Blue Cities Fight Back in Red States: #DefendLocal

One of the things we’re hearing a lot about since the last election is that Republicans have been better than Democrats at organizing at the local level. We’ve also heard critiques that Democrats don’t have much of a deep bench when it comes to young politicians who are poised to lead the party into the future. Into that breech on both accounts steps the current mayor of Tallahassee, Andrew Gillum.

The issue Gillum is targeting is something that came to my attention when reading Zachary Roth’s book: The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy. As a reminder, Roth outlines the many ways Republicans are reacting to this reality:

Today’s conservatives have no such confidence that the people are on their side. In fact, they are beginning to perceive that they’re in the minority – perhaps more glaringly than ever before. And yet this realization has brought with it another more hopeful one: being outnumbered doesn’t have to mean losing.

One of the strategies Roth documents in his book is exploding right now as Republicans find themselves increasingly in control of governorships and state legislatures, while Democrats have majorities in most of their major cities: preemption. Mark Sumner summarizes with this:

When the City of Charlotte added some local ordinances to protect the LGBT community, the North Carolina state legislature stomped on its efforts—and the rights of citizens—with H.B. 2, a bill that has cost the state at least $650 million and counting. When the City of Chattanooga created a high speed Internet service for its citizens, the Tennessee state legislature threw up a ban to strip away the cheap, successful access. Smoking bans, environmental rules, and local taxes have all been subject to state legislatures stepping in to crush local control. Even something as innocuous as putting a fee on the use of plastic grocery bags has brought down the wrath of Republican legislatures in multiple states.

The count of state legislatures that have prevented localities from increasing minimum wage is now up to 20…Cities aren’t allowed to make any rules concerning paid leave, even for city employees, in 14 states.

States flexing their muscles over local ordinances is nothing new, but the coordinated wave of consolidating all power in state legislatures goes back to ALEC and a set of sample preemption laws that give legislators pre-packaged power over everything from wages to to soda taxes to food labeling. Cities across the nation are taking a beating, one that is breaking budgets and driving away jobs.

Even though these kinds of local issues rarely surface as national stories, Abby Rapoport covered the issue of preemption at the American Prospect last August and Reid Wilson wrote about it at The Hill last week.

That brings us to Mayor Andrew Gillum. When he was still a Tallahassee City Commissioner, he and his colleagues refused to repeal ordinances that prevent shooting guns in a public park after the state of Florida passed a law preempting local governments from passing any ordinances that regulate guns. They are now being sued by two gun-rights organizations, Florida Carry and the Second Amendment Foundation. You can read more about that story here.

Based on his own experience, Mayor Gillum is organizing a Campaign to Defend Local Solutions – or #DefendLocal. Here is how he described it in an article titled, “How to Fight the NRA:”

That’s why I am officially launching a nonpartisan, grassroots effort to bring together individuals, organizations, and elected officials concerned about the erosion of local rights.

This effort, the Campaign to Defend Local Solutions, will send a message to state lawmakers, and give citizens around the country the tools to push back against special interest groups and large corporations, and maintain their right to put forward local solutions to the issues facing their community.

We will hold events to rise against looming threats on issues like minimum wage and health benefits, the environment, local hiring practices, and water quality.

We will help bring awareness and support to similar fights being undertaken by local officials across the country that are fighting to defend local solutions.

And we will elevate the voices and narratives of these efforts, so that no attempt to bully or intimidate local communities around the country will ever be tolerated.

This is exactly the kind of initiative that Democrats should be taking. Major battles are being waged right now in the conflict between liberal Democratic cities in conservative GOP states. Republicans are very well aware of that – which is why the use of preemption has skyrocketed lately.

It may still be a while before Mayor Gillum gets much national attention for leading this charge. But keep your eye on him. He is engaging at the one place where Democratic voices are already aligned to be the most powerful…major American cities.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.