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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Dems Making Cities Laboratories of Democracy

Most discussions of political strategy center on national and state politics — how to elect presidents, senators, House members and governors. Attention is even more narrowly focused in contentious election years like 2016.
But while the media and public are all yammering on about those high-profile electoral contests, a powerful progressive transformation is accelerating in America’s cities. Claire Cain Miller addresses the trend in her NYT Upshot column, “Liberals Turn to Cities to Pass Laws and Spread Ideas“:

If Congress won’t focus on a new policy idea, and if state legislatures are indifferent or hostile, why not skip them both and start at the city level?
That’s the approach with a proposed law in San Francisco to require businesses there to pay for employees’ parental leaves.
It might seem like a progressive pipe dream, the kind of liberal policy that could happen only in a place like San Francisco. But Scott Wiener, the city and county supervisor who proposed the policy, sees it differently.
“The more local jurisdictions that tackle these issues, the more momentum there is for statewide and eventually national action,” he said.

Miller cites Baltimore’s ‘living wage ‘ law enacted in 1994, along with “soda taxes, universal health care, calorie counts on menus, mandatory composting and bans on smoking indoors” as examples of the phenomenon. Many cities, she adds, are well-positioned to serve as “incubators of ideas” and policies to fill the void left by a gridlocked federal congress.
There is significant opposition to the cities taking the lead, coming from conservative organizations like ALEC, the NRA and the tobacco lobby, which have had some success in blocking reforms passed by cities, including “gun control, plastic bag bans, paid leave, fracking, union membership and the minimum wage.”
Yet the reforms enacted by cities have sometimes take root as causes gaining national support. As Miller notes,

Paid sick leave is an example. The first city to require it was San Francisco in 2006. It is now the law in 23 cities and states, and President Obama last fall required federal contractors to provide it. (Meanwhile, more than a dozen states have pre-emption laws to stop cities from requiring paid sick leave.)
Minimum wage is another example. SeaTac, Wash., passed a $15 minimum wage in 2013. Nearby Seattle followed, and then so did San Francisco, Los Angeles, Mountain View, Calif., and Emeryville, Calif.
Fourteen states have since changed their minimum wage laws, two bills in Congress would do the same nationally, and all three Democratic presidential contenders have said they would raise the federal minimum wage.

Democrats are driving the reforms in the cities and in some key states, like California. What has changed most significantly is the severity of gridlock in congress, which gives added incentive to the cities to lead the way in building America’s future. If the cities can meet daunting challenges like eliminating traffic jams, pollution and crime, their examples will prove irresistible to national politicians, rendering the GOP’s gridlock strategy inoperative.

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