We need more elected officials like Manny Diaz.
When Manny was first elected Mayor of Miami, he entered office with the single most important asset any new mayor can have: ignorance. He didn't know what he couldn't do. Those who spend their lives in politics learn to live by certain limitations: groups that cannot be challenged, laws that cannot be changed, projects that cannot be undertaken, words that cannot be uttered. Manny had spent his career in the private sector, and he brought none of this baggage with him. When people wise in the way of government told him one of his ideas could not be achieved, he asked a very simple, and very powerful, question: "Why not?"
This book is for everyone who asks that same question about local, state, or federal government. Why can't government be more efficient and effective? Why can't government get big things done? Why can't government be as innovative and dynamic as the private sector? The answer is: it can. But it takes leaders like Manny Diaz to make it happen.
On issue after issue, Mayor Diaz changed the way Miami city government approached long-standing problems. Instead of seeing poverty as inevitable, he saw it as an area where investments needed to be better targeted. Instead of lamenting the middle class exodus to the suburbs, he saw that residents were "voting with their feet" and needed to be convinced to come back to a city that cared about improving services. Instead of blaming failing schools on the bureaucracy, he led the charge to increase mayoral control. And instead of bemoaning traffic congestion, he advocated for expanded mass transit. Manny Diaz never stopped asking "Why not?" And the innovative approaches he pioneered helped Miami become a national leader on issues that will define the future of our country.
I've had the pleasure of working with and getting to know Manny Diaz over the past decade. We were both first elected to office in November 2001. Both of us had spent our careers in the private sector. And both of us entered government with a philosophy based on pragmatism, not ideology.
Unlike members of Congress, mayors don't have the luxury of spending their days holding ideological debates. We are elected to solve problems that affect people's everyday lives—from fighting crime to fixing potholes. Neither of us believes that, when it comes to governing and public policy, one party has a monopoly on good ideas or truth. As New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia said in the 1930s, "There is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the trash." That is still true today. The problem is that now, both parties spend more time maneuvering around problems—in order to position themselves to win the next election—than they do fixing them.
Mayor Diaz and I both became Independents because we saw how, all too often, partisanship stands in the way of progress. The fact is, members of the two parties agree on far more than they admit. But for self-serving political reasons, they would rather engage in combat than collaboration. By and large, mayors put aside partisan differences to find common ground on the most important issues—and few have done it as effectively as Manny Diaz. This book is not only a great American success story—Manny is the son of immigrants who worked his way to the top—but it is also a valuable lesson in the art of pragmatic politics.
Many of the issues I've worked on with Manny have been ones that produce mostly gridlock in Washington—including the most urgent, illegal guns. In 2006, we launched a bipartisan coalition of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which today has over 600 members around the country. As President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Manny was instrumental in helping the coalition grow—and helping us recruit Democratic, Republican, and Independent mayors. When it comes to illegal guns, both parties in Washington are beholden to special interests—and paralyzed by the fear that talking about the issue will hurt their reelection chances. But mayors see the deadly consequences of illegal guns every day—and we have an obligation to act.
The first responsibility of any mayor is to protect public safety. And mayors owe our police officers—and their families—our commitment to do everything possible to keep illegal guns off the streets. The vast majority of crimes committed with guns are committed by people—felons or the mentally ill—who are not legally allowed to possess a gun. The message that our mayors' coalition has brought to Washington is simple: enforce the laws preventing criminals and the mentally ill from getting guns. It's a message that more than 80 percent of gun owners agree with. Washington, however, remains more interested in ideological debates than pragmatic steps to enforce the law that would save lives.
Although illegal guns are a national problem, mayors understand that we cannot wait for Washington to act. And in Miami, Mayor Diaz refused to allow key public safety matters to be driven by local politics. Despite local opposition, he conducted a national search for a police chief, and ended up hiring one of New York's Finest: John Timoney. During Mayor Diaz's tenure, crime fell dramatically in Miami, with the homicide rate dropping 76 percent from its highest point (similar to what we saw happen in New York). Only a few U.S. cities experienced a greater decrease in crime during the last decade.
Driving down crime is just one area where the mayor refused to allow the gridlock in Washington to prevent local action. For example, while very little is happening to address climate change in our nation's capital, cities are leading the way. Under Mayor Diaz, Miami became a leader in the green buildings movement. And when I was in Miami a few years ago, I got a firsthand look at some of the public transit solutions Mayor Diaz had championed. They not only helped improved people's commuting time, but helped reduce pollution too.
On issue after issue, Mayor Diaz brought an entrepreneurial spirit to Miami's City Hall—and in New York City we were glad to be his partner on many initiatives. Together, we convinced the federal government to create an Urban Innovation Fund to support forward-thinking, hard-hitting antipoverty programs like New York's Center for Economic Opportunity and ACCESS Miami. As members of the Cities for Financial Empowerment coalition, we've worked to find new ways to help low-income families stabilize their finances and savings. When Mayor Diaz started the Mayors' Alliance for Green Schools with Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, New York signed on as a member. And when Mayor Diaz helped led the charge for nonpartisan redistricting—so that legislative districts are not carved up to protect incumbents—I gladly lent my support.
This openness to collaboration also led Mayor Diaz to form partnerships with the private sector on many critical local issues. Government cannot accomplish everything by itself, but that is no excuse for inaction. Through public-private partnerships, mayors can invest in neighborhoods, tackle difficult social problems, and spur economic growth. In New York, these partnerships have been critical to our success in a wide variety of areas—from revitalizing parks to launching incubators for small businesses to fighting poverty. In Miami, Manny leveraged public-private partnerships to improve the quality of life for residents—and attract billions of dollars in new investment. By making Miami an even more powerful magnet for residents and visitors, he made it an even more powerful magnet for businesses looking to expand and grow.
Manny Diaz was a great mayor, and he will go down in history as one of our country's most innovative urban leaders because he put progress before partisanship—and because he never stopped asking, "Why not?" His legacy will be defined not only by a soaring skyline, but also by cutting-edge policies that made Miami a national leader on urban issues. That work will not only benefit Miami for generations to come: it will influence cities around the country and the world. Now more than ever, not only are cities competing with each other in a global marketplace; we are learning from one another. And as you will read in these pages, there is a great deal to learn from Manny Diaz's experience in Miami.