Nearly 200 mayors from across the country gathered at the Capitol Hilton in the District from Jan. 18-21 to talk about the coronavirus pandemic and the recent defeat of voting rights bills in the U.S. Senate.
The municipal leaders participated in the 90th winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Acquanetta Warren, the mayor of Fontana., Calif., since 2010, said she attends the winter meeting to catch up on the latest developments regarding urban policies. This year, she wanted to know what her colleagues have been doing about the coronavirus.
“Whether we are Democrats, Republicans or independents, we are all fighting this virus and we are all in together with this,” said Warren, a Republican in her third term.
Regarding the Senate defeat of the voting rights legislation, Birmingham, Ala., Mayor Randall Woodfin spoke about it in terms of his city’s brutal history amid the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.
“In my city, police dogs and fire hoses were turned on people and children were jailed because they wanted to be treated equally under the law,” he said. “It is a shame that in 2022, we still have to fight for the right of people to vote.”
Baltimore Mayor Brandon M. Scott reflected on how the coronavirus has changed the way his city deals with impoverished residents.
“Before the pandemic, one-in-four Baltimoreans were on SNAP (the federal food assistance program),” he said. “When the pandemic set in, that number jumped to 25% of people living in Baltimore.”
Scott said his administration worked with non-profits to provide 1.5 million food boxes to residents outdoors. The food boxes which consisted of produce, selected meats and some desert went to 80 select sites throughout the city.
Michael Hancock, the mayor of Denver, said food insecurity increased in his city as well.
“Before the pandemic, 11% of Denverites were food insecure,” he said. “After the pandemic, up to 33% of our residents didn’t have enough food to eat comfortably.”
Hancock said his administration worked with the nonprofit sector to increase food security by partnering with food banks and churches that had nutrition distribution programs through the Denver Emergency Food Relief Fund. He also initiated an effort to ensure 75,000 children had after-school meals.
Warren said the pandemic forced Fontana, a city of over 200,000 people in San Bernardino County and part of the Greater Los Angeles area, to pivot to virtual meetings.
“Our residents heard in the media that Los Angeles had shut down and advised people to stay in their homes,” she said. “We had to get the word out quickly that it was Los Angeles, not Fontana. We had to keep functioning. We had to make sure our children had the computers and laptops that were needed in order for their education to continue. Many of our firefighters and police officers had to fill in spots to help health care workers care for residents.”
Warren started a “Mayor Monday” program so people could contact her on that day if they had any concerns.
Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam said his city’s response to the pandemic had become stymied due to the policies of Governor Ron DeSantis (R).
“Our governor has limited the ability of municipalities to institute mask mandates,” Messam said. “In government buildings, we can require the wearing of masks but in restaurants, bars, gas stations and retail outlets, masks are at the discretion of the owners of those establishments.”
Messam said despite DeSantis’s actions, the city managed to use public transit to see that seniors could get to their doctor’s appointments and coronavirus testing and vaccination sites. City employees also distributed food to residents at several sites in the city.
Mayors Address Issue of Voting Rights
While discussion about the pandemic dominated the meeting, the Senate’s refusal to consider the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 and the Freedom to Vote Act of 2021 generated some discourse.
“We are close to our constituents and we know what they want,” Messam said. “We don’t have the luxury U.S. senators have and not produce for the people. We don’t have a filibuster. We must meet the people’s needs and do what they want us to do.”
Woodfin said while his state has instituted voting restrictions including banning curbside voting, he will encourage his constituents to vote.
Port Arthur, Texas, Mayor Thurman Bartie noted how his state legislature has passed tougher voting requirements. For example, voters must now provide either their driver’s license or Social Security number on their mail-in ballots and hours have been reduced for voting centers.
“Some of these laws are unjust but we’ll educate our people so they know their options,” he said. “If they have a mail-in ballot, we’ll make sure they have the necessary documents so their ballot will be counted. We will inform our people about voting center hours and what to do if they cannot vote at that time. We will work to make sure people can vote.”