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The City Mayors Foundation
Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett
questioned by an international audience
7 December 2010: City Mayors invited those who participated in World Mayor 2010 to put questions to Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, runner-up in World Mayor 2010. From the questions received, a representative selection was forwarded to the mayor. He replies below in detail, with candour and thoughtfulness.
Questions & Answers
From Daniel C, Oklahoma City:
Question: Was your decision to enter politics part of a long-term career plan or was it triggered by a specific event?
Mick Cornett replies: I think the answer is both. I have always been interested in politics, but there’s no question that the 1995 bombing in our city affected me and altered my life’s course. In the months following, I made a personal decision to do something with my life that had greater meaning. That decision sent me down a path that ultimately led me to becoming a city hall news reporter and eventually running for mayor.
From Myrthle B, South Carolina:
Question: Have you ever had any regrets about going into politics?
Mick Cornett replies: No. I enjoy talking to people and trying to help them. I enjoy tackling complex municipal issues and planning a best solution. I take pleasure in the non-partisan nature of city politics. We have a lot of unity in our community. Our citizens are very supportive. So in general I have no regrets. Mayors are in a position to get things done. It’s the best job in town.
From Theresa W C, Oklahoma City:
Question: Like most elected politicians you probably have said that your present job is the best one a man can wish for. Nevertheless, in 2006, shortly after being re-elected for a second term, you sought to run for Congress. Do you still harbor ‘higher’ political ambitions?
Mick Cornett replies: It’s not something I think about naturally, but it’s something I am asked about every day. I think it would be wrong to assume that I will someday run for a different office. I was just recently re-elected to a third term as mayor and I plan to be here awhile. I know that a person should leave their options open but, at present, I don’t have any plans to run for a different office.
From Cheryl D, Oklahoma City:
Question: What have you learned about the leadership role of a mayor in today's rapidly changing world that would be of help and encouragement to other mayors?
Mick Cornett replies: The world may be changing quickly but the fundamentals of leadership have not changed. Here are some random thoughts that come to mind:
• Leaders must continually seek information and opinions. That means mayors must constantly study what is going on in their own cities and what is taking place in cities around the world. A mayor needs to engage the brightest minds in thoughtful conversation and be sure that they are surrounded by a strong network of experts on different issues. The combination of information and opinions allows a leader to choose a best course of action and to gauge the likely result.
• Leaders should be both realistic and optimistic. Too many elected officials instinctively tell people what they want to hear. That is an irresponsible approach and is indefensible.
• Leaders ought to be able to articulate their vision. A mayor needs to be working on improving the lives of their citizens and communicating how that can best be done.
• A mayor has a responsibility to look far into the future. Even if an issue is 10 or 20 years away from affecting quality of life in the city, a mayor has a responsibility to discuss it and advance the conversation. A mayor’s work will affect a city long after the term is over.
From Paul K, London, UK:
Question: Many people from outside the US, and probably from within America too, still associate Oklahoma City only with the bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in 1995. What have you done, and what will you do to change your city’s image? What does Oklahoma City stand for in the second decade of the 21st century?
Mick Cornett replies: For many years our city allowed itself to be branded by its tragedies. Certainly the bombing is the best example. In my first few years in office I focused extensively on improving our brand. Recruiting and landing a franchise in the National Basketball Association is an example of that effort. We need highly educated young professionals around the world to associate Oklahoma City with the positive. We have to be known as a city that values its health and promotes public education. From a tourism standpoint, we need to have the best entertainment district in the region. We have succeeded on all of these fronts and are starting to see success. We are one of the fastest growing cities in the United States and creating new, higher paying jobs in unprecedented numbers. According to the Kauffman Foundation, we are the most entrepreneurial city in the United States. Our unemployment is very low. Word of Oklahoma City’s improved brand has penetrated the region and is starting to break through to the east and west coasts of the United States. Very soon, our improved brand will be well known around the world.
From Ken McD, New York City:
Question: You inherited the MAPS (Metropolitan Area Projects) program from your predecessors. Would you say that in today’s difficult financial environment it is the only way to finance large-scale municipal projects?
