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A New Politics for Urban America: From Pittsburgh to Seattle, New York to Phoenix
Pastors and churches, immigrants and young people, have transformed the demographics of urban America. Now urban politics is also changing drastically...
By Harold Meyerson
Pittsburgh is the perfect urban laboratory,” says Bill Peduto, the city’s new mayor. “We’re small enough to be able to do things and large enough for people to take notice.” More than its size, however, it’s Pittsburgh’s new government—Peduto and the five like-minded progressives who now constitute a majority on its city council—that is turning the city into a laboratory of democracy. In his first hundred days as mayor, Peduto has sought funding to establish universal pre-K education and partnered with a Swedish sustainable-technology fund to build four major developments with low carbon footprints and abundant affordable housing. Even before he became mayor, while still a council member, he steered to passage ordinances that mandated prevailing wages for employees on any project that received city funding and required local hiring for the jobs in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ new arena. He authored the city’s responsible-banking law, which directed government funds to those banks that lent in poor neighborhoods and away from those that didn’t.
Pittsburgh is a much cleaner city today than it was when it housed some of the world’s largest steel mills. But, like postindustrial America generally, it is also a much more economically divided city. When steel dominated the economy, the companies’ profits and the union’s contracts made Pittsburgh—like Detroit, Cleveland, and Chicago—a city with a thriving working class. Today, with the mills long gone, Pittsburgh has what Gabe Morgan, who heads the local union of janitorial and building maintenance workers, calls an “eds and meds” economy. Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh, and its medical center are among the region’s largest employers, generating thousands of well-paid professional positions and a far greater number of low-wage service-sector jobs.
Peduto, who is 49 years old, sees improving the lot of Pittsburgh’s new working class as his primary charge. In his city hall office, surrounded by such artifacts as a radio cabinet from the years when the city became home to the world’s first radio station, the new mayor outlined the task before him. “My grandfather, Sam Zarroli, came over in 1921 from Abruzzo,” he said. “He only had a second-grade education, but he was active in the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in its early years, and he made a good life for himself and his family. My challenge in today’s economy is how to get good jobs for people with no PhDs but with a good work ethic and GEDs. How do I get them the same kind of opportunities my grandfather had? All the mayors elected last year are asking this question.”
They are indeed. The mayoral and council class of 2013 is one of the most progressive cohorts of elected officials in recent American history. In one major city after another, newly elected officials are planning to raise the minimum wage or enact ordinances boosting wages in developments that have received city assistance. They are drafting legislation to require inner-city hiring on major projects and foster unionization in hotels, stores, and trucking. They are seeking the funds to establish universal pre-K and other programs for infants and toddlers. They are sketching the layout of new transit lines that will bring jobs and denser development to neighborhoods both poor and middle-class and reduce traffic and pollution in the bargain. They are—if they haven’t done so already—forbidding their police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities in the deportation of undocumented immigrants not convicted of felonies and requiring their police to have video or audio records of their encounters with the public. They are, in short, enacting at the municipal level many of the major policy changes that progressives have found themselves unable to enact at the federal and state levels. They also may be charting a new course for American liberalism.
New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio has dominated the national press corps’ coverage of the new urban liberalism. His battles to establish citywide pre-K (successful but not funded, as he wished, by a dedicated tax on the wealthy), expand paid sick days (also successful), raise the minimum wage (blocked by the governor and legislature), and reform the police department’s stop-and-frisk policy (by dropping an appeal of a court order) have been extensively chronicled. But de Blasio is just one of a host of mayors elected last year who campaigned and now govern with similar populist agendas. The list also includes Pittsburgh’s Peduto, Minneapolis’s Betsy Hodges, Seattle’s Ed Murray, Boston’s Martin Walsh, Santa Fe’s Javier Gonzales, and many more.
“We all ran on similar platforms,” Peduto says. “There wasn’t communication among us. It just emerged organically that way. We all faced the reality of growing disparities. The population beneath the poverty line is increasing everywhere. A lot of us were underdogs, populists, reformers, and the public was ready for us.”
