The GOP and ALEC’s War on Cities

The Right has hijacked Congress and State Houses. Now it’s coming for the cities.

BY Theo Anderson

Few ideas are more powerful in U.S. politics than local control. ... Conservatives rage at the federal government for meddling in local matters. But when local control favors progressives, it turns out to be “a form of collectivism” rather than a cherished conservative principle.

Few ideas are more powerful in U.S. politics than local control. The South rallied around states’ rights during the Civil War. Conservatives rage at the federal government for meddling in local matters.

But when local control favors progressives, it turns out to be “a form of collectivism” rather than a cherished conservative principle.

That’s what Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently called the trend of city-level bans on plastic bags, fracking and tree-cutting. They form “a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations,” Abbott said, “that are eroding the Texas model” and turning the state into California.

Texas legislators have responded with proposals to preempt local laws, including a bill that would prevent local governments from issuing any ordinance that “conflicts with or is more stringent than a state statute or rule.”

Such bills blocking progressive laws are growing in popularity across the United States, especially in GOP-controlled legislatures. Last year, for example, when Oklahoma City debated raising its minimum wage to $10.10, the state legislature passed a law preventing cities from enacting wage increases.

Progressive muscle-flexing by urban America on the minimum wage, fracking and other key economic and environmental issues poses a serious challenge to the GOP’s program of obstruction in Congress. It also threatens the deep bias of our national politics toward red states and conservative ideology. That makes subverting the power of cities an urgent task for conservatives, even if it means becoming “meddling bureaucrats” themselves.

As a staff member of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) said last year while discussing the trend toward minimum-wage increases: “Perhaps the biggest threat comes from the local level.”

ALEC has been a key actor in the push for state-level preemption laws. It now aims to push local conservatism directly with an initiative called the American City Council Exchange (ACCE), which will create model legislation at the local level, just as ALEC does for state legislatures. “Working together,” according to the ACCE mission statement, “members learn from others’ challenges and evaluate how free-market policies work when applied to local governments.”

ACCE will hold its second annual meeting this summer in San Diego, including a session on “local labor issues” like minimum wage laws and collective bargaining.

Our rural overlords

Relative to the total population, cities attract a younger and more educated workforce. They also tend to be home to more immigrants and racial and sexual minorities. Cities are, in short, the home of the Democratic base. The greater the population density, the bluer they become.

Of the 10 most populous U.S. cities, only San Diego has a Republican mayor. (Its previous mayor, a Democrat, resigned in 2013 in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal.) Metropolitan areas of at least one million people voted for Barack Obama by a spread of eight points in 2012. By contrast, Mitt Romney won towns and cities with fewer than 250,000 people by a spread of 13 points, and cities of up to 500,000 people by 3 points.

Even the deep-red swathes of the political map are studded with blue urban outposts, such as Houston, Phoenix and Salt Lake City. While Texas conservatives still talk about seceding from the Union, the state’s cities have already seceded from Texas, at least in spirit. Nearly a dozen cities in Texas have implemented a plastic-bag tax. Houston elected an openly lesbian mayor.

But the voices and votes of city dwellers are systematically discounted by our political structure, and majority white, rural voters are overrepresented. This allows the GOP to paralyze Congress and makes progressive policies impossible to pass at the federal level, regardless of public support.

On energy policy, for example, a Pew Research Center poll found that more Americans oppose fracking (47 percent) than support it (41 percent).

Support for progressive economic policy is even stronger. Polling by Pew and USA Today found that 73 percent of Americans favor a minimum wage hike to $10.10. Eighty-eight percent support paid sick days for workers.

Yet the structural imbalances in Congress, aggressively exploited by the GOP, make the prospect of passing federal legislation on any of these issues next to nil.

Because Democratic voters tend to cluster in urban areas, it is easy to group them into a few districts—leaving vast rural areas, and many suburbs, safe for Republicans. As a result, only a small fraction of House races are competitive. Of 435 seats in the House, 373 will be safe for incumbents in 2016, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan organization FairVote.

Periodic redistricting, required by the Constitution after each decennial census, makes the problem worse if it becomes a hyper-partisan process, as it was after the Republicans’ big wins in 2010 at both the state and congressional levels. In 2012, in the seven states in which Republicans redrew House districts, voters preferred Republicans by a slight margin—16.7 million to 16.4 million votes. But that small edge in votes yielded more than twice as many seats for the GOP—73 to 34.

