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Sunday, July 02, 2017


The only good local democracy

by Tom Sullivan

Laurens County Confederate Monument. Photo by Bill Fitzpatrick via Creative Commons.

Last weekend, I attended the funeral of a climber friend in the small South Carolina city of Laurens. The confederate monument in front of the courthouse celebrates "The Boys in Gray," and below in larger letters, "OUR HEROES." The spirit behind those monuments still pertains in legislatures across the South.

The landing page headline at the Washington Post this morning declares "Texas is at the epicenter of an expanding red-state, blue-city divide." The article examines the growing hostility between Austin, the state's artsy, blue capitol and the legislators from redder districts who come there to govern Texas. Those legislators do not take to well to the people of Austin passing ordinances to protect their trees, their canopy and their quality of life. Developers gotta develop, you know:

Texas presents perhaps the most dramatic example of the increasingly acrimonious relationship between red-state leaders and their blue city centers, which have moved aggressively to expand environmental regulations and social programs often against the grain of their states.

Republican state leaders across the country have responded to the widening cultural gulf by passing legislation preempting local laws. The best-known example is North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” which was partially reversed this year. It was originally aimed at undercutting Charlotte’s efforts to expand civil rights laws to include LGBT people and to prevent cities from setting their own minimum wage.

But states also have gone after cities in more subtle ways. Ohio’s legislature last year attempted to block a Cleveland regulation that requires certain city contractors to hire local residents. A new Arizona law threatens to cut off funding to cities that take actions state officials deem to be in violation of state law.
Like the monument in Laurens, confederate monuments installed across the South after Reconstruction "were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge..." A century later, those monuments have finally begun coming down even as preemption laws are going up. But the message to liberalizing cities in red states is the same: white conservatives are in charge here, and don't you forget it.
“These preemption laws are designed to intimidate and bully local officials into doing the bidding of a smaller group of folks,” said Michael Alfano of the Campaign to Defend Local Solutions, a new nonprofit organization aimed at fending off state efforts to undermine local power.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) provides a sense of the attitudes in play:
“Once you cross the Travis County line, it starts smelling different,” Abbott joked at a recent gathering of Republicans, referring to the county that includes Austin. “And you know what that fragrance is? Freedom. It’s the smell of freedom that does not exist in Austin, Texas.”
As for Texas being the epicenter of this retrograde movement, get in line.

The oft-repeated, “The government closest to the people serves the people best” is deployed just for show. Repeated losses in court have not dissuaded North Carolina's GOP-led legislature in the capitol from passing laws to target blue cities, Charlotte being just one. Republican legislators introduce preemption laws both to show who's boss and to weaken cities financially. And where their candidates cannot win elections, to forcibly redistrict so they might.

In 2015, a Republican legislator introduced a bill to redistrict city council elections for Greensboro. A federal judge later declared the scheme unconstitutional. A plan to impose county commission districts for my county still stands. This week, the legislature did the same thing with city council elections. Fixing judicial elections too is in the works, according to a local editorial today:
And now, in a move that defies all logic, a bill in the House would split Buncombe into two districts for election of District Court and Superior Court judges. The line would be drawn so as to maximize the chances of Republicans being elected.

Splitting a county for judicial elections is rare as far as we know, at least since the demise of city courts in many states. It suggests the General Assembly is more concerned with partisan advantage than with the fair administration of justice.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Justin Burr of Albermarle, has withdrawn the bill for now, but he promises to bring it back when the General Assembly goes into special session to fix gerrymandered legislative districts that have been thrown out by the courts.

“I will continue to welcome feedback from those interested in the common sense and badly needed judicial district reforms I am proposing,” Burr said. “The General Assembly has a responsibly to fix the gerrymandered and disproportionate judicial districts crafted by the Democrat Party, and I fully expect this fix to happen before the 2018 election.”

On what planet is this man living? Since when does keeping counties intact within the same district constitute gerrymandering?
Fair is not their plan. Like Texas Republicans with Austin, Tar Heel Republicans seem to direct particular animus towards Asheville, another blue city. They mean to show just who is in charge.