City and county officials are using the Democratic and Republican conventions to aggressively lobby federal lawmakers on behalf of local governments' interests. The efforts are being waged through convention speeches, sponsored events and direct contact with representatives and senators at the lunches, dinners and cocktail parties that bookend the conventions' official proceedings. “A presence at the convention is important to make sure the issues that are really facing local governments in this election year are discussed and addressed,” says Jennifer McGee, a senior legislative counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based National League of Cities (NLC).

Those issues include approval of an overdue $318 billion transportation bill that will pay for road and transit projects for the next six years, as well as increased funding for affordable housing, homeland security and other domestic programs in the fiscal year 2005 appropriations bills. NLC sent a delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Boston last month and issued talking points to city officials who attended as delegates. NLC delegates will champion the same talking points this month at the Republican National Convention in New York. The Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Counties (NACo) and United States Conference of Mayors, (USCM), also will send officials to New York.

It is not clear if a local official will be featured prominently at the Republican convention, but Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley spoke at the Democratic convention and urged federal lawmakers to increase homeland security funding and to make sure it is delivered directly to cities and counties. “We are all hurting,” O'Malley says of the additional expenses local governments have had to bear since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “This is very real stuff to us.”

O'Malley, who serves as co-chair of the USCM Homeland Security task force, did not speak on behalf of the organization, because he was calling on voters to elect Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to be the next president. Although his speech was colored with partisan rhetoric, O'Malley's comments on homeland security were given a national airing.

A speech such as O'Malley's can draw national headlines, but the personal schmoozing that occurs at the conventions is just as effective at spreading the local message, several local officials say. Many local leaders serve as delegates to the conventions, which gives them an opportunity to meet with their respective representatives and senators informally. “It is a networking opportunity,” says Larry Naake, NACo's executive director. “It is important you have social interaction with these members as opposed to meeting with them in their offices. You get to know them on a personal level.”

Arlington, Mass., Selectman Charles Lyons says he is concerned about the “increased partisanship” he has seen in the nation's capital this year, which he claims has prevented Congress from finishing its work on much needed measures such as the transportation bill. Lyons, who serves as NLC's president, says that is why it is important local officials use the conventions to “get in as much effective lobbying as [they] can” before Congress returns to work in September.

The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.