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Urban Archipelago

At a time when the federal government is dominated by right-wing Republicans, and when liberal state governments are rare, cities are electing a new generation of progressives.
 
 
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Something's the matter with Kansas: On April 5, Sunflower State voters overwhelmingly endorsed a meanspirited ban on same-sex marriages and packed school boards with more of those folks who want to teach creationism.

But on the same day, progressives swept every open post in Lawrence, one of the state's fastest-growing cities, on a platform promising to fight discrimination, protect the environment and develop affordable housing. The new mayor of this city of 80,000, Dennis "Boog" Highberger, took charge with the announcement that "there are not many places...where an ex-hippie, disabled guy with a funny name can become mayor." The next day he opened an online chat with Lawrence residents with the message: "Greetings, citizens! Let the wild rumpus begin!"

Lawrence, a progressive oasis of higher education and high-tech development in what, thanks to Thomas Frank's 2004 book, is the nation's most famously conservative state, hasn't exactly gone wild. Highberger and the other officials elected with the support of Progressive Lawrence -- a local group that two years ago wrested power from more conservative, pro-development forces -- have focused on the basics of implementing "smart growth" strategies to prevent sprawl, working with local employees to improve delivery of services and promoting tolerance in a state where that can be controversial.

"We haven't exactly reversed the whole 'What's the Matter With Kansas?' thing, but we're working on it," jokes Highberger, a lawyer who got Lawrence to officially condemn the USA Patriot Act but who spends most of his time on mundane municipal issues like funding library services and buying new land for park space. "The things that happen in Washington and Topeka are fairly abstract, and usually frustrating. When we make a decision on the city commission -- on protecting the environment, on treating people fairly -- people see something change in their backyard the next day. Local politics is where progressives should be."

Variations on the Lawrence story are playing out across the country, with local leaders and coalitions shaping a new, more aggressive politics in what has begun to be referred to as an "urban archipelago" of major metropolitan centers, aging industrial cities and college towns that represent progressive blue islands in what appears on electoral maps to be a red sea of conservatism.

These are crowded islands, with enough voters to influence politics far beyond their borders, and they remain bastions of American liberalism: Every American city with a population of more than 500,000 voted for John Kerry in 2004, as did about half the cities with populations between 50,000 and 500,000. In virtually every state that backed the Democratic presidential nominee last year -- even traditional Democratic strongholds like Illinois, New Jersey and Michigan -- it was only thanks to overwhelming majorities in urban areas that Kerry prevailed.

At a time when the federal government is dominated by right-wing Republicans, and when liberal state governments are rare, cities are electing a new generation of progressives--a trend highlighted on May 17 when the second-largest city in the country, Los Angeles, replaced a cautious Democratic incumbent mayor with progressive Antonio Villaraigosa.

It is not surprising that urban politics trend left. Cities are more likely than suburbs or rural areas to be home to the people who are least comfortable in George W. Bush's America: racial minorities, gays and lesbians, immigrants, trade unionists, the working poor and the young professionals whose "new urbanist" homesteading has renewed downtowns from Providence to San Diego.

Cities also have problems that are not solved by the free market in which conservatives place their blind faith: poverty, violence, decaying schools and NAFTA-battered industries. And at a time when more and more federal spending is being directed toward the military and tax cuts for the rich, old challenges are becoming new crises. Seventy-eight percent of mayors surveyed by the US Conference of Mayors reported increases in the number of requests for emergency shelter in 2004, and more than 80 percent said funding to meet the demand was lacking. The Bush administration's assaults on funding for community development block grants and transportation and housing initiatives, as well as the additional burdens placed on urban schools by the No Child Left Behind Act, make the prospects for meeting urban needs more daunting than ever.

Despite the challenges, or in some cases because of them, a growing number of progressives are taking their stand at the municipal level. "Local governments are the only place where progressive ideas can get any traction -- where big ideas are being tried," says Madison, Wisconsin, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, 46, a former chief of staff in a State Senate office and an environmental leader who was elected in 2003. "Cities are where you can break through the big money, the media spin -- everything that is wrong with our politics -- and capture the public's imagination." Unfortunately, he says, traditional organizations of local officials have been slow to catch the wave of municipal resistance to the nation's conservative moment. "I went to my first US Conference of Mayors meeting after I got elected, and I was horrified. The corporate influence was pervasive," Cieslewicz says, recalling a dinner where toy trucks featuring the Waste Management, Inc. logo served as party favors. "Here we were, with education, transportation and housing programs that are essential for cities facing cuts, and I just didn't see the sense of urgency."

