Before 2024, Look to the States

Before 2024, Look to the States

Local victories don’t often make national headlines, but they make real and tangible change possible.

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Last Tuesday, former city council member Cherelle Parker won the Democratic primary in Philadelphia’s mayoral race—prevailing over a crowded field, including her fellow city council alumna Helen Gym. Gym had received a wave of endorsements from progressive leaders and organizations, like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Working Families Party, but ultimately came up short.

Pundits have raced to declare what these results say about the progressive movement’s strength nationwide. Some have claimed that the results indicate “centrism’s enduring power” in Democratic politics.

But a closer look at the city’s down-ballot elections reveals a more complicated story. Progressive at-large city council member Isaiah Thomas was Philadelphia’s highest vote-getter in any contested race; his total support actually eclipsed Parker’s. An endorsee of the same unions and progressive organizations as Gym, Thomas’s signature anti-carceral bill has been hailed as nothing less than a national model. And come November, Philadelphia could see as many as three members of the Working Families Party in elected city government positions.

Three hundred miles across the commonwealth, progressives also notched major, if under-covered, victories in Allegheny County. Sara Innamorato—who ran on a bold platform that included banning fracking, expanding affordable housing, and increasing investment in mental health initiatives—easily won the Democratic nomination for county executive, making her the odds-on favorite to become western Pennsylvania’s most powerful local official and wield a $3 billion yearly budget. Meanwhile, public defender Matt Dugan unseated a 24-year incumbent for the county’s district attorney office on a reformist platform that includes ending cash bail and diverting low-level, nonviolent offenses away from the carceral system.

Local victories like these don’t often make national headlines, but they make real, tangible change possible. Municipal leaders are often better positioned than their state or federal counterparts to envision and implement progressive policy. Over the last few years, a wave of city-level victories—from high-profile mayors to up-and-coming city councilors—has set the stage for some of the most exciting and meaningful progressive initiatives in the country.

Take marijuana reform, for instance. At the federal level—even as a staggeringly high majority of Americans now supports legalization—progress has been slow. It wasn’t until October of last year that President Biden took the first steps toward removing marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. (And to be precise: He asked his cabinet to “initiate the administrative process to review expeditiously how marijuana is scheduled under federal law.” Because as they say, when the going gets tough, the tough ask their colleagues to initiate administrative processes.)

But in that same statement, President Biden emphasized the progress that had been made in lower-level jurisdictions as a justification for the reconsidered federal policy: “Sending people to prison for possessing marijuana has upended too many lives and incarcerated people for conduct that many states no longer prohibit.” And legalization at the state level has often been preceded by decriminalization at the local level. For example, St. Louis stopped prosecuting low-level cannabis offenses in 2018; Missouri voters went on to legalize recreational marijuana use last November. It’s hard to demonize sensible policy when voters have already experienced its benefits firsthand.

And more than simply moving the needle on national discourse, city officials have the power to transform their constituents’ lives—particularly in otherwise deep-red states. In Harris County, Tex., (the nation’s third-most populous), Judge Lina Hidalgo has expanded the role of county government after unseating a popular Republican incumbent in 2018. As the county’s chief executive, Hidalgo has invested millions in progressive priorities such as early childhood education, environmental protection, and misdemeanor bail reform. Now in her second term, Hidalgo will continue to enact popular reforms on the behalf of 5 million Texans.

Even in localities where moderates have a foothold in leadership, progressives can counter their influence and serve as powerful advocates for policy that might otherwise go unconsidered. New York City Comptroller Brad Lander was elected in a contest similar to Philadelphia’s, when a moderate mayor won citywide along with progressives down the ticket. Since then, Lander has effectively countered Eric Adams with the weight of his own office, challenging the city’s bloated police budgets and advising housing authority residents to organize for better living conditions.

And of course, when enough voters are engaged at the local level, it can pay dividends at higher levels. Look no further than the recent extraordinary achievements of the Minnesota legislature, which expanded labor rights, implemented paid family and medical leave, legalized marijuana, and introduced universal free breakfast and lunch in schools, among other strides too numerous to list. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party did this with a one-seat majority in the Minnesota Senate—and the pivotal seat, District 41, was won in 2022 by just 321 votes. Take it from the voters of Afton, Minnesota: Local engagement matters.

In 2024, Democratic minds and wallets will be laser-focused on President Biden’s reelection campaign. With the looming threat of a second Trump administration, and with the contemptible Florida Governor Ron DeSantis expected to enter the race Wednesday, it is imperative that Biden win another term. But his campaign will have no difficulty maintaining attention or recruiting volunteers. Key Senate races will have no trouble raising funds. Where grassroots donors and organizers will be able to make their mark is further down the ballot.

Across our cities, counties, and states, we can elect more progressives like Sara Innamorato, Lina Hidalgo, and Brad Lander. By racking up local wins, progressives can turn ideas into actions—and build a national movement from the bottom up.

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