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.