Mick Cornett replies: It’s the best way for us. It seems to be the method of funding civic improvements with which our citizens are most comfortable. That does not mean it would be effective in another city. We live in a very conservative state and there is an expectation that taxes will be kept low. We have earned the citizens’ trust by delivering projects that meet or exceed the voters’ expectations. That trust is a very fragile asset that must be protected.
From Lesa S, Cashion, Oklahoma:
Question: Now that MAPS 3 is underway, the Oklahoma City metropolitan area citizens know this will be a successful program just as MAPS was and MAPS for Kids is. Do you envision another MAPS program to follow this? If so, what other improvements are needed in Oklahoma City that should be approved by the citizens?
Mick Cornett replies: Our focus is to carry out the assignment that we’ve been given by the voters. If we are successful, I imagine the city leaders of the future will be able to introduce new ideas. Looking ahead, I suspect that more investment in public transit, education, and health will be necessary.
From James O’C, Tulsa, Oklahoma:
Question: Oklahoma City’s weight loss initiative ‘This City is Going on a Diet’ was sponsored by Subway, not a by-word for healthy eating. Why choose a fast food chain as a sponsor for healthy eating?
Mick Cornett replies: We are working with a number of restaurants to provide healthier options. Many of them offer a “Mayor’s Special” at lunch so that customers understand that it is a healthier choice. One of the key messages of our weight-loss initiative is that food intake is still the primary reason that people are overweight. Too many obesity initiatives concentrate on increasing the amount of exercise. Our message is that everyone should exercise but if you are truly obese, you must understand that it is about what you eat and how much you eat. And if a person is not willing to make better choices about their food, they are not serious about weight loss. You cannot exercise your way out of obesity.
As you know, Oklahoma City is caught up in a culture of fast-food restaurants. One of our messages is that even though a person has chosen to have a fast-food meal, there are still choices to be made. Some items on the menu are healthier than others. One of our goals is to encourage people to make healthier menu choices regardless of the restaurant they’ve chosen.
Also, remember that although our obesity effort has been very effective at increasing awareness, it does not use any tax dollars for funding. We are grateful to restaurants that use their marketing dollars to help us deliver our message of living a healthier lifestyle.
From Curzon N, Oklahoma City:
Question: Has the ‘This City is Going on a Diet’ program been copied by other US cities?
Mick Cornett replies: Yes. Some 10 to 20 cities have adopted some aspects of our program. Also, through our relationship with First Lady Michelle Obama, and her “Let’s Move” program on childhood obesity, we are partnering to take the message to the rest of the country.
From Justin F, Portland, Oregon:
Question: Oklahoma City does not rank among the 50 greenest US cities nor have you signed up to the US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Is protecting the environment not important to you?
Mick Cornett replies: I think our commitment to the environment speaks for itself. Oklahoma City is a leader in green initiatives. Among our current projects we are upgrading lighting at public facilities, networking our buildings into a centralized energy management system, coordinating drop-off recycling centers, using green construction in fire stations and schools, funding energy- efficient home construction, acquiring CNG buses, supporting Bike Share, placing recycling bins downtown, changing our building codes to be more green, changing our historic preservation guidelines to promote energy efficiency, and we have hired a City Sustainability Director.
From José Miguel, Oklahoma City:
Question: As a Christian, do you agree that ‘Sanctuary Cities’ offer undocumented immigrants a basic level of protection?
Mick Cornett replies: I don’t think it is a religious issue. Oklahomans are inclusive by nature, but mayors around the world are reliant on national governments to enforce immigration policy.
From Carl S & Juan G, Tallahassee, Florida:
Question: What are your views on registered partnerships or marriage between people of the same sex?
Mick Cornett replies: Unlike a lot of areas, cities in Oklahoma don’t have jurisdiction in these matters. But let me be clear everyone is welcome in Oklahoma City. Cities that don’t appreciate diversity will not grow. We intend to grow. And statistically, we are one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. I think that alone validates our inclusive nature.
From Sebastian K, Oklahoma City:
Question: As a ‘moderate’ Republican, do you feel the Tea Party threatens consensus politics?
Mick Cornett replies: I think the Tea Party has served a valuable role as a watchdog over excessive government spending, but I don’t believe extreme partisanship is healthy from either side of the aisle. As a nonpartisan mayor, I try to be a consensus builder.
