How Progressives Can Make Change on Election Day—No Matter What Happens With Congress

How Progressives Can Make Change on Election Day—No Matter What Happens With Congress

How Progressives Can Make Change on Election Day—No Matter What Happens With Congress

Thirteen ballot initiatives that could raise wages, ban fracking, protect immigrants, and house the homeless.


In less than 36 hours, the nail-biting will be over. At last we’ll know whether Donald Trump and his congressional cronies will enjoy two more years of unfettered power—or whether a “blue wave” will sweep enough Democrats into office to chip away at GOP control. And we’ll know, at last, where the opposition to the president stands after two years of organizing, activism, and resistance.

But as we wait, it’s worth turning our attention, at least briefly, to an altogether different part of the electoral landscape, one where progressives aren’t just fighting to reclaim lost ground but have a real chance of moving their agenda forward: cities.

Throughout the country—from Youngstown to San Francisco, Nashville to Baltimore—progressive ideas are on the ballot this Tuesday, and at least a few of them could find their way into lived policy. The ideas range from taxing rich corporations in order to fund clean energy to taxing even richer corporations to build housing for the homeless; from banning fossil-fuel extraction to building a public bank. Some of the measures are modest, others truly radical. But taken together, they reflect an encompassing progressive agenda, a map for social, economic, and even environmental change at a time when progressives have little ability to move the needle on the national stage.

Will they succeed? Some ballot measures might ultimately fail. Others will succeed only to face preemption by state lawmakers who insist that cities don’t have the right to legislate these matters for themselves. But some will win, and almost all will go on to inspire other cities to try the same.

Here is a list of some of Tuesday’s must-watch local votes.

Portland, Oregon: A Climate-Justice Tax

Call it an idea whose time has come: a tax on the richest retail corporations to pay for clean energy that will benefit everyone. That’s what Portland voters will have a chance to vote on this Tuesday when they decide whether to vote yes or no on a novel climate-justice tax. If passed, this first-of-its kind tax will create a 1 percent surcharge on in-city revenue on businesses that make over $500,000 in Portland, and more than $1 billion nationally. The estimated $30 million raised from this tax will then be used to fund a “Clean Energy Fund,” which will, in turn support clean energy and clean-energy jobs in Portland. Specific examples include energy-efficiency upgrades, home weatherization, rooftop solar panels, local food production, green infrastructure, and job training. Crucially, low-income communities and communities of color would be given priority access to funds and disproportionately benefit from their programs.

The petitioners’ steering committee includes the NAACP Portland Branch, Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Coalition of Communities of Color, Native American Youth and Family Center, 350 PDX, Oregon Sierra Club, and others. Local labor unions have also endorsed the initiative.

Mountain View, California: A Google Tax?

This past June, the city of Seattle passed what had become known as the Amazon tax, a progressive charge on the city’s wealthiest corporations to help fund affordable housing and support the city’s homeless—only to repeal it a few days later under pressure from the online mega-giant. Now, some 800 miles to the south, the Bay Area city of Mountain View, which is home to Google, has picked up on the theme and is asking residents to decide whether to implement a similar charge on its wealthiest businesses.

Measure P, as this initiative is known, would work similarly to Seattle’s attempted “head tax,” which charges businesses based on their number of employees (Google has some 23,000 at its Mountain View headquarters). Over half of the estimated $6 million the measure would raise per year would come from Google. The revenue would go to fund a suite of transportation initiatives, including a new automated transit system, to help with the congestion caused by the tech employees.

San Francisco, California: Taxing the Rich to Help House the Homeless

Less than an hour north of Mountain View, the city of San Francisco is also getting into the tech-tax game, in this case to help fund homes for the city’s many homeless residents.

Formally known as Proposition C, the “Our City, Our Home” initiative would levy a modest tax, averaging 0.5 percent, on corporate revenues that exceed $50 million. (That means that the first $50 million a business brings in would not be affected by the tax.) The estimated $300 million the tax would raise annually would be deposited into an “Our City, Our Home Fund,” whose oversight committee would be required to include three members who have experienced homelessness. Half of the funds would go directly to housing the homeless (including building new housing), up to 10 percent would go to homeless-shelter costs, 15 percent to homelessness-prevention programs, and 25 percent to mental-health and substance-abuse services. Now the question is whether the tech billionaires who’ve been pouring ducats into a flashy opposition campaign will succeed in blocking it.