The House races in North Carolina were perhaps the worst-case scenario. The newly elected Republican General Assembly used redistricting to gerrymander the Democratic vote into just a few districts in 2012. As a result, Democrats took only 4 of 13 seats while winning 51 percent of the popular vote. The outcome was so skewed that it prompted a Republican, writing in the Charlotte Business Journal, to call for a nonpartisan redistricting process.

His party did not heed his advice. Using state legislatures to dramatically skew the makeup of Congress was, in fact, the plan all along. In the run-up to the 2010 election, the GOP invested more than $30 million in the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, which targeted state-level races that held the most potential to shape the subsequent redistricting process. REDMAP invested more than $1 million in six candidates for the Ohio House, for example. Five of them won. It spent another million on three winning candidates in Pennsylvania.

REDMAP was the start of a state-level coup for the GOP. Republicans controlled 36 of the 98 partisan state chambers before the 2010 election. After the election, they controlled 57. Democrats have steadily lost ground since—partly because of their own neglect, and partly because of the GOP’s highly organized, well-funded efforts. After the 2014 election, Republicans controlled 68 chambers, including all of the South except for the Kentucky House of Delegates.

Tyranny of the minority

While the House has become fiercely anti-democratic, the Senate takes it to an entirely different level. Red states and rural, white voters hold power in the Senate that is outrageously out of proportion to their numbers.

Though the five most populous states—California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois—account for about 37 percent of the U.S. population, they have just 10 percent of the votes in the Senate. They are also home to the nation’s four largest cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. Only two of these states are red.

Meanwhile, the five least populous states—South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming—account for about 1 percent of the population but have 10 percent of Senate votes. Their most populous city is Anchorage, Alaska. With a population of about 300,000, it is the 63rd largest U.S. city. Vermont is the only blue state.

This rural bias correlates with a profound racial basis. Whites are about 82 percent of the population in the five smallest states. In the 2010 Census, they made up 78 percent of the total rural population. Yet they account for just 63 percent of the U.S. population overall.

The upshot is that sparsely populated, predominately white regions of the nation have become vastly over-represented in both the House and the Senate. Filibustering now allows 21 states, representing little more than 10 percent of the U.S. population, to block any bill from moving forward.

Bright lights, big city

These rural, white biases, which are the root of the often-lamented “dysfunction” of Congress, have made cities into the most fertile ground for progressive policies.

Those hopes are reflected in a spate of recent book titles on the subject, such as The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy and If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities.

Benjamin Barber, author of If Mayors Ruled the World, writes that cities might “rescue democracy” and “find ways to help us govern our world democratically and bottom-up.”

Progressives living in Rahm Emanuel’s neoliberal Chicago, or Michael Nutter’s Philadelphia, might object—with good reason—to the premise that mayoral rule brings about a progressive utopia. Still, it’s undeniable that the democratic energy blocked by Congress is seeping into and transforming local politics. The recent city-led push for higher wages is one manifestation. In 2014, according to the National Employment Law Project, 11 cities approved some form of minimum wage hike.

The San Diego City Council voted last year to require employers to give paid sick leave. It also voted to raise the minimum wage to $11.50. (Pushback from the business community forced a referendum; voters will decide these issues in June.) San Francisco approved a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour by 2018, and in March, Oakland’s minimum wage increased to $12.25.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the city council voted last fall to raise the minimum wage for hotel workers to $15.37 an hour. It takes effect this July for hotels with at least 300 rooms and in July 2016 for those with at least 150 rooms. There is now discussion in the city about raising wages more broadly, with Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti supporting a hike to $13.25.

Portland, Maine, has also joined the movement. In mid-April, a City Council committee approved a hike to $8.75 and sent the proposal for a full vote.

Portland’s move came after Republican Governor Paul LePage vetoed an increase passed by the state legislature in 2013. LePage alleged a populist rationale for his veto, saying, “It is time to put Maine people before politics.” He is now collaborating with Republican state legislators to pass a bill that would prohibit cities from enacting wage hikes.

Urban warfare

How successfully Republicans can adapt to this new blue battleground is an open question. Republicans are taking progressives’ urban offensive seriously and experimenting with strategies to fight back.

In the red regions of the country, state legislatures have become tools for obstruction. Eleven of them (all GOP-controlled) have passed laws preempting paid sick time. Fifteen states have done so on the issue of the minimum wage—nearly half of them since 2010.

Republicans are also moving swiftly to roll back or block city-led environmental initiatives, especially those related to fracking.

