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.