Cieslewicz went to work forming a group to help progressive mayors get serious about policy. The first gathering of that "New Cities" organization, in February, drew mayors from Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, Berkeley and nine other cities. The second, to be held June 9 in Chicago on the eve of this year's Conference of Mayors meeting, may draw up to two dozen mayors for discussions about how to "seize the moment" created by the uptick in energy costs. They want to take proposals of the Apollo Project, an initiative endorsed by labor and environmental groups that seeks to achieve energy independence, and apply them at the local level.

Another group, with similar values but a different strategy, was set to launch on June 1 at the "Take Back America" conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Campaign for America's Future. Cities for Progress ( www.citiesforprogress.org), an outgrowth of the Cities for Peace movement of 2003 -- which saw 140 communities from hamlets in Alaska to New York City express opposition to Bush's rush to invade Iraq -- will initiate a campaign to get elected officials and the communities they represent working together to influence national policy.

"It's more clear than ever that decisions made in Washington affect my ability to do my job," says Chicago Alderman Joe Moore, who has worked with the Institute for Policy Studies to develop the Cities for Progress network. "I can't fix things in the neighborhoods of Chicago unless I do my part to make sure Washington does the right thing."

The notion of cities as generators of progressive policies is not new. At the turn of the last century, mayors such as Cleveland's Tom Johnson, Toledo's Samuel "Golden Rule" Jones and New York City's Seth Low were nationally known reform leaders. In the 1960s New York's John Lindsay, Boston's Kevin White and Cleveland's Carl Stokes were talked about as potential Presidents or Vice Presidents.

As the optimism of the 1960s, with its model cities and urban renewal programs, faded, news stories about cities disappeared except when they involved violence, corruption or bankruptcies. Federal aid dried up. Suburbs sprawled outward. States took over urban school districts, prying power from the hands of local elected officials. Whereas mayoral positions had once been launching pads for political careers -- former Vice President Hubert Humphrey came to national prominence as the reform mayor of Minneapolis; Moon Landrieu leapt from municipal politics in New Orleans to serve as Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development -- the job came increasingly to be seen as a dead end best avoided by ambitious politicos.

But in recent years, that has begun to change. After three unsuccessful presidential runs, former California Governor Jerry Brown headed to Oakland, where he has renewed his political career and the community as an often controversial but always hands-on mayor. Former US Representative Tom Barrett of Wisconsin became the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee last year.

"Being a Democrat in the legislature or even in Congress these days, you can only nibble around the edges," explains West Palm Beach, Florida, Mayor Lois Frankel, who served as minority leader of the Florida House of Representatives before making the jump to municipal politics. "Being a strong mayor is the best political job you can get right now. It's so much more a hands-on environment. You can do things quickly and you can really influence the quality of life."

Former Irvine, California, Mayor Larry Agran, who now serves on the City Council of that Orange County city of 175,000, proves the point. In a county that voted for Bush by a 60-39 margin in 2004, Agran and his progressive allies have developed pioneering programs in childcare, affordable housing, recycling and open-space preservation, most notably undoing plans by developers to turn a former Marine Corps base into an international airport. This summer they will dedicate the reclaimed open space as the 4,700-acre Orange County Great Park. The largest metropolitan park in the nation will allow residents of America's fifth most densely populated county to hike from the Pacific Ocean to the mountains through a continuous corridor of green space. The project was made possible by lawsuits, referendums and the willingness of Agran and others to use the resources and the powers of the city to annex the former base, negotiate with the federal government and literally break up old military runways. It cost Irvine about $25 million, but the city will come out ahead financially, officials say, because of the sales of adjoining parcels for parklike developments.

