How to municipal leaders can work proactively to effectively lead Democratic cities in Republican-led states
Anyone who follows politics just in passing has encountered the juxtaposition between typically more liberal urban areas and more conservative suburban or rural counterparts. As of May 2023, only twenty-five percent of the United States’ largest metros had mayors affiliated with the Republican party. With accelerating political polarization, this urban/rural divide has only become more stark. Just this week, the voters of Jacksonville, Florida--a consolidated city/county government in deep red North Florida--voted to send a Democrat to the mayor’s office, flipping the largest metro area with a Republican mayor from red to blue.
Given the strong liberal lean of urban communities, it is not surprising that many Democratic mayors are governing in Republican-led states. This phenomenon is particularly common in the Deep South where majority-Black cities like Jackson, MS, Birmingham, AL, and Atlanta, GA have long elected Black Democratic mayors who must govern in concert with Republican governors and Republican supermajorities in the state legislature.
These relationships across the political spectrum often breed tension. Many Republican legislatures have used their power to undermine or outright block the initiatives of blue city mayors. In 2016, Birmingham’s city government voted to increase the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Just two days later the state legislature passed a bill preventing municipalities from setting their own minimum wage, retroactively nullifying Birmingham’s legislation. More recently, amongst disagreements on how to handle crime in the state capital, the Mississippi legislature passed legislation allowing the majority-white and Republican legislature to appoint the City of Jackson’s court personnel, including judges and prosecutors. Typically, Jackson residents elected judges and attorneys to serve in the Hinds County Circuit Court system, but HB 1020 created a permanent, unelected court system to preside over large portions of the city. Public servants who were previously elected by a majority-Black & Democratic electorate will instead be appointed by a majority-white & Republican legislature.
Given these challenges, what can blue city mayors do to build productive relationships with red state legislatures and protect their municipal agendas? Below are a few approaches to managing under such strained circumstances.
Closely monitor state legislative sessions
When dealing with a hostile legislature, municipal leaders cannot afford to be caught unaware. City leaders must proactively and closely monitor state legislative sessions to watch for bills that would undermine their agendas. Pay particular attention to the details of legislation and be mindful of “trojan horse” bills, which seem innocuous or irrelevant on their face but contain provisions that will harm municipalities.
Budget for increased lobbying costs
Monitoring legislation is not sufficient on its own. When city leaders identify problem legislation, they need to be able to take action against these bills. Municipal leaders with hostile legislatures should plan to hire lobbyists and spend more on lobbying than peer administrations in friendlier states. Professional lobbyists can represent the city at the state legislature while municipal leaders focus on governing at home.
Rally the public when needed
Blue state mayors must often contend with Republican supermajorities empowered by gerrymandered districts. But, blue cities are still home to huge swathes of the state electorate, and these voters can swing statewide races in more competitive states like Georgia, Florida, and Arizona. Democratic mayors may be able to slow or even stop damaging legislation raising awareness of the issue amongst their voters. Pressure from large portions of the electorate could force legislators or state governors to reconsider divisive legislation. Write op-eds, work with local activists, and use social media to draw attention to legislative activity that undermines local control and the wishes of urban voters.
When working together, not acting in opposition, city leaders and state governments can deliver on big projects for their residents, as Brookings Institute analysts argued in the wake of COVID-19. Because, when state legislatures spend their time undermining municipal leaders, it is the people who suffer. By working proactively to mitigate the threat of hostile legislatures, blue city mayors can ensure more of their government’s--and their voters--priorities are achieved.