Blue Cities Under Red State Rule
Red-state legislatures exerting anti-democratic control over blue cities is the latest Republican power grab.
It’s becoming a disturbing trend. Within many red states, there are often blue urban areas that wish to enact progressive policies and ensure things like access to the voting booth. Yet they find themselves increasingly stymied by state officials. In some cases, the state governments have completely preempted local ordinances, and in the most extreme cases have replaced local officials with state level ones, removing local control entirely.
The divide between blue urban centers and red capitals is rendered even more stark because of race. Blue Democratic strongholds in the cities are generally far more ethnically diverse, even majority-minority, leading to the election of African American and Latino mayors and city council members. Yet officials who control the purse strings from state capitals, and often insist upon state mandates over local policies and laws, are often White. This can result in deep mistrust and racially polarized politics.
In today’s piece, we’ll look at three case studies of urban enclaves that are under increasing, unprecedented pressure from state-level officials. The blue cities have pushed back, but are becoming frustrated by these blatant state-level power grabs. Are there any viable options for such cities under siege?
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Houston v. Texas
This past summer, Republicans in Texas built the “Death Star.” It was the name they coined for a broad law that preempted a host of local ordinances. It required local cities and counties to follow state law or risk being sued. The law covered everything from construction standards to bans on discrimination in housing and hiring. Under the destructive force of the Death Star, if the state didn’t protect a right, local governments wouldn’t be allowed to either.
For example, the blue cities of Dallas and Austin have existing policies to require rest breaks for construction workers. These have become increasingly critical with the rise of heat-related deaths, and the number of such deaths on construction sites in Texas has doubled over the past 10 years. However, state law has no such required rest breaks in the Texas Labor Code, so under the Death Star law, these local laws are overridden by state law.
Houston sued to invalidate the broad new preemption law, arguing that it runs counter to a part of the state constitution that allows cities to enact their own laws. Just days before the law went into effect, a district judge ruled it was unconstitutional.
“The Governor’s and Legislature’s ongoing war on such home-rule cities hurts the State and its economy, discourages new transplants from other states, and thwarts the will of Texas voters who endowed these cities in the Texas Constitution with full rights to self-government and local innovation,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who is African American. “This self-defeating war on cities needs to end.”
The state of Texas is appealing this ruling, and while the case is pending the law was permitted to go into effect. The Death Star’s future likely will be in the hands of the state’s Supreme Court, which skews conservative.
The law was not the only power grab by the state over Houston. Governor Abbott has also had the state take over the appointment of the elections administrator for Harris County, the state’s biggest county and where Houston is located, with the Secretary of State now overseeing elections there.
Then this summer, the state legislature passed a law targeting Harris County by specifically eliminating the county’s Elections Chief position. It did so with more than a wink and a nod: The new law states that no county “with more than 3.5 million people” can have an elections administrator, knowing full well that Harris County would be the only county affected. That law was put on hold by a judge as unconstitutional, but the state Supreme Court let it go into effect.
These moves are part of a larger, disturbing pattern of state-level governments interfering with election administration at the local level, which in turn is part of a larger GOP narrative that somehow elections and their results are untrustworthy. By no coincidence, Harris County delivers the most number of Democratic votes of any county in Texas, so the targeting of its election administrator is worrisome and opens the door to political interference with how elections are run and results are tabulated.
Nashville v. Tennessee
Nashville, Tennessee is an example of overt political retaliation by a GOP-controlled state legislature against a Democratic city. The Metropolitan Council of Nashville had voted not to host the 2024 GOP National Convention in the city, so in response, the legislature cut the city council size in half. It did so in a way that feels familiar: It passed a facially neutral law that ostensibly applies to all city or city-county governments, but only Nashville is actually affected by it.
In the wake of the Nashville city council’s vote denying the Republic National Convention, the state also seized control of the city’s airport and sports authority and, for good measure, defunded its convention center.
These measures added to a growing power battle between the state legislature and the Nashville Metropolitan Council, made all the more awkward because the two bodies convene just blocks away from each other.
The fight has included a new state law that had outlawed local police oversight boards, something that Nashville had finally achieved via popular referendum. Nashville responded to that law by reconstituting its board as a civilian oversight board.
The acrimony has erupted into outright battles in the halls of the Capitol, where state officials initially succeeded in expelling a legislator, Justin Jones, along with another young Black legislator, Justin Pearson, from the state House. But Jones’s expulsion, like that of Pearson, was short-lived. The Nashville Metropolitan Council promptly re-instated Jones and sent him back to the Capitol just four days later.
Efforts to dilute Nashville’s power extend to its Congressional maps as well. The Tennessee General Assembly successfully “cracked” Nashville into three separate districts rather than grant it a single one. The city’s residents are now represented in Congress by far-right radicals supported primarily by rural voters.
Jackson v. Mississippi
Jackson, Mississippi represents one of the worst examples of a majority-White, Republican-led legislature abusing its power over a majority-Black, Democratic urban center. State officials passed a law that created an entirely state-run criminal justice system, covering a district that includes Jackson’s downtown and a full third of its residents.
Under the new law, judges and prosecutors for this new district would be appointed by state government officials, removing the power to hear cases from locally elected judges.
Jackson is 80 percent Black, meaning that for many of its residents, justice would rest in the hands of, and be meted out by, locally unaccountable, White officials.
A starker example of a pure power play steeped in racism could hardly be imagined. The governor justified and signed the new law claiming he needed to make the streets of Jackson safer. But under the new system, people convicted of even minor offenses are facing state-level punishment, including harsh state prisons instead of county jails.
“It reminds me of apartheid,” said Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba of the new courts law. “They are looking to colonize Jackson. Not only in terms of putting their military force over Jackson but also dictating who has province over decision-making.”
The drawing of the new district has a flip side on race as well. The lines were drawn in such a way as to also capture much of the whiter parts of Jackson. That means that the new district is only 55 percent Black compared to 80 percent of the rest of the city. This has the effect of ensuring many of the district’s White residents also get White judges and prosecutors.
One part of the law was blocked in September by the state Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the state did not have the right to simply appoint new circuit court judges rather than have them elected. A federal case challenging the constitutionality of the law has been filed and is awaiting trial.
Blue cities seek help from each other and the feds
Mayors of blue cities have recognized the danger and have begun mobilizing together to curb the excesses of red state-level government preemption. One of the keys to their autonomy, they agreed, is to prevent red state legislatures from choking off the funds these cities need. And that has meant direct appeals to the federal government for funds.
“If they want to see a real change,” said Cleveland mayor Justin Bibb, who has hit state-level obstacles in trying to pass gun safety and tobacco ordinances in his city, “send that money directly to the mayors … to make sure as mayors we can control our destiny and preserve home rule in our cities.”
The federal government is also intervening legally. The Justice Department has now joined the NAACP in suing the state of Mississippi in federal court over its plan to impose white courts and prosecutors over the new majority Black district in Jackson.
But federal help can only go so far, especially given the intensity and widespread nature of state-level oppression and control of big cities. State constitutional protections, perhaps enacted by way of state-wide referenda, in the end may prove necessary to curb the worst excesses by Republican legislatures against Democratic urban centers.