This isn’t the first time that America’s cities have collectively shifted their political identities. As political journalist Samuel Lubell documented in his 1951 study The Future of American Politics—most particularly his chapter “Revolt of the City”—the New Deal coalition was prefigured by the change in urban voting patterns during the 1920s. Since the end of the Civil War, the cities of the industrial Midwest and the West Coast had tilted Republican. In 1920, GOP presidential nominee Warren Harding carried the nation’s 12 largest cities by a margin of 1.54 million votes. In 1928, however, Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith carried the same 12 cities by a margin of 210,000 votes. Smith was a Catholic—the only Catholic presidential nominee until John Kennedy ran in 1960—whose speech and manner stamped him unmistakably as a product of New York’s Lower East Side. His candidacy brought to the polls for the first time millions of Southern and Eastern European immigrants—predominantly Catholic, Jewish, and Eastern Orthodox—who had transformed the composition of American cities during the preceding 40 years but who had never before voted in large numbers. Four years later, they voted in still greater numbers, sending Franklin Roosevelt to the White House and cementing the nation’s major cities in the Democratic column for decades to come. At the municipal level, cities long controlled by Republican machines shifted either to control by Democratic machines or by progressive reformers like New York’s Fiorello La Guardia.
This pattern of demographic transformation is now repeating itself. New coalitions and the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama have brought millions of Latino, Asian, and African immigrants and the millennials to the polls, remaking the politics of cities in the process.
Even as the wave of non-European immigrants since the mid-1980s has reshaped the United States—whose white share of the population was down to 63 percent in 2012—it has reshaped its cities even more. In New York, which was 53 percent white in the 1980 census, the white share of its population dropped to 37 percent in the 2010 census. During the same 30 years, Los Angeles saw the white share of its population drop from 48 percent to 29 percent, Houston from 53 percent to 26 percent, Phoenix from 78 percent to 47 percent, San Diego from 69 percent to 45 percent, Dallas from 57 percent to 29 percent, Columbus from 76 percent to 59 percent, Boston from 68 percent to 47 percent, Seattle from 79 percent to 66 percent, and Denver from 67 percent to 52 percent.
It’s not just the racial makeup of cities that is changing; it’s also their generational profile: Cities have seen a marked increase in their share of 20-somethings. These changes in demographics have coincided with the change in economics. With both manufacturing and unions in steep decline, major cities have come to be characterized by levels of economic inequality—reinforced by levels of racial inequality—the nation has not experienced since before the New Deal.
In America, politics follow demographics: Voters of color and millennial voters stand well to the left of their white and older counterparts in their support for government intervention to counter the market’s inequities and for Democratic candidates generally. The voting habits of major cities reflect these transformations. For example, Barack Obama’s share of the vote in the 2012 presidential election outpaced Walter Mondale’s share of the vote in the 1984 presidential election by 10.5 percent nationally, but the difference was far greater in cities. Obama outperformed Mondale by 20 percentage points in New York City, by 26 points in Los Angeles, 20 in San Diego, 24 in Dallas, 27 in Columbus, 22 in Seattle, and 24 in Denver.
At the level of municipal politics, the change is even starker. Twenty years ago, half of America’s dozen largest cities had Republican mayors. Today, only San Diego is governed by a Republican, and he was elected in a low-turnout special election held to replace disgraced Democrat Bob Filner. Indeed, of the nation’s 30 largest cities, just four (San Diego, Indianapolis, Fort Worth, and Oklahoma City) have Republican mayors, and even they have to swim with the urban tides. Mayor Greg Ballard of Indianapolis supported increased federal aid to mass transit and opposed his state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Not every Democratic mayor is progressive, as the record of Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel makes clear. Demographic recomposition has proved a necessary but insufficient prerequisite for urban political change. The newcomers to America’s cities also have had to come together as an effective political force. With few exceptions, the cities that have elected left-populist governments have first reconfigured their power structures by building coalitions dedicated to greater economic and racial equity. Aided in some instances by liberal foundations, these coalitions consist chiefly of unions, community-based organizations in low-income minority neighborhoods, immigrants’ rights groups, affordable-housing advocates, environmental organizations, and networks of liberal churches, synagogues, and mosques.