Humboldt County, California: Standing Up for Immigrants

Plenty of towns claim to be “sanctuary cities” simply because they limit their police departments’ cooperation with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE. Humboldt County wants to go further. Through Measure K, residents can vote to require law enforcement in Humboldt County to report its communications with ICE to the county. It also calls for assistance for families of people who get deported and, perhaps most interesting of all, proposes disciplining county employees who report people to ICE. “There’s a large number of community members who need safety,” Elizabeth Phillips, whose organization Centro Del Pueblo first proposed the idea, said at a recent forum. “People need sanctuary to live.”

Oakland, California: Raising Wages for Hotel Workers, Protecting All Workers’ Rights

In 2017 the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE) and Unite Here! 2850 conducted an internal survey of hotel workers within Oakland’s booming hotel industry. According to EBASE, the workers, predominantly women of color and immigrants, reported low wages, wage theft, and being over worked. So the groups, together with hotel workers, gathered signatures for Measure Z, an ordinance that aims to “address these issues, and to hold city and elected officials accountable to protecting these workers,” Cynthia Morfin of EBASE told The Nation. If passed, the measure would hike hotel workers’ minimum wage to $15 per hour with medical benefits or $20 per hour without benefits. The new wages would go into effect in July 2019 and be pegged to inflation. The ordinance also equips all hotel workers with a “panic button” to report sexual harassment and institutes new workload and overtime restrictions.

Beyond boosting wages and protections for hotel workers, the ordinance creates a new citywide Department of Workplace and Employment Standards to enforce local workplace protections and standards—for all workers.

Youngstown, Ohio: A Right to Clean Water for People … and Ecosystems

The “Youngstown Drinking Water Protection Bill of Rights” has been a long time coming for local organizers in this former steel town. The measure takes the visionary step of establishing a right to clean water for people and for “ecosystems and natural communities.” To defend these rights, it bans new oil and gas extraction and toxic “fracking” waste-injection wells, which are known to jeopardize fresh water sources. It would also allow the city to prosecute corporate violators, and mandates that surplus-water revenue be spent on improving the city’s water and sewer infrastructure.

The local organizers behind the effort are part of the Ohio Community Rights Network, whose members have proposed more than a dozen similar measures in the past five years. Members of the network also gathered signatures to get an initiative criminalizing fossil-fuel extraction on the ballot in Columbus as well as one in Toledo, which would have recognized—or granted—legal rights for Lake Erie. Both were removed from this November’s ballot by the Ohio Supreme Court.

San Luis Obispo, California: Keeping Fossil Fuels in the Ground

California’s devastating six-year drought has made the Santa Maria groundwater basin all the more precious to residents of San Luis Obispo County, much of which sits directly above the basin. And it has underscored just how damaging fossil-fueled induced climate change is and will continue to be to the region. So, when residents learned that Freeport-McMoRan wanted to expand its oil operations in the county, a coalition of water and climate-change activists came together to try to stop it. (In 2016, the company sold the oil field to Sentinel Peak Resources.)

The result is Measure G, a ballot proposal that would use the county’s land use powers to stop any new fossil fuel extraction on unincorporated land (that is, land that is not in a municipality and not claimed by the federal government). “We want to protect our precious groundwater quality and quantity from threats of expanded oil production,” Charles Varni, co-chair of the Coalition to Protect SLO County, told KSBY.

In an effort to sink the measure, Chevron has made the biggest campaign contribution in the history of San Luis Obispo County—$4 million. Another company, owned jointly by Shell and ExxonMobil, has contributed at least $675,000. Supporters gathered over 20,000 signatures to get it on the ballot and have received at least $184,000 in support.

Baltimore, Maryland: Keeping Water Public

In August, Baltimore City Council passed a city-charter amendment that would make the city’s water and sewer systems “inalienable assets” and protect them from being sold off and privatized. This Tuesday, it will be up to voters to approve the amendment.

Nashville, Tennessee: Holding the Police Accountable

In 1973, Ronald Lee Joyce, an unarmed black man, was killed by a white police officer he was running from. “The police chief resigned but [the community] didn’t get oversight,” Theeda Murphy, a core organizer with Nashville’s Community Oversight Now, told The Nation. More than three decades later, in 2017, the story repeated itself when a white police officer killed Jocques Clemmons, also black and unarmed, after a traffic stop. This time, however, the community might get some oversight.

Thanks to organizing by the Justice for Jacques Coalition, along with the Tennessee NAACP, Black Lives Matter Nashville, Showing up for Racial Justice Nashville, and other organizations, will have a chance to vote on Tuesday for Amendment 1. If passed, the amendment will establish an 11-member Community Oversight Board charged with processing and investigating complaints of police misconduct. Its powers will be solely advisory, so it would not be able to independently punish officers on its own. But in a sign that it will still have real teeth, it will have subpoena power as well as the task of investigating current city department policies related to criminal justice, such as police use of translators or school-policing policies. Seven board members must be nominated by community organizations or via community petition, and four must reside in low-income neighborhoods.

