Four summers ago, quite by accident, I had the opportunity to ask presidential candidate Barack Obama a policy question. The setting was a pre-convention event at John Tyler Community College in Chester, featuring Obama and then-Gov. Tim Kaine, with then-Mayor Doug Wilder and numerous other local political luminaries in attendance.
I asked Obama what he would do as president to make the job of mayors such as Wilder easier. In short, what would his urban policy be?
Obama gave a stem-winding answer that included a riff on the annoyances of airport security lines. The most concrete proposal in his reply was a strong endorsement of high-speed rail and other forms of improved infrastructure.
Just six months later, I was invited to speak at a community forum organized by U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott on the topic of green jobs. By then Sarah Palin had come and gone, the economy had been engulfed in a calamitous financial crisis, and Obama had become president. The very day of the forum, the stimulus bill was signed into law, and it included money for high-speed rail and other green investments. I recall Scott's pride and excitement, and the palpable sense he conveyed that the country was moving ahead in a direction that clearly stood to benefit places such as Richmond.
Meanwhile, Obama had established an Office of Urban Affairs, and began trumpeting his Promise Neighborhood and Choice Neighborhood initiatives. The Promise Neighborhood initiative, inspired by the Harlem Children's Zone and endorsed by some of the nation's leading scholars on anti-poverty policy, seemed especially exciting. It offered a comprehensive model for school reform that pays attention to what happens not only in the classroom but also in the lives of families in low-income communities.
Three and a half years on, the giddy days of Obama's honeymoon are long gone, and another election is close at hand. Virginia's delegation to the Democratic National Convention last week in Charlotte, N.C., which included Mayor Dwight Jones, received prime seats, as befits the commonwealth's status as a crucial swing state.
Whether the massive, multiracial mobilization and higher voter turnout that helped turn Virginia blue can be replicated this year is an open question. One key variable is whether both voters and would-be volunteers perceive that Obama has accomplished anything of genuine significance for their lives, and for Richmond in particular.
A sober assessment yields a mixed answer. Some $79 million in stimulus money has trickled down to Richmond, most of which has gone to schools to offset declining revenue. But the city largely has missed out on big-ticket items involving competitive federal grants.
Richmond wasn't selected for high-speed rail funding to connect Main Street Station with Washington, a $1.8 billion initiative supported by political and business elites across the region — including Rep. Eric Cantor, who with Scott lobbied on the city's behalf. It's truly baffling why Obama's team chose not to make a high-visibility investment with direct employment and quality-of-life impacts in the center of a swing state with the available billions.
Then there's the Promise Neighborhood program. Communities in Schools anchored a major effort in 2010 to apply for a planning grant to create comprehensive cradle-to-career support for children at Woodville Elementary in the East End, in partnership with the city and more than 20 community organizations. But Richmond wasn't selected for a planning grant, losing out to proposals from bigger cities or from communities with better established community-development programs.
The story is similar for the city's Choice Neighborhood proposal, which aims at a comprehensive transformation of Creighton Court. The city put together a compelling statement of need and an attractive vision of revitalization, but didn't get picked for federal funding.
The truth is, Richmond's applications for these anti-poverty grants always were long shots. The available funding for both programs is too low and the need in urban neighborhoods nationwide is too great. Unlike the case with high-speed rail, there seems to be no compelling reason from a national perspective for Richmond's high-poverty neighborhoods to be placed in the front of the queue for model program money.
Or is there? From a pure political perspective, Obama and the Democrats, if re-elected, might be wise to follow the ancient political advice of rewarding their friends here in central Virginia in a more proactive way. From a policy perspective, Richmond's struggle with concentrated poverty, daunting as it is, is relatively manageable compared with those of much larger cities. A finite investment of resources could make a noticeable difference.
In any case, it would be a major mistake to conclude that Richmond's residents have gained nothing from Obama's first term and have little at stake in the election. Most significantly, implementation of the Affordable Care Act as intended starting in 2013 would expand health insurance coverage to more than 20,000 city residents — more than one-tenth of the population. Obamacare is the biggest and most significant federal anti-poverty initiative in half a century, and Richmond stands to directly benefit.
Further, one must consider the alternative. Local leaders should be fretting about our inability so far to land the big federal grants. But the fact is, in a Romney-Ryan administration there wouldn't be any significant transportation and neighborhood revitalization funds to apply for, and no national urban policy any more sophisticated than leaving the poor to fend for themselves.
That stark reality should be motivation enough for city residents to return to the November polls in droves. But should Obama win re-election, city and regional leaders need to be prepared to remind the administration who helped him get it done — and to insist that the region and state is treated as favorably in future funding rounds as it was at the Charlotte convention. S
Thad Williamson is an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.
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