The American Dream Is A Local Responsibility

Social and economic inequality is shaping up to be a centerpiece issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The issue is at the core of “The American Dream”, the notion that in America anything is possible if you work hard and play by the rules.
On both ends of the political spectrum; the left and the right, there is a sense that even if you do those things it’s becoming harder and harder to get ahead in America. There’s a sense that it’s more difficult for the poor to ascend to the middle class and beyond, for the middle class to stay in the middle or move up a rung and data shows that indeed the rich are getting richer.
Democrats tend to think that government provides solutions and Republicans want to get government out of the way.
I don’t think either party has a lock on the truth or the answers and when it comes to Washington both parties have failed—a judgment in which both party’s presidential candidates and grassroots seem to agree.
So with Washington failing and hopelessly gridlocked, policy innovation and economic development seem to be left to the states, counties and cities in our nation.
I think the most action happens on the city level, where government is closest to the people and–theoretically at least– most accountable.
That’s why it’s critical to keep informed and get involved in your community.
I think local policymakers have a tough job to do.
The decisions they make are often personal and they vote not in some far off place, but often around the block from where they live. I can’t remember the last time I saw my Congressman or State Representative but local elected officials are easily located—well most of them are or should be. If you can’t find them, get rid of them.
So I think the issues of inequality being talked about by candidates ranging from Bernie Sanders to Ben Carson will actually be dealt with by mayors, council members and commissioners in cities across America.
The fate of the American Dream has been localized.
Which states, cities and regions will offer quality education and economic opportunities? Which cities will work on innovative policy solutions to create attainable housing for young people and allow the rest of us to age in place if we choose to stay?
Which cities will tap into the tremendous human capital that exists in our cities and in neighborhoods that many choose to overlook or ignore?
Which cities will aspire to create special places that will attract and retain creative people—artists and entrepreneurs?
Who will wake up every day on a mission to create opportunities and protect cherished and hard won victories?
Cities have to strike a delicate balancing act—they must respect the past, take care of the present and prepare for the future.
Often times they skip the first and last responsibilities and spend their time on the issue du jour. That’s a mistake. Respect for the journey is critical. The past informs the present and also can guide you into the future. Neglecting the future will leave your city vulnerable to communities that are working to further the American Dream.
Ask yourself where your city is on this spectrum of thought. Let’s hope they are addressing the past, the present and future.

Adventures in Local Politics

I wrote a book.
It took me years to finish and I must have started and stopped 100 times but I got it done. Finally.
“Adventures in Local Politics” is a personal story but it’s also the book I was looking for during my seven years as an elected official in Delray Beach.
The shelves are pretty bare when it comes to books on what local politics are really like. Sure, there are plenty of books written by “big city” mayors but most of America is not like New York, Chicago or Boston.
Elected officials in small cities face far different issues than their big city brethren. But the issues are complex nonetheless and personal too.

And if local officials choose to make their terms about something other than playing dodgeball with the tough issues, they can actually make a positive and lasting difference in their communities.
The commissioners I served with called it moving the “big rocks”; a concept we have turned to frequently on this blog.

And in our case, the big rocks meant tackling attrition and retention issues in our police and fire departments, trying to improve race relations, crafting a downtown master plan, passing a parks bond, moving the library to a more central location (and freeing the old site up for meaningful redevelopment), creating a community land trust, wrestling with workforce housing, passing a parks bond and re-envisioning culture, Congress Avenue and the four corners of Military Trail and West Atlantic Avenue. There was more: beautifying Pineapple Grove, passing and implementing the southwest plan, moving the high school, building a warm and entrepreneurial culture at city hall, revamping our historic preservation rules and encouraging downtown housing while improving communication with our stakeholders.
Am I bragging?

You bet I am. I’m very proud of the team and the hundreds of residents and business owners who invested their time, talent and money to move a city forward. We inherited a great hand from our predecessors and did our best to move the ball forward.
Did we get it all right?

Not on your life.

Did we make mistakes? Yep, a whole bunch. But we got a lot right too.

And I would put our city’s accomplishments up against any city in our region and beyond. We have built a great city. Not a perfect city, but despite our myriad challenges and problems we have an awful lot to be grateful for and our civic pride is well placed.
My purpose in delineating some of the big rocks is to point out the incredible opportunity local officials have if they are willing to seize the moment. If they have vision, courage and the ability to collaborate with their stakeholders and motivate their staff and affiliated agencies and partners they can make a difference.
My book speaks to this opportunity. So while it captures my personal experiences, it has universal themes as well. Such as: Community policing works, but it has to be authentic and a forever commitment. New urbanism principles work if you have the courage to educate residents and design places for people not cars. Community visioning works if you are serious about engaging your community and work hard to bring new voices to the table.
It felt good to finally finish the book and it’s gratifying to speak to local groups about some of the “adventures.”
Local government is the government closest to the people. Washington is broken, maybe hopelessly so (but I remain optimistic). Tallahassee is remote and partisan. Our hometowns are where we can make a difference. But it’s a choice: major in the minor or play dodgeball or move the big rocks.
I’m looking for those willing to take risks and build. I’m looking for uniters not dividers. We have enough of that horror in Congress.
The big rocks are all around. And they are the most fun to move.

Adventures in Local Politics is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com. If you’d like to schedule a talk or raise funds for your group, please email us at perlmanjeff@gmail.com. Portions of the sale of Adventures in Local Politics can be donated to your charity of choice.