Mayors' Gathering Focuses on Urban America

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The U.S. Conference of Mayors held its annual meeting this weekend to discuss issues on the urban agenda. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter explains this year's gathering, and how he plans to address the challenges confronting his city. Among Philadelphia's challenges are poverty, crime and high foreclosure rates.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the author of a new study on why long waits in the emergency room hit mentally ill patients the hardest. And new fiction from Africa, a new collection of short stories told in the voices of children.

But first, if you've been following the news or if you live in a city yourself, then you know that cities have been struggling in the wake of a flood of home foreclosures and other economic challenges. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has been meeting in Miami for the last couple of days to talk about these issues and how to keep them on the front burner. One of the mayors in attendance is Michael Nutter, who's in his first term as the mayor of Philadelphia. He's with us now from the conference. Mayor Nutter, thanks so much for joining us.

Mayor MICHAEL NUTTER (Mayor of Philadelphia): Hi, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm great, thank you. So what was the biggest issue on your mind heading into the conference this weekend?

Mayor NUTTER: Well, there are a lot of issues being discussed. So I think for me this is my first U.S. Conference of Mayors. So the main thing for me was keeping track of it all. There's a lot going on. It's really a collection of some of the best mayors all across the country. Kind of what I refer to as - it's almost like the NBA All-Star game. I mean, everyone is saying, these are the big names and stars. Mayor Daley out of Chicago, Mayor Villaraigosa out of LA, Mayor Hickenlooper from Denver, Mayor Shirley Franklin out of Atlanta.

These are - you know, biggest and big and medium-sized city mayors who've been taking on many of the challenges, of course, that I face. Public safety and education issues, infrastructure investment or the like thereof, jobs and economic development, re-entry and how you deal with ex-offenders, housing and poverty - all these issues are being discussed here.

It's very helpful, at least for me, to hear from some of these mayors, not only in the formal sessions but from time to time you just end up in a conversation literally in the hotel lobby. And it's been very, very helpful.

MARTIN: When we last spoke it was just after you were sworn in. You had just appointed a new police chief. Crime was very much in the headlines.

Mayor NUTTER: Yeah.

MARTIN: I have a feeling that the home foreclosure crisis is - has kind of taken over, along with all the sort of the ripple effect of the economic issues. Is that accurate? And what would be helpful here in dealing with this issue?

Mayor NUTTER: Well, a couple of things. I mean, crime is down in Philadelphia, and we're pleased with that but we're not satisfied with where we are. And about a week, 10 days ago, we had a major announcement with regard to the mortgage foreclosure crisis. We're putting additional dollars into the housing counseling area, as well as putting outreach teams literally on the street, going door-to-door in targeted neighborhoods. We have a coordinated program among our court system, the sheriff's office, city council and many of these housing counseling agencies.

We're trying to get people on the front end. Before they face a crisis, we put together a hotline for people to call. I've cut some radio and TV ads to kind of wake people up to the notion that if you're facing a problem, give us a call and get yourself in a situation where you can get into a reconciliation conference before the sheriff shows up at your door. We're doing special mailings...

MARTIN: But so far - just let me interrupt for one second. So far - I mean, the administration's response to this has been to try to job-own lenders into giving homeowners additional consideration.

Mayor NUTTER: Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you think that's enough?

Mayor NUTTER: That's not enough. It's nowhere near enough. Many of our lenders in Philly certainly have been accommodating, but that is nowhere near enough. It really is about the outreach. It's one of the ways, I think, to get ahead of this challenge and problem. And - you know, again, this is where the federal government must step up and do more. You know, in many cities across America, people are wondering, you know, just what does the federal government do?

I understand that we have a war going on and we have to protect ourselves from an international basis, but you cannot forget the people of America who live in America, and the overwhelming majority of people in this country live in a city or metropolitan area, and the federal government has a responsibility to help us in all of these situations.

MARTIN: And the conference, Senator Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic nominee, said that the current urban policy really has to be rethought. He said it needs to be replaced by a model that focuses on rational metropolitan growth rather than focusing chiefly on something like direct funding, and you know, focusing on sort of block rents and crime and sort of poverty issues. What did you make of his perspective on these issues?

Mayor NUTTER: Well, I've only heard accounts of it. Unfortunately, I was not here on Saturday. I was still back in Philadelphia, I had to perform a wedding in my city. But I have heard accounts of his comments, and what I'm looking forward to is as we come out of this U.S. Conference of Mayors with strong positions and detailed thought on the kinds of things that we need - I'm certainly working with the campaign. I'm, you know, 100 percent plus supporting Senator Obama, and I think the U.S. Conference of Mayors, of course, must have a voice in helping to shape the Democratic candidates' position with regard to cities. And I think that knowing the senator, he'll be very open to the kinds of things that mayors will have to say.

MARTIN: So you think you might need to have some refinement of that point of view. Now you were a supporter of Hillary Clinton during her primary...

Mayor NUTTER: I was, yes.

MARTIN: And you're supporting him now. The host of the conference, Manny Diaz, the mayor of Miami, has yet to endorse Mr. Obama. Does that suggest that there's still a rift in the Democratic Party?

Mayor NUTTER: No, I haven't talked to Mayor Diaz about what he's doing in the future. Maybe - you know, he's waiting until he is formally sworn in as president of the conference. I mean, I don't know about those details, but I mean - from what I can see, yesterday, I think that Democrats are increasingly coming into line or into the fold, if you will, will be a totally unified party going into the general election because all of us know that that's the only way we're going to be successful.

So I don't know about the individual situations. You know, everybody's circumstances are a little different. I'm ready to move forward because I want to win.

MARTIN: OK. Michael Nutter is the mayor of Philadelphia. He spoke with us from the annual Conference of U.S. Mayors meeting in Miami. Thank you so much, Mr. Mayor, I hope we'll speak again.

Mayor NUTTER: Thank you, we will soon.

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