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Mayors are in Washington for the U.S. Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Mayors from across the country are gathering in Washington, D.C., this week for the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting. It is a chance for local leaders to meet each other and to make their priorities known to federal lawmakers and the Biden administration. And this matters because, well, mayors matter. While their responsibilities may differ from place to place, local leaders tend to touch the things that tend to matter most to people - housing, schools, playgrounds, public safety. So we are talking with some of the mayors in town this week about what they are up to and their priorities for this election year. Joining us today in studio is Leirion Gaylor Baird. She is a Democrat and the mayor of Lincoln, Neb. It's a city of about 300,000 people. Good morning. Thanks for coming.

LEIRION GAYLOR BAIRD: Well, good morning. It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: I just wanted to start by talking about some of your signature initiatives. You've made a big push for mental health training for law enforcement. You're trying to get, say, mental health professionals to accompany law enforcement officers on certain calls. You've pushed on affordable housing and even making playgrounds more accessible for kids with disabilities. These are some sort of really kind of unique programs here. And I was just wondering if there's something that ties them all together. Like, why are these your priorities?

BAIRD: Well, public safety and opportunity for everyone in our community are among my top priorities. And in part, you know, I'm the daughter of two public school teachers, and I was aware at a very early age that not every child is born into the same set of circumstances or access to resources and opportunities. And as mayors, we focus a lot on making sure that we're providing a good opportunity for high quality of life for everyone.

MARTIN: And you've said - like in your state of the city address, you said you wanted Lincoln to be the quality of life capital of the country. That means lots of things to different people. But let's focus on sort of the federal aspect of that. Is there some aspect of that where the federal government is helpful to you or where it falls short?

BAIRD: Absolutely. It means that we're a safe city and a great place to raise a family, and where people can get to work and create a life for their families and economic opportunity. And in cities, mayors are focused on ensuring that we have the resources for our law enforcement officers so that we can do the kind of co-responder model that you mentioned. We've got support from the Department of Justice to fund our co-responder model that pairs mental health resources with officers, and that helps take the workload off our officers, too, and infrastructure for things like our multi-modal transit center. We received a $23.6 million grant in Lincoln to build out a new transit center. That's thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure law the president and Congress have passed. And it's making a difference in creating economic opportunity in cities all across the country.

MARTIN: So I know that constituents tend to get irritated when their local leaders, you know, go to meetings. And I guess they think you're all having lobster dinners or whatever. But so can you explain, like, why do you come to meetings like this?

BAIRD: Yeah.

MARTIN: What's - why is this worth your time?

BAIRD: Yeah, the U.S. conference is an incredibly effective resource in advocating for the needs of cities and the people whom we serve. And as a trustee at the conference, it's really important for me to be here in person and to learn and listen to my fellow mayors and the solutions that they're finding to our shared challenges and priorities. And just one example - water is a big concern across the country. And in Lincoln, we're creating a second water source with $200 million in federal resources from the American Rescue Plan. That, for - just for context, is almost equivalent to the size of our tax-funded budget. So we're talking about partnerships with the federal government that help us get really meaningful work done.

MARTIN: So it's an election year. It's a presidential election year. So it's a lot on our minds. What about your constituents? Is it on their minds?

BAIRD: Yeah. But I think they're mostly focused on how their life is going on the ground and whether or not, you know, they can provide for their families, afford their housing. And so, again, continuing to partner here with the federal government to bring resources down that help continue to make our cities more affordable, more safe, whether that's building permanent supportive housing for the unsheltered, which we are doing in Lincoln with assistance from the federal government, or taking lead out of old pipes, which we're doing with assistance as well.

MARTIN: And what's the first thing you're going to do when you go back after this meeting?

BAIRD: Continue to be serving the public and meeting with my constituents and implementing our strategic plan, which is focused on growing that quality of life in Lincoln.

MARTIN: That's Leirion Gaylor Baird. She is the mayor of Lincoln, Neb. Tomorrow we will be speaking with the mayor of Newport, R.I. Madam Mayor, thank you so much for talking with us and coming in.

BAIRD: Oh, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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