Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

At the City Level, Progressives Flex New Power

Bloomberg CityLab

November 2020

As a nail-biter U.S. election creeps to its resolution — and tallies in urban areas decide key battleground states — a few things are clear. While the ideological cleavage between urban and rural parts of the country continues to grow, progressive candidates at the local level had a strong showing on Tuesday. There’s a “dramatic progressive turn” taking place on the local level, says Richard Schragger, a University of Virginia professor and author of City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age.

The 2020 results, so far, shows that trend will continue, even if it doesn’t trickle up into control of state legislatures or executive leadership. Schragger sees the range of policy that prevailed at the polls, from housing and transit to new ideas for land use and economic development, broadening significantly in cities of all sizes. 

Moving forward, many political observers and leaders tell CityLab that action will continue on tenant and worker rights, criminal justice reform and transportation. And with evolving vote tallies in battleground states pointing (as of Nov. 5) towards a Democratic White House, and Senate control decided by runoffs in Georgia, they feel it’s imperative that cities continue to advance progressive policies that reshape the local economy.

Tory Gavito, president of Way to Win, a progressive political coalition and PAC, points to the passage of Proposition A in Austin, a $7.1 billion transit improvement initiative, after the city council passed a Green New Deal last year as an example of progressives pushing big reforms when they have the votes and the power. 

 Wins like that stand out in a more muddled national picture, as predictions that voters would deliver a resounding repudiation of the Trump-era GOP have given way to a mixed assortment of results — and an ever-deeper gulf between urban and rural America. Still, Gavito sees the results so far as a step in the right direction for the progressive agenda. “The first thing to note is that Democrats are winning the popular vote, and their numbers are only increasing in urban and suburban areas, with demographic change in the south and southwest,” she says. “Arizona flipping, Georgia in a dead heat, Texas moving left, and wins down ballot are a sign this country is shifting.” 

Ross Morales Rocketto, co-founder of Run for Something, which backs state and local progressive Gen Z and Millennial candidates, emphasizes the generational shift in local politics. Overall, Run for Something endorsed 525 candidates this cycle, with 202 victories, 77 races left to call and three runoffs as of Nov. 5. Among the winners: Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, an Indigenous candidate who declared victory in her race to be the new Pima County Recorder, which oversees elections in the Tucson area; she ran in response to other Native Americans being disenfranchised. And Nikil Saval, an Asian-American architecture critic and first-time candidate just elected to the Pennsylvania State Senate, ran in part on a “housing for all” agenda. 

Candidate For Missouri's 1st District Cori Bush Holds Election Night Party
Congresswoman-elect Cori Bush speaks during her election-night watch party in St. Louis, Missouri. Photographer: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images North America

Rocketto also pointed out a pair of congressional winners who come with progressive credentials: former nurse and Ferguson activist Cori Bush, the first African-American woman to represent Missouri in the House of Representatives, and former middle-school principal Jamaal Bowman from New York City, who has promoted restorative justice and increased community investment.

These political newcomers, Rocketto says, reflect a generation that grew up watching Democratic leaders from Bill Clinton’s “big government is over” school of politics try to solve massive social problems with small fixes and slight shifts; now, they are loudly asking why government can’t do more. Rocketto doesn’t see it as an ideological fight as much as a demand that things get done. “Democrats have been in control of most major American cities for decades and Black people are still being killed on the streets by police,” he says. This summer’s racial justice protests fueled a surge in interest from younger people interested in public office, he says. “It was already too late to get on the ballot, but we had literally thousands of people contact us about running. We haven’t come close to seeing all the young candidates running for office in cities, counties and school boards. There will be a wave of new people in 2021.” 

Some victories could beget future wins. Rocketto points to Lina Hidalgo, judge for Harris County, Texas, which included Houston. Her election in 2018 and subsequent work to encourage and support increased voting access fueled early (albeit overly optimistic) Democratic hopes of a blue wave in Texas, and shows the power of putting progressives in local office. “In 2018, Harris County spent $6 million on their election,” says Rocketto. “This year they’re spending $36 million. It may feel small — $30 million isn’t a ton of money — but that small change impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, who saw an example of the government impacting their daily lives.” 

Local progressives have already succeeded in shifting the national conversation on issues such as affordable housing, says Maurice Jones, president and CEO of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a national community development financial institution. “Local government is chomping at the bit for a federal partner, and if they saw one that wanted to be more aggressive, they would get more aggressive themselves,” Jones says. 