The unions that have been key to the formation of these new coalitions—it’s labor, after all, that has the capacity to provide the lion’s share of funding for these ventures—generally aren’t the municipal employee locals that have a bargaining relationship with elected officials that can limit their freedom of political action. They tend, rather, to be unions of private-sector workers—janitors, hotel housekeepers, hospital orderlies, supermarket clerks. Their members and potential members are often overwhelmingly minority and substantially immigrant. Indeed, the growing importance of these unions coincides with the growth of immigrants’ rights groups in most major cities. Their constituencies stand to gain the most from city policies that raise wages, create affordable housing, and establish community-based policing.
The new urban coalitions develop common strategies, register voters, regularly canvass their respective communities, groom candidates, research issues, propose policies, lobby elected officials, run their candidates’ campaigns, and walk precincts. New York’s Working Families Party—the organization that defined the issues and mobilized the constituencies for the campaigns that elected de Blasio and a progressive near majority on the city council—has proceeded furthest down the path to becoming a permanent social democratic and green political force. But many of the cities that went left last year have coalitions that have begun their own way down this path as well.
Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Seattle are among the cities that have incubated new labor-community coalitions over the past decade. In Pittsburgh, the coalition began to take shape during the revitalization of the city’s affiliate of SEIU’s Local 32BJ, the East Coast regional local of janitorial and building-service workers. Along with Pittsburgh’s union of hotel workers, 32BJ supported the city’s main African American community organization’s campaign to make inner-city hiring a condition for the city council’s approval of the new Pittsburgh Penguins sports arena. In turn, the community group backed the unions’ effort to persuade the council to enact an ordinance guaranteeing the jobs of fast-food and other franchise workers in city-owned facilities even if the franchise changed hands. These campaigns divided the city’s unions—the building trades wanted to construct the arena regardless of who was hired to work inside it—but united the minority communities and the service-sector unions. In time, the alliance grew to include liberal clergy and groups devoted to cleaning Pittsburgh’s air and water, particularly in working-class communities.
Initially, the coalition’s sole council ally was Peduto, but that was soon to change. A group of young professionals who’d come together on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign set out to elect other progressives to the city council. “We didn’t know the old ways of campaigning,” says Matthew Merriman-Preston, the political consultant who has managed Peduto’s campaigns and those of every other progressive council member for the past decade, “so we made it up as we went along. We had people on the ground talking to their neighbors year after year.”
In 2009, Natalia Rudiak, a Pittsburgh native who had studied at the London School of Economics and done economic-development work in Africa, decided to run for council in a district she describes as “the most socially conservative in the city.” In a city whose politics long had been dominated by middle-aged and elderly men, Rudiak, then 29 years old, wasn’t taken seriously by the Democratic establishment. But Rudiak came with multiple ties to union leaders (her father ran a public-employees local) and had spent time on campaigns with Merriman-Preston. Peduto’s prevailing-wage bill was pending in the council during her campaign, and she stumped for it everywhere she spoke. In return, 32BJ flooded her district with precinct walkers, as did environmental and feminist groups. Shortly after her upset victory, the council passed the bill.
Rudiak’s victory was just one of several that reshaped the council between 2007 and 2013. Neither Rudiak nor Peduto received endorsements from the city’s Democratic Party organizations, but the machine wasn’t delivering city service as it once had. “It had kept the trains running on time and the streets plowed,” Rudiak says, “but with the growing financial constraints on the city, particularly after the 2008 crash, it couldn’t keep doing even those things.” In the city’s older working-class neighborhoods, the new alliance and its candidates proved to be better ward heelers than the machine.
Minneapolis is a city with a richer history of progressive activism than Pittsburgh. In 1948, Mayor Hubert Humphrey presented that year’s Democratic National Convention with its first civil-rights platform plank. For decades, Minnesota came closer to an American version of Scandinavian social democracy than any other state.
In recent decades, however, both the city’s and state’s demographics and economy have been transformed. The white share of the city’s population declined from 86 percent in the 1980 census to 64 percent in 2010. Minneapolis is home to the largest Somali community of any city except Mogadishu and the largest Hmong community outside Laos. “We’re ahead of any other state in equitable income and health—if you’re white,” says Dan McGrath, who heads TakeAction Minnesota, a progressive political organization of 45,000 members, which, like New York’s Working Families Party, functions chiefly as an electoral organization. “Minnesota’s way down the list when you include people of color. Four out of ten Minneapolis residents are people of color. We won’t have an economy 30 years from now if only half our minority students graduate high school.”
