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Rhode Island mayor discusses his top priorities for the city of Newport


Mayors from across the country are in Washington, D.C., this week for the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting. They're hoping to make their priorities known here at the federal level to lawmakers and the Biden administration. So this week, we're talking to mayors from across the country about the issues facing their cities. Yesterday we spoke with the mayor of Lincoln, Neb. Joining us today is Xay Khamsyvoravong. He's a Democrat and mayor of Newport, R.I. It's a city of about 25,000 people. And he's in studio with me this morning. Mayor, thanks for being on the program.

XAY KHAMSYVORAVONG: Thank you for having me on.

FADEL: So you're here in D.C. to talk to the White House lawmakers. What federal priorities did you bring to D.C. from your constituents in Newport, R.I.?

KHAMSYVORAVONG: We are on the front lines of dealing with climate change, and so we need to make sure that the resiliency funding that was included in the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law continue to flow to local municipalities like Newport, so we can make sure that our communities are still standing for years to come.

FADEL: So that is your top priority. You've been in the - in office - a little over a year ago, you took office. What generally have been your top priorities as mayor for your city?

KHAMSYVORAVONG: We've been focused on housing, infrastructure and education. Within those three, infrastructure is the one piece where there's the greatest potential for the federal government to be helpful to those of us at the local level that are trying to deal with these big challenges we're facing right now.

FADEL: Have your constituents been frustrated with the federal government over issues around infrastructure and climate change?

KHAMSYVORAVONG: They've been patient so far. I think they realize that the funding packages were recently passed. It's going to take a while for that funding to start flowing. Our big focus last year was identifying potential funding streams that might exist. This year, we're focused on learning from what we did in the past and what we need to do in the future to continue winning the grants that we need to make these improvements.

FADEL: What are some of the - your initiatives to accomplish the goals that you've promised to constituents coming into office?

KHAMSYVORAVONG: Well, we're in the midst of a strategic planning process right now that looks at what we're going to be targeting to accomplish over the next five years. In addition to that, we've moved very swiftly on the issue of housing, specifically targeting short-term rentals. We're a vacation community. So our population goes from 24,000 to 100,000 people for a good portion of the year. So we need to make sure the existing housing stock that we have for the core people who live, work and make our community the wonderful place that it is, still have a place to actually live.

FADEL: Yeah.

KHAMSYVORAVONG: That means finding the balance between the visitors that we have coming into town and how we accommodate them with what our local community needs in order to keep functioning.

FADEL: Now, this is the second day of the U.S. Conference of Mayors winter meeting. You're describing climate change, infrastructure, housing as major issues for your city. But that's something that we're hearing from people across the country. What are you hearing from other mayors as top issues, and do you have a unified message going into these meetings?

KHAMSYVORAVONG: We're hearing consistently that we're all facing the same issues. Now, they might be a little bit different - right? - between a town in the Midwest versus a city on the eastern seaboard. But we all feel very consistently that what we need is objective, predictable streams of funding. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act both made those available. We now need to work together to actually go out there and bring those dollars home to get these projects built.

FADEL: Now, you're in office as the next administration will be elected and take office. As the leader of Newport, R.I., what is your message to whatever the next administration is? I mean, Washington has been very polarized, and there's a lot of difficulty when it comes to bipartisan efforts.

KHAMSYVORAVONG: You know, local government is where the rubber hits the road - or the pothole when we don't fix that road. And so these are not issues, issues like infrastructure, that should in any way be partisan, right? There's not a red pothole or a blue pothole. There is a pothole. It needs to be fixed. So things like bridges and broadband are areas where I think there's common agreement across both party lines, and that we need to make the investment in America if we're going to keep our communities the wonderful places that they are.

FADEL: Is there something that Washington can learn from local leaders like yourself?

KHAMSYVORAVONG: I think that when you put local leaders in the administration, as we've seen the Biden administration do, they help us effectively govern at the local level. And so when you look at people like Steve Benjamin, former mayor of Columbia, S.C., Pete Buttigieg being in these roles in the federal government - they listen and talk with mayors, and they can help us actually get the work done that needs to be happening locally.

FADEL: That's Xay Khamsyvoravong, mayor of Newport, R.I. Tomorrow we'll be speaking with the mayor of Caldwell, Idaho. Thank you so much for your time and for being here.

KHAMSYVORAVONG: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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