Concluding a year in which he raised his national profile with frequent visits to Washington, D.C., New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. will step down as president of the National League of Cities, or NLC, Saturday.
As DeStefano completes his one-year term as president, he said he was pleased with his record despite leading the NLC in a year when many cities, including New Haven, have faced both budget shortfalls and increasing demand for services. While DeStefano made early childhood education the lead item of his official agenda as president, he has spent much of his time calling for greater federal support to cities and towns in the wake of new mandates for schools and homeland security.
Speaking from Nashville, Tenn., where the NLC’s national conference is being held, DeStefano said his efforts to advocate for cities and towns have been made more challenging by the Bush administration’s focus on tax cuts, foreign policy and a Medicare prescription drug benefit rather than programs directed towards local municipalities.
“At the end of the term, it’s hard not to reflect on what’s going on nationally,” DeStefano said. “We’re involved in a war on Iraq and we’re facing half-trillion dollar deficits instead of surpluses.”
DeStefano will turn over the presidency of the NLC, which represents 18,000 cities and towns, to Charlie Lyons, a selectman from Arlington, Mass. DeStefano said he will continue to work closely with NLC leadership as a past president of the organization.
Reflecting upon his term, DeStefano said he attempted to improve the NLC’s ability to lobby the federal government for programs that mattered most to communities across the nation, especially initiatives targeted toward the middle class.
“I was very focused on strengthening the NLC as an advocacy organization,” DeStefano said. “For lots of different reasons, cities and towns are competing for the attention and the vision of the nation at the federal level, and I think we need to be a better lobbying organization.”
Michael Reinemer, director of communications for the NLC, said DeStefano’s focus on lobbying the federal government was instrumental in efforts to increase homeland security funding for cities and defeat a controversial energy bill in Congress.
“He has helped the organization get much stronger in terms of its advocacy and in terms of holding the line on a lot of issues in Washington,” Reinemer said.
As NLC president, DeStefano frequently traveled to Washington, D.C., and throughout the country — a responsibility he said became somewhat difficult as he campaigned for re-election during the summer. During the primary campaign, DeStefano’s opponent, Sherri Killins, and several of his critics argued that the mayor’s lobbying efforts at the state and national levels had distracted him from his duties as mayor.
But Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04 said that while he felt the mayor was forced to work harder due to his dual commitments to the NLC and City Hall, most members of the Board of Aldermen did not feel DeStefano was neglecting the city.
“I think he was challenged to meet all his responsibilities, but I never felt that any of us or any members of the community couldn’t get a meeting with him if that’s what they needed,” Healey said. “I think he managed to work a good balance.”
Healey said he was particularly pleased that DeStefano made early childhood education a focal point of his term, helping member cities craft plans to improve and expand their pre-kindergarten programs.