Nearly a decade ago, several local progressive organizations, including the one established by Paul Wellstone, decided to merge into a single group, TakeAction Minnesota. At the same time, the city’s SEIU–affiliated janitorial union and its chief affordable housing organization, ISAIAH, entered a period of rapid growth. The groups, along with the city’s ACORN chapter, which was the main community-based organization in the African American community (and which has since reconstituted itself as Neighborhoods Organizing for Change), and CTUL, an organization of worker centers serving the Latino immigrant community, began meeting together regularly. In 2011, when the national SEIU decided to fund local coalitions in 17 cities across the country, the one in Minneapolis was the only such alliance to prove both effective and enduring—in part because its member groups had already forged such tight bonds.
“They now have so deep a collaboration that when you go to one of their meetings, you can’t tell who works for whom.” “We’re grounded in a common experience and analysis,” McGrath says. “Our problem is not just Republicans. Our problem is the extraordinary imbalance of wealth, unbridled corporate power, and structural racism.” The commonality of perspectives was augmented by the integration of the groups’ members and staffs—attending retreats together, merging their efforts on various campaigns. “The groups had to acknowledge that none of them could get anything done just by themselves,” says George Goehl, the executive director of National People’s Action, a network of community organizations with which TakeAction Minnesota is affiliated. “They now have so deep a collaboration that when you go to one of their meetings, you can’t tell who works for whom.”
With the power of their combined numbers, the groups in the alliance—named Minnesotans for a Fair Economy—have waged a joint campaign to pressure Target, the locally based retail giant, to stop asking job applicants if they’ve been convicted of a felony, to cease the wage and hour violations inflicted on their largely immigrant janitorial workforce, and to hire local residents for maintenance jobs at the company’s new headquarters. Target agreed to drop the question about felonies and to adopt a local hiring policy; talks continue about the unionization of their janitors. The alliance waged a successful long-shot campaign against a 2012 ballot measure that would have required state voters to provide photo IDs at their polling places. And last year, the alliance provided the staff and precinct walkers to put one of their own—Council Member Betsy Hodges, who had been the executive director of one of the two groups that merged to form TakeAction Minnesota—into the Minneapolis mayor’s office.
Hodges, who is 44 and describes herself as a “sociologist by training,” was the council’s acknowledged authority on budget and funding matters. She ran on the issue of reducing the city’s racial disparities. “I said the same thing in every room I spoke in,” she told me when we met in her office in the cavernous city hall. “I said, ‘In Minneapolis, we have the biggest racial gaps of any city by any measure. It is a moral imperative that we end that, but it’s also an economic imperative.’” Hodges talked explicitly about white people, people of color, and racial disparities—terms that most campaign consultants would urge their clients to shun—and defeated her opponent, the chair of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, by an 18-point margin.
“A whole lot of white people thought the issue she was addressing was our principal challenge,” McGrath says. “That’s remarkable.” It’s a testament to Minneapolis’s enduring egalitarianism, but it’s also a consequence of the door-knocking and issue campaigns of the city’s liberal coalition. “There’s been a lot of political space created by progressive strategic organizing here in the city,” Hodges says. “It was hugely helpful to me as a candidate, but it will be even more helpful to me as a mayor. We have to make sure that everyone is at the table as we work on growing the city, and having people organized really facilitates that.”
The projects on which Hodges has embarked include a “cradle to kindergarten” program of infant health care and universal pre-K. As a council member, she initiated a pilot program to provide “body cams” for police officers to monitor their encounters with the public; she now wants to mandate the cameras for the entire department. She’s also seeking to route proposed transit lines to better connect minority communities to neighborhoods with jobs.
No city government may be more at odds with its governor and legislature than that of Phoenix. In 2010, Arizona enacted SB 1070, which encouraged police to stop and frisk Latinos and if they lacked documentation, to hand them over to federal agents for deportation. In response, the New York–based Four Freedoms Fund financed a massive voter-registration campaign in Phoenix’s Latino communities. The backlash against SB 1070 also fueled the successful efforts of an alliance of Latino and immigrant organizations and unions to elect Greg Stanton mayor in 2011. Stanton campaigned for union rights and marriage equality and against SB 1070. Five of the city council’s other eight members—three of whom are now Latinos—share Stanton’s politics. The council has directed Phoenix police not to hand over detainees to immigration agents for deportation and instructed the city’s lobbyist in Washington to support immigration reform.