From Graham K, London UK:
Question: Has America become ungovernable?
Mick Cornett replies: Absolutely not. I think Oklahoma City is an example of how any group of elected officials can work together to improve the quality of life for its citizens. It simply requires elected officials to earn the trust of its citizens. Where that trust exists, government works.
From Patrick McC, Oklahoma City:
Question: What do you see as our city’s biggest problems and how do you propose to solve them?
Mick Cornett replies: Some of our biggest challenges include obesity, urban sprawl and education. We have specifically worked on each of these issues.
On obesity, I launched an awareness campaign three years ago that seems to have helped our citizens learn more about the problems of being overweight. Basically, I put Oklahoma City on a diet, and coordinated the launch of a web site to track our weight loss and serve as a clearing house for healthy options in our community. We’ve had over 43,000 sign up, and they have lost over 600,000 pounds. This has attracted the support of First Lady Michelle Obama and led to investments by our citizens in infrastructure to facilitate a healthier lifestyle. These include gyms for every elementary school, wellness centers for seniors, sidewalks and trails across the city, and a 70-acre park downtown.
Regarding sprawl, our city is 620 square miles and this size, combined with a lack of density, leads to an inefficient model for providing quality services to all our citizens. In an effort to foster greater density, we have invested heavily in rebuilding the infrastructure in the inner city in an effort to spur development.
We are also rebuilding every school building in the inner cityall 73 of them. The program is called MAPS for Kids and the purpose is to support education and invest in the inner city at the same time.
From Ruby C, Edmond, Oklahoma:
Question: What suggestions do you have to improve our public education situation?
Mick Cornett replies: If you look at the 24 districts that educate kids who live throughout the city you’ll find that test scores and dropout rates are reflective of the state average. Most large cities in the United States would be envious of that statistic. We, however, are not satisfied. We believe in setting higher standards for what is acceptable. We have one district that is particularly challenging and we are participating in community roundtables to gather support to make changes. I believe we need longer school days and a shorter summer break. We have programmed our schools based on models that began 100 years ago. We need to start again with a comprehensive approach that addresses the real needs of children in the 21st century. If we put them first, a lot of the decisions should be easier to make. It seems to me that we make a lot of decisions about education that put adults first. We’ve invested in new buildings, new buses and new technology, but that’s not enough.
From Caroline S, Oklahoma City:
Question: Two of my children have moved to Texas to find jobs. Where will OKC’s future jobs come from?
Mick Cornett replies: Oklahoma City has the lowest unemployment rate in the United States. Jobs and education have been my two highest priorities and I have worked with the chamber of commerce and the state department of commerce to increase our job growth. The reality is that thousands of highly-educated young people are moving to Oklahoma City and the job creators are successfully starting new businesses and expanding existing ones. The best way to create jobs is to create an incredible place to live so you can attract talented people who want to live in your city. We have above average wages combined with the lowest cost of living of any large city in the country. We have virtually no traffic congestion and very affordable housing. We have an abundance of clean air and fresh water. If you have access to your children’s resumes [CVs] please send them to me and I will see that they get into the hands of a job creator who might be able to help in bringing them home.
From V Midge S, Oklahoma City:
Question: How do you plan to solve Oklahoma City’s transportation problems?
Mick Cornett replies: Well, first let’s define transportation. We have one of the finest networks of roads and highways of any city in the United States. With three large interstate highways going through our cities and over 16,000 lane miles of road, we have created a virtual congestion-free city that helps improve the quality of life and helps to spur commerce.
As for public transportation, let me draw your attention to the fixed guideway study. This blueprint for a 21st century public transit system is the result of an 18-month-study that I chaired together with leaders throughout the metro area. The first stage of implementing the FGS is the downtown streetcar system funded through MAPS 3. It will be one of the finest systems in the United States and we have designated $130 million dollars to ensure that it meets our needs.