What was critical, Agran says, is that "we weren't bashful about using the instrumentalities of government to achieve civic improvement. That's what progressives have the ability to do: to use local government to effect change in the public interest."

But don't think it was easy. Agran faced repeated electoral challenges from conservative forces that dramatically outspent progressive ones. Unlike the situation in state and federal races, however, big money can be beaten at the local level, he says. "In a city where the population is under a million, you can create a network of people in the neighborhoods that counters the smears and the attacks," says Agran. "A group of ten or twenty committed people can do a lot; a group of 300 to 400 people, which we had, can win."

Irvine is not the only place where progressives are making fundamental changes. More than 120 communities nationwide, from Ashland, Oregon, to Camden, New Jersey, have passed living-wage laws, raising hourly pay rates as high as $12 an hour for employees of firms that contract with municipalities. In Chicago, Moore is sponsoring a "Big Box Living Wage" ordinance that requires chain stores like Wal-Mart to pay workers $10 an hour and provide benefits.

"That's an idea that couldn't get off the ground in Congress right now but that I imagine would have a lot of appeal in cities across the country," says Moore, who plans to spread the word about the initiative through the Cities for Progress network.

Cities aren't just acting on the economic issues. While attempts to implement public financing of campaigns are often thwarted at the federal and state levels, they have succeeded in cities as different as Fort Collins, Colorado, and New York City. And 134 mayors in thirty-five states -- including Republicans such as Mike Bloomberg of New York and Alan Arakawa of Maui County, Hawaii -- have done at the local level what George W. Bush has refused to do nationally: agreed to meet the Kyoto Protocol's target of reducing greenhouse emissions.

Predictably, the corporate and conservative forces that have solidified their hold on so much of government are trying to prevent city officials from setting a progressive course. In the most high-profile instance of top-down interference, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and New Paltz, New York, Mayor Jason West started issuing marriage licenses for lesbian and gay couples, state officials shut them down--and the President endorsed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages.

"The conservatives and the corporate lobbyists all like to say they're for local control, but the truth is that genuine local control terrifies them," says Madison's Cieslewicz. "At the municipal level we can break new ground, show what can be done, start trends that bubble upward."

Cieslewicz uses the example of Madison's decision to set a local minimum wage that will rise to $7.75 an hour by 2008. Other Wisconsin cities followed suit, putting pressure on the state to increase its minimum wage. "So the cities started it, the state picked up on it and when enough states pass minimum-wage increases, the pressure is going to be on the federal government," says Cieslewicz.

Leaders of the Cities for Progress movement want to institutionalize that pressure by getting cities to pass resolutions calling for an end to the war and development of a universal healthcare program. By providing organizing assistance to progressive local officials and then linking these projects to one another, Cities for Progress hopes to create a resurgence of urban activism. "We want people to get rid of this idea that working on the local level and working on the national level are somehow different," says Malia Lazu, its national field director.

Leveraging change is not just a matter of policy-making; it can also involve changing the face of political power. "The best way for the Democratic Party to renew itself is to recognize that the next Great Society vision will come from the cities, and so will the next generation of Great Society leaders," says New York City Councilman Bill Perkins.

The national group Progressive Majority is helping to elect local officials who will eventually climb the political ladder. "It's a way to build the bench," says Progressive Majority's Colorado coordinator, Joe Miklosi, who has worked with local candidates in communities statewide. "Once you win office in your town, people know you, they trust you. When you run for the legislature or Congress, they're more likely to vote for you."

The concept of building a bench was not lost on supporters of Los Angeles's new mayor. Villaraigosa's May 17 win made him the fastest rising Latino star in American politics and spurred discussion that, by 2008, his name will show up on Democratic vice-presidential shortlists. For Americans who still dream of taking progressive politics to a higher level, it makes sense to begin looking for candidates where progressives are already governing.

"When you think about it, the argument for governors as presidential candidates is that they have served as executives," says Irvine's Larry Agran. "Well, a lot of mayors govern cities with bigger populations than states. So why shouldn't we look to cities for progressive candidates and progressive ideas?" Agran argues, "You don't look to Washington to find examples of progressives accomplishing things these days. But when you look to the cities, it's a different story."

John Nichols, The Nation 's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times.