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Political experts discuss conflicts between city, state, federal government

The Initiative on Cities hosts Cities in the Federal System: Building Bipartisan Relationship in a Hyper Partisan Era at the Rajen Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences and Engineering Thursday afternoon. PHOTO BY MAGGIE LEONE/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

About 35 members of the Boston University community attended a panel hosted by the Initiative on Cities in which several public servants evaluated the relationship between city, state and federal governments in working toward common goals on Thursday afternoon.

The panel, titled “Cities in the Federal System: Building Bipartisan Relationships in a Hyper Partisan Era,” considered the ongoing tensions between cities and state legislatures, the role of party politics within the relationships between city, state and federal governments, and the relative lack of coordination between the federal government and cities under President Donald Trump.

Graham Wilson, BU political science professor and director of the Initiative on Cities, said the tension between the federal government and cities has existed for some time but has become more evident under Trump.

“The Obama administration had a very close relationship with cities and with mayors,” Wilson said. “Since the election of President Trump, that relationship has deteriorated for Republican mayors as well as Democratic mayors.”

Wilson said cities and states are increasingly taking on issues related to immigration, climate change and policing, which are policy areas traditionally undertaken by the federal government.

Michael Nutter, former mayor of Philadelphia, mentioned his concern for the current lack of communication between cities and the federal government given how much cities contribute to the U.S. economy.

“We’re only eight months into this current madness,” Nutter said during the discussion. “No one has any idea what the relationship is going to be … [Cities] are the economy of the United States, and they’re ignoring basically the economy … if they’re not talking to cities.”

Another panelist, Jerry Abramson, former lieutenant governor of Kentucky, said as the director of Intergovernmental Affairs under former President Barack Obama, he often communicated with mayors regarding issues that would directly impact residents of a city.

“When you’re going to have something at the national level that is going to affect real people and change their lives … the mayors were where we went from the White House,” Abramson said. “They were the ones at the street level who had their pulse on the community.”

The panelists also discussed an ongoing source of tension between state and city governments: states’ attempts to pre-empt cities.

“[When] the city of Louisville passed an increase in the minimum wage, the state of Kentucky said you can’t do it, took us to court and they were successful.”

King described the relationship between the City of Boston and Commonwealth of Massachusetts as mostly operational and cited the coordination between the city and state during the 2015 snow storm as an example.

“City-state relations are an interesting thing,” King said. “They are very much on one hand operational. We are literally stepping over each other’s jurisdiction, whether that’s police jurisdiction, transportation, state-owned land in our city.”

Several audience members said they enjoyed learning about the role of cities within the U.S. political system.

Rassa Ebrahim, a College of General Studies sophomore, said he came to the panel because he is a fan of Obama and wanted to hear from public servants who had worked with him in the past.

“I … wanted to go back in time a little bit and take myself out of the Trump administration and all the rhetoric that’s going on now with them,” Ebrahim said.

He also discussed the importance of a strong relationship between local and federal governments.

“[The relationship is] obviously very important because if you’re doing something at your city that’s different from the overall goal of the federal government, you’re going to come into conflict with funding and you need to make sure that you have the same goals so that you’re achieving progress,” Ebrahim said.

Daniel Bluestone, a history of art and architecture professor at BU, described the coordination between cities and the Trump administration as “pathetic.”

“You look at the treatment of the mayor of Puerto Rico, a mayor who is surrounded by people who have been devastated by the hurricane, and the president decides this is the time to place blame on the cities, on Puerto Ricans, on an entire territory instead of helping,” Bluestone said.

Bluestone said the discussion was helpful in coming up with strategies for state and local governments to act in areas where the federal government has not.

“I thought the discussion of climate change was actually useful in that instead of placing your hopes and faith in federal government, you start working on strategies to make response to climate change work at the local level,” he added.

Astrid Arias, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, said she noticed the tense relationship between the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts while interning in the Massachusetts State House.

“I saw a lot of miscommunication between the city and the state legislature,” Arias said. “I was just curious to see the role of mayors especially as the mayoral election is coming up.”

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