disadvantages

The U.S. Conference of Mayors brings together the country's mayors for three days to discuss budgets, crime, water and infrastructure. Mayors of big cities usually don't have any trouble making their voices heard. But mayors from the country's smallest towns and cities are also trying to make an impression.

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Hundreds of mayors converged on Washington, D.C., this week for the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors. There were some big names in the group: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, New York Mayor Bill de Blassio. Also in the mix were mayors from some of the country's smallest towns and cities. NPR's Laura Sullivan spent the day with the mayor of Ville Platte, La., who like most small- town mayors, was trying to find a way to stand out in the crowd.

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LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: For three days at the Capitol Hilton in D.C., hundreds of mayors swamp the hallways and coffee stations, eating danishes and picking up free pens. It's a parade of veritable celebrities in suits and heels, moving from panel discussion to podium to televised press conference. So there's really only one way to manage this kind of crowd if you're a mayor from one of the country's smallest towns or cities. You come in bold.

MAYOR JENNIFER VIDRINE: I'm the mayor of Ville Platte, La. It's a Southern town, about 8,000 people. The best people in the world, the best food in the world. We're like a jewel.

SULLIVAN: Jennifer Vidrine has been Ville Platte's mayor for three years, where budgets are always tight.

VIDRINE: I sacrificed to come to this conference so I can find out what other mayors are doing, what's available out there for small cities. And that's why I'm just like - I'm a sponge. I'm getting all of the information that I can so I can go back home and get on the phone and start writing letters.

SULLIVAN: Small-town mayors are at a disadvantage and not just at this conference. Small towns often don't qualify for funding grants and federal programs that fix roads and build buildings. And because they're small, it's difficult to attract new businesses. So while she's here, Vidrine is determined to get Ville Platte on the map, and she's ready with the facts.

VIDRINE: We have 10 seasonings, food seasonings that are made and manufactured right in Ville Platte. The famous Slap Ya Mama seasoning, I don't know if you all know about it, but you know now. Jack Miller Barbeque sauce, the barbecue sauce is so good, you don't need to barbecue.

SULLIVAN: And she brought some local cuisine.

VIDRINE: We have something called boudin; it's a stuffed - type of sausage. I did bring that with me.

(LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: You brought that to the U.S. Conference....

VIDRINE: I did. I brought that to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and it's like, where is that boudin mayor? We want to taste some of that stuff. (Laughter) Like, where are you from? I'm like, Ville Platte, La.

SULLIVAN: Mayor Vidrine tells other mayors, and the people running the booths, and the conference staff about Ville Platte's 10 seasonings and barbecue sauce. And by mid-day in the hallway, it seems to be working.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How are you, Mayor?

VIDRINE: I'm fine. Thank you. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Doing well.

VIDRINE: And you're from where?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Rochester, N.Y., barbecue capital of the world.

VIDRINE: Did you see? Didn't I just tell you? Barbecue sauce so good you don't need to barbecue. I told you...

SULLIVAN: The hallways are packed as mayors move by the dozens from one panel discussion to the next. There's a logjam at the moment because the mayors of Baltimore and Sacramento are holding a press conference at the end of a hall.

VIDRINE: This is the line.

SULLIVAN: The line for what?

VIDRINE: To get in. (Laughter) I think we can work our way through.

SULLIVAN: Eventually, the crowd thins as the next panels get underway. Vidrine has already marked up her agenda. She's going to the discussion on attracting entrepreneurs, managing budgets, and water. She needs to replace aging pipes. She took a seat close to the mayor of Indianapolis. She's got 8,000 people. He's got 800,000. But they both have the same problem - water quality and water quantity. As the day wears on, she notices that happening more and more.

VIDRINE: We have less people. We have smaller budgets, but I think all of the mayors here have one thing in common - is that they want to enhance the quality of life for their people.

SULLIVAN: But just as a reminder of her place here, a mayor walks by with an entourage of four staffers, all on their cellphones. It doesn't bother her, though.

VIDRINE: Yes, we are a small fish in a big bowl but still, we can still compete, you know. And we can still have what other cities have, just on a smaller scale.

SULLIVAN: And if she can't have that, in the very least, Mayor Vidrine says she's going to have a run on barbecue sauce.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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