Of course fiscal conservatism is good, but it can’t be a city’s lone strategy. Ultimately leaders must deliver services, and Cornett’s administration has shown how to do this efficiently. In 2009 he expanded the Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) capital-improvement program, which was founded in 1993 after a business executive claimed that he hadn’t headquartered his company in Oklahoma City because of its lifeless downtown. In response, then-mayor Ron Norick started the program, and it has expanded multiple times, evolving into MAPS 3 under Cornett, funding a legion of downtown improvements.
Some of these have been practical, such as new sidewalks, parks, health centers, school renovations, and a central library. Others, such as the Chesapeake Energy basketball arena, and the adjacent Cox Convention Center, are perhaps less so. But where Oklahoma City differs is in its approach. Each new MAPS program has been overwhelmingly approved by voters and funded by a 1 percent sales tax. This means that, rather than increasing debt, they are paid for upfront and are thus more cost-effective. The $777 million accrued for MAPS 3, for example, produced a list of completed projects so expansive as to be unimaginable in other cities. By comparison, Chicago spent $882 million on its convention-center expansion alone. In a phone interview, Cornett attributed the difference in part to the fact that projects are bid out rather than run by union-controlled government authorities.
Besides a more livable downtown, Cornett has addressed other quality-of-life issues. After recognizing a citywide — and his personal — weight problem, he anchored a successful campaign for residents to lose 1 million pounds. He has also championed school reforms that reduce truancy and encourage merit pay for teachers.
Put together, these accomplishments have made a destination of Oklahoma City and a celebrity of Cornett. He was named Public Official of the Year by Governing magazine and one of America’s most innovative mayors by Newsweek. He has also appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’s and Bill Maher’s talk shows, not exactly typical programs for an Oklahoma Republican.
The message that the GOP should take from his crossover appeal is that conservative economic policies can be not only effective in cities but also popular. They simply must be applied by leaders who are interested in enhancing urban culture. This can include reforming schools and policing, but also cleaning up waterfronts, building pocket parks, and converting obstructive downtown overpasses into boulevards — all Cornett accomplishments. Focusing on such street-level projects could rebrand a party that’s now unpopular in cities, especially, said Cornett, if they are advertised as “capital investments.”
Unlike with social programs, “our constituents can see the stuff they paid for,” he said. “They can walk up and touch it — and then they see our unemployment rate drop.”
Democrats as well should note the effect that conservative policies have on cities, especially as they weigh how to revive bankrupt ones such as Stockton and Detroit. These cities’ insolvency resulted after decades of budget-imploding, tax-and-spend liberalism. Their turnaround may be inspired by the more sober approach of booming Oklahoma City and of mayors like Mick Cornett.
— Scott Beyer is traveling the U.S. to write a book on revitalizing major cities. He blogs at BigCitySparkplug.com.