Seattle’s leftward movement commenced when local unions of janitorial, health-care, supermarket, and warehouse workers formed a labor-community-environment alliance to win a living-wage ordinance. The regional tech boom has brought thousands of young professionals to the city, who have proved supportive of the coalition’s campaigns. “They’re open to human rights and environmental issues, of course,” says David West, who heads the alliance, “but they’re also not tax-averse and are strongly in favor of raising the minimum wage.” Going into last year’s city elections, Seattle already had a law for paid sick leave and one of the highest municipal minimum wages in the nation. A successful SEIU–led campaign to raise the hourly minimum to $15 in the small suburban community of SeaTac, adjoining Seattle’s airport, made raising the city’s own minimum to $15 the major issue in November’s mayoral campaign. Both candidates supported the raise, and the issue also swept a Trotskyist candidate onto the city council. The city’s new mayor, Ed Murray, who was chiefly known for his successful effort as a state legislator to legalize same-sex marriage, is negotiating the specifics of the raise.
The city council capped the number of business licenses for such car services as Uber and Lyft after a campaign that cast the issue as a contest between outside investors and local Ethiopian-immigrant cab drivers. Seattle’s pro-labor liberalism has trumped what many might view as its infatuation with all things techie. The city council capped the number of business licenses for such car services as Uber and Lyft after a campaign that cast the issue as a contest between outside investors and local Ethiopian-immigrant cab drivers. Last year, Murray’s predecessor blocked the construction of a Whole Foods market because of the chain’s anti-union stance.
The city’s ability to thwart the coming of a Whole Foods illustrates the often-circuitous ways in which municipalities are able to leverage their power to win the social outcomes they seek. Seattle was able to block Whole Foods by exercising its power over streets, since building the new market would have required the elimination of an existing alley.
“Even when they’re fiscally constrained, cities can set their own rules,” Pittsburgh’s Peduto says. By leveraging their power over contractors and developers who’ve received city assistance—or who may merely need city approval to close off an alley—municipal progressives are following the lead of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), the group that pioneered the practice of requiring living wages and community hiring. Such measures are intended to accomplish indirectly and, at times, ingeniously what the federal government could accomplish directly, say, by raising the minimum wage, rewriting labor law, establishing stronger environmental safeguards, or legalizing undocumented immigrants. In the absence of such national legislation, cities are doing what they can.
The fiscal constraints to which Peduto alluded, though, are real. New York’s de Blasio had to secure the funding that establishes pre-K education in his city from the state—a revenue stream the city doesn’t control. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and Republican state senators blocked de Blasio and his city council allies from setting a municipal minimum wage in New York City, though living expenses there are far greater than they are in the rest of the state. A number of states have enacted laws forbidding their cities from raising wages or passing living-wage ordinances.
Shortly after November’s city elections, President Obama invited 16 of the newly elected progressive mayors to a meeting at the White House. Peduto, Hodges, Murray, and de Blasio were among those who attended. Obama talked about his proposal for universal pre-K, which was languishing in Congress. At the federal level, it would obviously take some time to get such a measure enacted, Obama continued, or he could find 20 innovative mayors and get it done tomorrow. Provided they can scrape up the dollars.
Even within those limitations, it’s in blue states and cities—certainly not in Congress—that Obama’s agenda is being enacted. While increasing the minimum wage remains stymied on Capitol Hill, legislatures in Democratic states are hiking it to the level that Obama proposed, while cities have either increased theirs even more (Washington, D.C., raised its minimum to $11.50) or are considering it (San Francisco, like Seattle, to $15). While congressional Republicans resist legislation to combat global warming, cities are demanding strict energy--efficiency standards in their new buildings. While Republicans oppose legalizing undocumented immigrants, cities are ordering their police departments, in effect, to minimize deportations.
What’s happening in cities can be described as Obama’s agenda trickling down to the jurisdictions where it has enough political support to be enacted—but it’s also the incubation of policies and practices that will trickle up. With considerable creativity and limited power, the new urban regimes are seeking to diminish the inequality so apparent in cities and so pervasive nationwide. They are mapping the future of liberalism until the day when the national government can bring it to scale.
This article appeared at The American Prospect.
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