The rhetorical and the real

In the SOTU, presidents can paint in broad strokes. In state of the village speeches, mayors must acknowledge reality.

No matter who is president, the State of the Union Address is inevitably about aspirations, ideals and values.

No matter who is mayor, a state of the village address is about worries, hopes and reality.

“In other words, our sewers,” said Provo, Utah’s new mayor, Michelle Kaufusi, translating the euphemistic term “wastewater treatment plant” for her audience at the local library Jan. 18.

“I know no one wants to think about that. But we are at a crossroads,” she added in her first state of the city address. “Our pipes aren’t big enough to hold the extra capacity that west side growth is adding. And new environmental regulations are making our existing plant difficult to support, if not obsolete.”

As editor of Vital Speeches of the Day magazine, I’ve informally surveyed American state of the village addresses for several consecutive years. I’ve found that, taken together, they provide a more reliable (and less rhetorical) measure of the state of the nation than the president’s more infinitely more abstract and symbolic speech to Congress. When a mayor stands up before the workaday citizens in the town where they live together, the truth must be acknowledged.

And the truth, this year, is that despite an economy that seems to be booming nationally, mayors are worried about urgent infrastructure needs, and a dearth of tax dollars to pay for them.

A big culvert collapsed last year on Pearl Street in Wellsville, New York, taking a parked car halfway down with it. “Our infrastructure is aging,” said Mayor Randy Shayler in a state-of-the-town interview in the Wellsview Daily Reporter. “We’re trying to position ourselves to take some more income from outside the village to help with differing costs.”

“Cheektowagans certainly pay their fair share of [New York State] and Federal taxes,” said Cheektowaga, New York Mayor Diane Benckowski in her state of the town speech Jan. 18. “So why don’t we try and get some of that money back to benefit projects right here in our town?” She’s applying for grant funding.

SPLOST is an inelegant term that comes up in some of these speeches. It stands for “special purpose local option sales tax,” and it’s how Tyrone, Georgia is paying for “stormwater projects, improved parks, an upgraded Town Hall and an increased sewer footprint,” said Mayor Eric Dial in his Jan. 4 state of the town speech.

It’s not Daniel Burnham-esque big plans these mayors are rolling out and bragging on. In Show Low, Arizona, Mayor Daryl Seymore used his Jan. 19 state of the city address to thank town employees for their work on the annual Barbecue Throwdown; he also touted as progress, a new daily flight service offered by Boutique Air at the Show Low Airport. Meanwhile, Chestertown, New York is installing a new biomass boiler in town hall and removing 21 tons of Eurasian milfoil out of Loon Lake, said town supervisor Craig Leggett in his Jan. 9 state of the town address. And Cheyenne, Wyoming needs broadband internet speed to attract businesses. “And it must be affordable,” said Mayor Marian Orr in her state of the city address Jan. 9. “Cheyenne is failing on both counts: accessibility and affordability.”

Things are going better in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to hear Mayor Ed Pawlowski tell it in his Jan. 5 state of the city address. The city recycled 560 tons of paper and emptied 54,000 trash cans in the previous year, he specified. And Allentown is making better-than-average headway on infrastructure, Pawlowski claimed, boasting, “When you go over one of our bridges you won’t end up in the creek 50 feet below.”

Less frequent than you might expect were references to the opioid crisis—perhaps because mayors feel powerless to solve it. “[Opioid addiction] unfortunately is not going away anytime soon,” said Taunton, Massachusetts’ Mayor Thomas Hoye in his Jan. 1 state of the city speech. But he cited a new Taunton Opioid Task Force, and noted that at least “our families and those addicted now have a place to turn.”

Last January, many mayors felt compelled to address the Trump administration—mostly promising to protect immigrant and Muslim residents from the president’s proposed policies. This year, Sacramento, California Mayor Darrell Steinberg was an outlier in referencing the administration, with his crack, “We don’t care how many ‘stable geniuses’ want to tell us who does or does not belong in Sacramento. We are a proud sanctuary city.” (Eugene, Oregon Mayor Lucy Vinis referred to a “turbulent national climate” in her Jan. 5 speech, but urged her citizens to look within their liberal ranks: “We have been caught in our own complacency about how people of color, varying gender identities or national origin experience life in our community. We can do better. We can listen. We can pay attention. We can question our assumptions.”)

But mostly, these mayors stuck to pragmatic matters, as good mayors always do.

And even when a mayor does reach for inspiring, aspirational language—in the end, it’s all about infrastructure. In the same speech in which she compared Provo to the Biblical city on a hill, Mayor Kafusi put her rhetorical muscle behind a plan to establish a new sewage treatment center at a lower elevation, where “gravity will be our friend and instead of having to pump sewage up, through dozens of pump stations, it will flow naturally down.”

Like many mayoral utterances—and unlike most presidential ones—you just can’t argue with that.

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