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."