The Five Most Innovative a[euro][umlaut]Mayors in America

Newsweek, December 24, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Five Most Innovative a[euro][umlaut]Mayors in America


While Washington seems paralyzed by partisan bickering, America's mayors are busy putting ideas into action. City hall is increasingly a place for bold experimentation. Unlike Congress, there's no fiddling over the fiscal cliff or divisions into angry, ideological, debating societies. As communities climb out of the great recession, pragmatism is forcing innovation. Success requires strong leadership and a vision of politics as the art of what works.

With the help of Stephen Goldsmith and Jayson White of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School, Newsweek has developed a list of five top city-hall innovators who are tackling tough issues including education reform, public safety, quality of life, and job creation.

The Obama administration and Congress could learn a lot from the bold pragmatism of these urban innovators.

Education: New Orleans

Decades of mismanagement. The indictment of education officials. And the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans's schools have had a rocky recent history.

But now one of America's worst-performing school districts has been transformed, and the pace of improvement is unprecedented. That's because under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the Crescent City has aggressively embraced education reform. Here, as in most major urban centers, city hall doesn't control the school system. But Landrieu has unapologetically championed charter schools and other changes that would be considered politically difficult in most municipalities. He's successfully campaigned for pro-education reform candidates for the school board. And he's helped raise millions from national philanthropies and worked to secure a $1.8 billion lump sum from FEMA to rebuild schools destroyed by the 2005 storm. The result is a sea change in public education. Consider this: nationwide just 4 percent of students attend charter schools. In New Orleans, nearly 80 percent of parents choose charters. Seven years after Katrina, the dropout rate has been cut in half, while test scores have soared by double digits. The lessons are clear--increased competition, autonomy, and accountability along with public-private partnerships and parental choice can turn even the most troubled public school systems around.

Public Safety: New York

After 9/11 and Rudy Giuliani's reign, many people believed that crime would rise in New York. But even during the Great Recession, Gotham's crime rate has plummeted to the lowest levels on record. The secret is the unusually stable partnership between independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the longest-serving police commissioner in city history, Ray Kelly. Under their leadership, the NYPD has learned to do more with less: strategically fielding a smaller police force while putting 30 percent fewer people in prison. In addition, the city now devotes 1,000 police officers to counterterrorism and thwarted 14 serious terror plots. These successes have not come without critics: civil libertarians decry the increased use of surveillance cameras and controversial "stop and frisk" policies. But there's no debate that New York's crime decline over the past decade has outpaced the rest of the nation's. In 2011 New York City had the lowest murder rate since the early 1960s, with 515 homicides--one quarter of what it was two decades ago. This year the city is on pace to register fewer than 400 murders for the first time in its recorded history. And on Nov. 26, New York experienced another first: not a single person was the victim of a violent crime in America's largest city.

Digital Government: Chicago

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has tackled the Windy City with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer during his 18 months in office. …

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