Los Angeles, California: A People’s Bank

This Election Day, voters in Los Angeles could bring the city one step closer to creating its own public bank by voting “yes” to amending the city’s charter to allow it to form a municipal financial institution. If the measure wins and the city eventually goes on to create its own Bank of Los Angeles, the city’s money will be transferred from commercial banks to the publicly owned bank, meaning that bank fees and the costs of borrowing money will no longer flow to far-off bankers, and investments could be subject to greater public scrutiny. A 2015 report found that in 2014, Wall Street banks charged the city $343 million in fees alone, while just last year the city paid some $170 million in banking fees and $1.1 billion in interest to big banks and private investors. All this saved money could then be reinvested by the bank.

But the bank won’t just save the city money. Its biggest boosters also believe it can be used to finance critical Angeleno needs like affordable housing, green energy, infrastructure repair, and more.

According to the Los Angeles Times, full implementation might require further reforms by the state and possibly the federal government. David Jette of Public Bank LA, a group pushing for the bank, told The Nation that state legislation would be an ideal way to introduce public banking: “We’re working with California Public Banking Alliance and state legislators to make that happen. But a city can found a bank without changes to state law, it just may be a little different for each city.” Oakland and San Francisco are also considering banks.

Anaheim, California: Fair Wages vs. the Mouse

In another effort to make major employers accountable to voters, Disneyland workers and unions are pushing Measure L to raise the minimum wage for people who work in hospitality in Anaheim or Disneyland Resort Specific Plan Zones. The ordinance would apply only to businesses that have tax rebate agreements with the City of Anaheim. If passed it would increase the minimum wage of those workers to $15 per hour in 2019 and eventually to $18 per hour by 2022. It would also require service charges imposed by employers to be paid entirely to employees.

Since the initiative made it to the ballot, drama has ensued. Disney announced it would raise wages to $15/hour for roughly 10,000 of its 30,000 local employees. But it made no mention of raising it to $18/hour by 2022, according to LAist. Also, over the summer, Disney gave up two tax incentives it had with the city, ostensibly to exempt itself from the ordinance.

Measure L proponents aren’t backing down, however. They argue that a 1996 municipal bond agreement that helped fund public improvements near Disney’s California Adventure and a parking lot that is now managed by Disney, means the company is still propped up by public taxes and therefore subject to the ordinance. At the moment, the city disagrees, siding with Disney. According to LAist, the only other employers that would satisfy the ordinance’s criteria are two large hotels scheduled to open in 2020.

Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Nation City, California: Bringing Down the Rent

The rent is too damn high! So California housing activists are hoping that voters will choose to repeal the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which was passed in 1995 and prohibits municipalities from controlling rent prices in buildings built after that year. If that happens this Tuesday, cities will have a shot at checking the skyrocketing rents in their newer constructions, helping to stem the affordability crisis rocking so many California towns. In anticipation, some cities—Nation City, Berkeley and Santa Cruz—have put local rent-control measures on the ballot this Election Day.

Cook County, Illinois: Earning Back Earned Sick Leave and Minimum Wage Hikes

In 2016, Cook County, Illinois, passed an ordinance guaranteeing workers 40 hours per year of earned sick leave and another ordinance to gradually increase the minimum wage to $13 per hour by 2020. But municipalities within the county were able to opt out of the county mandates—which a reported 109 of 125 promptly did. Two measures on the ballot this November will ask voters if they want their municipality to follow the county’s lead and adopt the sick-leave and wage reforms. The votes are non-binding, so even if they pass, workers will still need to convince their local councils to follow through.

Flagstaff, Arizona: Sinking the Minimum Wage?

Back in 2016, voters in Flagstaff, Arizona, approved a measure to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15.50 an hour, by 2022. (It’s currently $11 an hour.) The ordinance also planned for wages of tipped employees to catch up to the minimum wage by 2026. (Flagstaff is the only city in Arizona with a minimum wage higher than the state’s.) Corporate interests were not happy with the precedent, however, and have now proposed their own measure, Proposition 414, to lower the wage back down to the state’s ($10.50 an hour). According to the Arizona Daily Sun, all that is known about the group behind the measure, America Revived, is that it has hired a consultancy group and that, in one campaign-finance disclosure, a political-action committee called America Revived PAC paid the consultant $200,000. The group defending the local minimum wage says America Revived has violated campaign-finance law. “We don’t know how much money they are spending,” says Flagstaff City Councilor Eva Putzova. They also don’t know where the money is coming from.

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