Tara Raghuveer, co-founder of KC Tenants and director of the national Homes Guarantee campaign, says that this election has already shifted the terrain of ideas in terms of raising awareness of the affordability crisis. “On the state and local level, we’ve seen a proportional shift,” Raghuveer says. She points to candidates like Nithya Raman, a 39-year-old urban planner who’s holding a strong lead in her bid for a city council seat in Los Angeles. “She’s running front-and-center and saying that incrementalism is dead, and L.A. can solve homelessness tomorrow.”

Raghuveer sees the election of representatives Bush and Bowman, and the reelection of New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of “the Squad,” as a “deepening of the bench,” with more representatives headed to D.C. with lived experience to understand the impact of housing policy on urban America. It gives voice and platform to the tenant’s rights movement, and could push a potential Biden administration to feel pressure to address the issue and “force a reckoning.”

Early 2020 results also suggest more ambitious local transportation policies, again filling the gap left by federal inaction during the previous four years of the Trump administration. Romic Aevaz, a policy analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation, says that regardless of exact ballot initiative results, there is movement towards significant local investments in new rail and mass transit, such as Austin’s Prop A, as well as more measures to fund Vision Zero and bike lane safety improvement. “There’s more optimism, more enthusiasm for big-ticket proposals in Austin and the Bay Area,” he says. “If local governments put the funds up and we get a Biden administration, we’ll have a better chance to get federal matching funds, too.”

But cities in red or battleground states may soon face bigger challenges. As of yet, there haven’t been any Democratic takeovers of state legislatures in places like Texas, meaning preemption of local powers will continue to be a problem. Schragger points to Virginia, which saw its House of Delegates flip to blue last year, as an example of how such a change can create a state much more responsive to urban constituencies. “The anti-urbanism of the Republican party will be magnified if Trump is re-elected,” Schragger says. “No support at a minimum, as well as outright hostility in the form of ‘anarchist jurisdiction’ declarations.”

Gregorio Casar, a city councilmember in Austin, Texas, laments the lost opportunity to turn the state legislature blue this year, as it would provide a better chance to make sure the work progressive cities do holds — a paid sick leave law he championed was later struck down — and hold other more moderate politicians to account, who can’t blame preemption fears for their refusal to take bold action.

“Every time we have a good idea in our cities, we have to ask, will this be stopped by the legislature, will the governor have a press conference to bash it?” he says. A less-hostile state government could also increase voter participation and turnout. “Texas has been a non-voting state, not a red or blue state, and I can understand that, since it’s been so gerrymandered.” 

Even with a more helpful executive branch, local progressives may still be forced to do much of the heavy lifting of enacting change themselves. That often starts with budgets, which have been under the microscope of activists since the summer’s reckoning with police violence. 

Eunisses Hernandez is a longtime criminal justice advocate with Re-Imagine L.A. and a supporter of Measure J, an approved Los Angeles County initiative that calls for redirecting more than $360 million to community investment and alternatives to incarceration. She’s seen increased activity around budgets and funding for years as a progressive coalition has formed around longtime community frustrations. Hernandez says that the diverse campaign around Measure J grew out of decades of activism and community demands for jobs, housing and health services, including East L.A. protestsof the 1960s and the work behind Prop 47, a statewide ballot measure that reduced sentencing for nonviolent crimes.

“Now, with younger people, you see that demands are shifting,” she says. “I’ll say radical for lack of a better term. Instead of asking for a piece of the pie, it’s about asking for the entire pie. There’s a demand for deep reform, and not leaving people behind. Black Lives Matter really set the stage for us to be able to make these demands of the bureaucracy. What’s happening here is a blueprint to show what your tax dollars can do, and how they can represent your values.” 

Elise Buik, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, says that the younger generation leading the charge is “bringing focus and scrutiny to public budgets in a way I’ve never seen,” she says. The group is part of a coalition supporting Measure J, which she says could be “a really important model for California and the country. L.A. county is bigger than 41 states in terms of population.”

Campaigns like the one for Measure J may represent Rocketto’s vision of how to expand the progressive coalition beyond its urban strongholds. “The real opportunity at the local level across the country, is to fundamentally talk about local problems,” he says. “It’s not about running on ideology. Connect with voters over shared values. That’s how you get a Republican, who only sees a Democrat on Fox News, to trust and vote for a Democrat.”

“We shouldn’t be afraid of contrast in a time of polarization,” Gavito says. “The more you can tell a story of how progressive policies are helping a multiracial coalition succeed, the more you can pull people into the coalition who are natural allies.” 

Raghuveer observes that it’s become something of a radical notion, in a divided nation, that the government should be the source of power that can fix serious societal issues — especially after seeing how ineffective it has been in protecting jobs and lives during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The clarity provided by the last several months,” she says, “is that almost nothing about the way we’re set up allows cities to care for people in the way we need them to care.” 

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