“There is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage.”
This aphorism of municipal service, attributed to three-time New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, flies in the face of the hyper-partisanship that dominates America’s political landscape. Its expression of unity in devotion to service stands in stark contrast to the scorched political earth that will be the legacy left to us after the major parties and numerous Super PACs are done this fall.
The preoccupations of our colleagues at the state and national levels are very different from those of municipal officeholders, even for those city officials who have strong partisan inclinations. Our state and national colleagues feud over questions of platforms and ideologies, assail each other to secure majorities in large legislative chambers, and hammer out (or fail to act on) sweeping acts of legislation that will in turn require months of rule-making and interpretation by bureaucrats before they can be implemented.
We struggle to satisfy Mrs. Jones, who is upset about the diseased tree in the right of way in front of her home, and Mr. Roberts, who wonders why the city hasn’t forced his neighbor to stop his dog from baying at the moon each night.
We question ourselves, our officers and our citizens about the condition of police/community relations, agonizing over the death of a young man gone astray or an experienced officer caught off guard. These events are personal for us, not remote. We know the young man’s family, the experienced officer’s spouse.
We stand in the pouring rain watching as streets turn to rivers, helping homeowners pile sandbags. Later, we listen, chins propped on hands, minds wearied with details, considering what it is we can do to relieve this recurrent flooding and how we can afford to do it. Then we head home, navigating the detours around those flooded streets upon which we ourselves frequently drive.
We sit in pained silence as resident after resident castigates us for betraying them, destroying their neighborhoods, listening only to developers and their money. And we recognize in the seething crowd our colleagues or customers at the job that pays our bills, and members of our faith community or our children’s soccer league.
On occasion, we may lash out against all of this. We may express exasperation with Jones and Roberts, saying we have bigger problems to address. Then we remember how Jones lives in fear that the tree will crush her home, that Roberts really is having a rough time sleeping since his wife died. Because we know them and we know the streets on which they live.
We get angry at staff for allowing the flooding. Then we recall that we haven’t figured out how to give them the resources to solve it.
And we tell those angry citizens that our hands are tied, or we blame our colleagues or the attorneys for tying our hands.
The next day, picking up our paper or picking up coffee and a breakfast sandwich or picking up the friend of one of our kids or grandkids on the way to practice, we hear from those angry citizens, up close and personal, all over again.
Because we are municipal elected officials. We don’t have the luxury of going far away to make our decisions, nor of doing partisan battle without regard for whether or not government works.
Our cities and their residents, business owners, property owners and visitors depend on us to take action so that the professional staff or the private or public contractors can get the job done, every day. The garbage must be picked up, the water must run clean, the unclean water must be treated. The street lights must light, the first responders must respond, and the parks must be clean and safe.
All of those things, and more, we must ensure get done.
Are there Democratic or Republican ways to do those things? Sure there are. I think Mayor La Guardia’s statement is wrong.
But I also think the error was in the exact expression, not in the sentiment he meant to express.
There may be partisan or ideological differences about how best to pick up the garbage, or operate the police force, or manage the streets and sidewalks.
But elected municipal officials, Republican and Democrat alike, agree that the garbage should be picked up, the police should respond to calls for help, and the roads and sidewalks should be maintained.
Providing service is what unites us.
Because while there may be partisan ways of thinking about how best to serve the people of our cities, what we all see is a city of people who should be served.