From Andrea F, Oklahoma City:
Question: What is your dream for OKC’s future:
Mick Cornett replies: That we remain inclusive, create the highest quality of life in the United States and continue to attract a diverse, highly educated group of young people to fuel our economy. There is a tremendous amount of new construction taking place in the inner city as we rebuild all of the interior streets to be more pedestrian-friendly and more highly landscaped. We are building a large central park, more sidewalks and bike trails, a new boulevard, improving our sports arena and designating more money than ever to improving the arts. A skyscraper is under construction that will forever change our city’s skyline. What is most fulfilling is the new sense of pride that has taken over our city. Our citizens have been a part of Oklahoma City’s renaissance and they take ownership in the improvements. We can’t change history. We can’t retreat to 19 April 1995 and alter the chain of events that led to the bombing that killed 168 innocent citizens. But we can continue to draw strength from the experience. We can continue to grow as a community. And we can remember that day not because we can’t forget it, but because we choose to remember it.
From Florian de CC, Houston, TX:
Question: Please name five US or foreign mayors you admire most and give reasons why.
Mick Cornett replies: In the United States, I admire the work of both Richard Daley of Chicago and Michael Bloomberg of New York. Both have done an effective job of working with the business community and creating jobs in their respective communities. They also understand the value of parks and open green spaces. I have learned a lot from talking to them and studying their work. Mayor Daley has also personally provided me with opportunities to interact with mayors from around the world at summits in Chicago and Amman, Jordan. Mayor Bloomberg has visited Oklahoma City to see our Memorial dedicated to the victims of the 1995 bombing. He is working on a similar effort to recognize the victims of 9/11. Other American mayors, like Pat McCrory of Charlotte, and John Hickenlooper of Denver, have successfully implemented rail-based public transit systems that I admire. I have also been able to observe a series of effective mayors in my own city and have learned from their experiences.
I have less information on mayors from around the world but I am intrigued by many of the ideas put forth by Betrand Delanoe of Paris. His work on sharing transit options like bicycles and electric cars shows the type of creativity that I admire. I am anxious to see how well these concepts work. I have had extensive conversations with mayors from many of the major cities in the Middle East who are dealing with overwhelming social issues as the current trend of global urbanization continues.
I recently read about the efforts of Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille and was both impressed and inspired. Every mayor, and every city, has a story. I assume I could learn something from each one of them.
From Patricia A, Oklahoma City:
Question: You have recently been named as one of Governing Magazine’s Public Officials of the Year and been short-listed for the 2010 World Mayor Prize. How do you cope with all that praise?
Mick Cornett replies: By sharing it. No mayor can do much working alone. I am fortunate to have a city council and a business community that put the city’s best interests before their own self-interests. It’s amazing what can occur when people work together and don’t seek the credit.
Mick Cornett, Mayor of Oklahoma City and first runner-up of World Mayor 2010. He has been awarded the World Mayor Commendation for services to his city
Inspired by his own weight loss, Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett has spearheaded efforts to motivate his own city’s residents to lose excess pounds. The former sports and city hall reporter turned ad man has since his first election in 2004 overseen significant regeneration of the state capital’s downtown districts through innovative taxation and attracted new jobs and sports teams. Cornett is also a national leader of city governments for the US Conference of Mayors and the Republican mayoral forum. Mick Cornett has been shortlisted for the 2010 World Mayor Prize.
Cornett was born and raised in the city, the son of a postman and a schoolteacher. He graduated from its Putnam City High School in 1976, where he excelled in athletics. He then obtained a degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma, where he later returned to teach the subject following a successful career in television and newspaper journalism in the city, including stints as a sports reporter and the city hall beat. Cornett remains involved in the business side of public relations as executive vice president at city ad firm Ackerman McQueen. The church-going mayor married his high school sweetheart Lisa, with whom he has three sons.
Cornett’s entry into city politics came in 2001 when he was elected to the city council, defeating a two-term incumbent councilmember. In 2004 he was elected as mayor, replacing two-term fellow Republican Kirk Humphreys who sought his party’s nomination for the US Senate. Cornett was elected to a second term in March 2006, securing 87.6 per cent of the vote, the largest margin in the city’s electoral history. That August he made his own bid for Congress, losing the Republican primary to Lt. Governor Mary Fallin (the state’s first female and Republican to hold that post). In March 2010 however, Cornett went on to become the city’s fourth ever mayor to receive a third term, albeit with a reduced majority at 58 per cent. More