In February, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that cities and counties have no authority to regulate fracking independent of state law. The ruling came in response to a ban on the practice by several cities across the state.

The question is now in the spotlight in several other states. Bills that would prevent cities from regulating fracking advanced in the Florida, Oklahoma and Texas legislatures in April. The Oklahoma bill was proposed after a state report linked a 600-fold increase in earthquake activity to wastewater wells associated with oil and gas drilling. A recent University of Texas poll found that 58 percent of people polled nationwide believe cities should have the power to regulate fracking, and only 25 percent believe they should not.

Texas House members averaged more than $25,000 in contributions from oil and gas companies in 2013 and 2014, according to a Texans for Public Justice report.

One of the Texas legislators supporting such efforts is Republican Phil King, the national chair of ALEC’s board of directors. Though ALEC does not claim involvement with the legislation in Texas, its website offers a model bill to give state governments the sole authority to regulate fracking. It was approved by ALEC’s board in 2009 and re-approved early this year. The bill was originally aimed against federal intrusions on state authority but is adaptable to threats from local ordinances as well.

A house divided

Preemption laws that nullify progressive urban policies are just the latest salvo in the GOP’s long-term campaign to exploit the overrepresentation of white, rural voters in our political system. That campaign is essentially the story of the modern GOP. One of its main tactics is old-fashioned political hardball.

Consider the push for stricter voter requirements to address the myth of voter fraud. Seven of the 11 states with the highest African-American voter turnout in 2008 have subsequently passed laws making it more difficult to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Similarly, since 2008, nine of the 12 states with the fastest-growing Hispanic population have passed new voting restrictions.

While gerrymandering dilutes the power of minority voters, the new restrictions aim to deter minorities from voting altogether. In 2013, for example, North Carolina passed several new restrictions, including a state-issued ID requirement, a reduced early voting period and the end of same-day voter registration. Each of these “reforms” disproportionately affects minorities. Though African Americans account for 23 percent of the state’s registered voters, for example, they accounted for 33 percent of voters who used the early voting period in 2012—and 34 percent of those who didn’t have a state-issued ID. The state legislature passed the restrictions just a month after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down critical parts of the Voting Rights Act.

Along with its new bare-knuckle politics, the GOP’s campaign to exploit the rural biases in Congress has a long, compelling narrative.

It’s the story of a victimized but righteous people: the “silent majority” that Richard Nixon appealed to in his 1968 presidential campaign, the “moral majority” of the 1980s, the “values voters” of the 1990s, the “real America” of Sarah Palin and the “producer class” of the Tea Party. The virtuous, so the story goes, are under merciless assault by those who aim to impose godless values on the nation. At an ACCE conference last winter, a representative of the American Petroleum Institute captured the essence of the narrative perfectly, if absurdly, by drawing a parallel between the rise of Germany’s Nazi Party and “what I see happening in our small towns on issues like fracking.”

That narrative plays to the fears of the GOP’s base, rural voters and conservative Christians who see the advance of social justice—especially in the realms of feminism and LGBT equality—as the destruction of the traditional moral order. The truth of the narrative is largely irrelevant. For conservative Christians, it evokes familiar biblical themes and stories of persecuted believers. For rural, white voters, it plays to fears of being left behind by an increasingly diverse, urban society.

The corrupting influence of money in politics is often decried, especially since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. But in truth, the corruption goes far deeper than the influence of money. The wealthy are empowered by the outrageously out-of-balance influence of a small fraction of the population that perceives itself as under siege—and is thus highly mobilized. An alliance of plutocrats and rural overlords paralyzes our national politics, despite broad support for at least modestly progressive reforms on most major issues.

In the emerging battle for control of U.S. cities, the stakes are high. For Republicans, the critical question is just how far—and for how long—they can push their exploitation of the rural white vote. There has been much talk about how the GOP will be forced to broaden its appeal to minorities and younger voters, but that assumes our elections actually reflect the will of the people. What if the GOP’s structural advantages in Congress give it no incentive to reform, allowing it to prosper as an obstructionist party that appeals primarily to the rural white vote?

For progressives, the critical question is: Can the principle of local control address urgent national issues, especially in the realms of climate change and economic inequality?

“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Frederick Douglass wrote. Injustice and wrongdoing will, as Douglass put it, “continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.” Cities are beginning to demand an end to our national political paralysis and to implement policies that most of us agree on. Conservatives are pushing back. The evidence suggests that the war between urban America and a political system radically rigged against it is just beginning.

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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