Friday, November 11, 2011

Why cities need Republicans

When a Wake County district school board election is being hailed nationally as evidence that the whole Tea Party movement is defunct, as in this not-at-all-objective piece from the Huffington Post, you know the hyperbole is hyper, indeed. Should the Charlotte City Council election be considered another piece of evidence that Republican power is withering nationally?

I am not at all sure it should be. Nevertheless, it's still worth pondering the implications of moderate Republican Edwin Peacock's loss in a Democratic sweep of all four at-large positions. In addition to Mayor Anthony Foxx, Democrats will have a 9-2 edge, with district representatives Andy Dulin (District 6) and Warren Cooksey (District 7) the council's only Republicans.

I sought the thoughts of a well-known local political observer, Bill McCoy, a political scientist who handily for me is the emeritus director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, where I work. "I don’t remember anything like a 9-2 split on City Council," McCoy said.  "I was totally surprised that Peacock lost."

He went on to say this, about such a heavily Democratic council: "Although I might fall in the category of a yellow dog Democrat, I believe a balance among the parties is a good thing, particularly when the other party has a person like Peacock – a great role model for what a moderate Republican should be like."  Whether a "balance" has to be 6-5 or could be 7-4 or even 8-3 is debatable, he said, but 9-2 is beyond the pale for a "good balance."

Charlotte has become more Democratic-leaning in recent years, although Mecklenburg County commissioners are less so (5-4 Democrat-Republican). The legislative delegation is also mixed: 6-4 Democrat-Republican in the N.C. House, and 3-1 in the N.C. Senate, or 3-2 if you county Tommy Tucker, whose district is mostly in Union County.

McCoy's point is one I heard articulated in slightly different form at a roundtable discussion last month in New York, where the topic was urban regions and their relationships political, economic and otherwise with state governments. Sitting next to me was Joe McLaughlin, a former lobbyist, former adviser to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and now director of Temple University's Institute for Public Affairs in Philadelphia. As we all chewed over the issue, McLaughlin said that one overlooked need cities have is, as he put it, "rebuilding" the Republican Party in urban areas.

He elaborated on his thinking to me this week, sharing a 2003 paper he wrote which said, "Particularly in a competitive two-party state like Pennsylvania, Philadelphia benefits from having two viable parties; many big cities do not."

That reminded me of the oft-told story of how then-Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican, and then-Mecklenburg County commissioners' chair Parks Helms, a Democrat, teamed up when they visited Washington to lobby for transit funds. McCrory courted the Republicans, Helms the Democrats.

In many states, large cities are viewed with suspicion or jealousy at the state level. Georgia legislators have been known to compare Atlanta to Sodom and Gomorrah. Last year two former presidents of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, ex-Mayors Manny Diaz of Miami and Greg Nickels of Seattle, told me they knew of no U.S. cities whose relationships with their states worked well.  And of course we know the derisive term, "The Great State of Mecklenburg," has not vanished from the halls of Raleigh.

So it's important for urban regions to be able to speak with a unified voice on important topics such as transportation, economic development and the environment. If suburban jurisdictions are Republican-dominated and city ones are Democratic, that poses one more hurdle to a region's effectiveness at the state and federal levels.

Depending on how one defines "moderate," Peacock may well be the last of the moderate Republicans elected to a partisan office from Charlotte, a tradition that includes, among others, former Gov. Jim Martin, former U.S. Rep. Alex McMillan, former county commissioners Carla DuPuy, Tom Cox and Peacock's father, Ed Peacock, and former council members Velva Woollen, Lynn Wheeler and John Lassiter, to name just a few. (Whether some of today's conservative Republicans might be more moderate if the Republican Party itself hadn't veered strongly to the right is essentially unknowable.)

Finding ways for Democrats and Republicans to find common ground in solving common local problems remains important. But it's likely to get a lot harder.


Anonymous said...

It's a pretty lame thesis. Party balance is more likely to produce good policies than anything else? Doesn't your statement about the Republican Party veering more to the right undermine your balance argument?

I suspect that the ambitions of individual Democratic councilors will be more than enough to create 'balance'. Republicans who need to distinguish themselves if they are to move on to higher offices are already showing that they are willing to sacrifice local issues to their own ambitions. When that is the case, having a balance of party labels doesn't do anything for local government.

Mary Newsom said...

This came in from Planetizen blogger Michael Lewyn ( )and I inadvertently deleted it):
could the Republicans' "urban problem" be due to changing demographics (i.e. loss of middle-class whites to suburbs, as the city becomes occupied by more liberal highly educated whites and by minorities)? If so, Democratic dominance of the city core is another result of sprawl.

Mary Newsom said...

And now a response:
In Charlotte, that may well be the case, although I suspect it has as much or more to do with white flight to other counties (where schools are supposedly "better") and to smaller municipalities in Mecklenburg County, and to the demographics of Charlotte newcomers as it does to "sprawl" per se, as a habit of development.
Because of North Carolina's liberal (and now gutted) annexation law much of what's inside the Charlotte city limits would, in other states, be separate municipalities.
In other words, the city of Charlotte itself is a huge sprawl zone.

TMLutas said...

I got a link to this article and am thankful for the exposure to a different perspective. I find the embedded assumptions very "Alice in Wonderland". The TEA party is about breaking the two party consensus to drive this nation over a cliff and limit dissension merely to how hard to press on the gas. That's going to break previous dynamics just about everywhere, on every level.

Current spending dynamics are sustainable only until the borrowed money runs out and with a growing list of countries losing their ability to steer their own destiny (Greece being only the most public example), it's clear that it is getting pretty late in the day to start the shift.

The North Carolina GOP needs to work on educating more urban voters as to the problems because clearly the 2011 electorate wasn't buying in large enough numbers. The bond markets will either make cash available or they will not and when they don't, the federal "watering can" of money heading to states and localities will largely shut off. That's going to be a hard landing for most cities. Cities that start realigning now will ease the transition. With these election results, Charlotte has made it much less likely that it will be a soft landing zone.

Anonymous said...

Fringe members of both parties are destroying our national political scene. We need moderates would will work toward agreement and govern, not fight for extreme positions

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