This post originally appeared at The American Prospect.
Pittsburgh is the perfect urban laboratory,” says Bill Peduto, the city’s new mayor. “We’re small enough to be able to do things and large enough for people to take notice.” More than its size, however, it’s Pittsburgh’s new government — Peduto and the five like-minded progressives who now constitute a majority on its city council — that is turning the city into a laboratory of democracy. In his first hundred days as mayor, Peduto has sought funding to establish universal pre-K education and partnered with a Swedish sustainable-technology fund to build four major developments with low carbon footprints and abundant affordable housing. Even before he became mayor, while still a council member, he steered to passage ordinances that mandated prevailing wages for employees on any project that received city funding and required local hiring for the jobs in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ new arena. He authored the city’s responsible-banking law, which directed government funds to those banks that lent in poor neighborhoods and away from those that didn’t.
Pittsburgh is a much cleaner city today than it was when it housed some of the world’s largest steel mills. But, like postindustrial America generally, it is also a much more economically divided city. When steel dominated the economy, the companies’ profits and the union’s contracts made Pittsburgh — like Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago — a city with a thriving working class. Today, with the mills long gone, Pittsburgh has what Gabe Morgan, who heads the local union of janitorial and building maintenance workers, calls an “eds and meds” economy. Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh and its medical center are among the region’s largest employers, generating thousands of well-paid professional positions and a far greater number of low-wage service-sector jobs.
Peduto, who is 49 years old, sees improving the lot of Pittsburgh’s new working class as his primary charge. In his city hall office, surrounded by such artifacts as a radio cabinet from the years when the city became home to the world’s first radio station, the new mayor outlined the task before him. “My grandfather, Sam Zarroli, came over in 1921 from Abruzzo,” he said. “He only had a second-grade education, but he was active in the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in its early years, and he made a good life for himself and his family. My challenge in today’s economy is how to get good jobs for people with no PhDs but with a good work ethic and GEDs. How do I get them the same kind of opportunities my grandfather had? All the mayors elected last year are asking this question.”
They are indeed. The mayoral and council class of 2013 is one of the most progressive cohorts of elected officials in recent American history. In one major city after another, newly elected officials are planning to raise the minimum wage or enact ordinances boosting wages in developments that have received city assistance. They are drafting legislation to require inner-city hiring on major projects and foster unionization in hotels, stores and trucking. They are seeking the funds to establish universal pre-K and other programs for infants and toddlers. They are sketching the layout of new transit lines that will bring jobs and denser development to neighborhoods both poor and middle-class and reduce traffic and pollution in the bargain. They are — if they haven’t done so already — forbidding their police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities in the deportation of undocumented immigrants not convicted of felonies and requiring their police to have video or audio records of their encounters with the public. They are, in short, enacting at the municipal level many of the major policy changes that progressives have found themselves unable to enact at the federal and state levels. They also may be charting a new course for American liberalism.
New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio has dominated the national press corps’ coverage of the new urban liberalism. His battles to establish citywide pre-K (successful but not funded, as he wished, by a dedicated tax on the wealthy), expand paid sick days (also successful), raise the minimum wage (blocked by the governor and legislature) and reform the police department’s stop-and-frisk policy (by dropping an appeal of a court order) have been extensively chronicled. But de Blasio is just one of a host of mayors elected last year who campaigned and now govern with similar populist agendas. The list also includes Pittsburgh’s Peduto, Minneapolis’s Betsy Hodges, Seattle’s Ed Murray, Boston’s Martin Walsh, Santa Fe’s Javier Gonzales and many more.
“We all ran on similar platforms,” Peduto says. “There wasn’t communication among us. It just emerged organically that way. We all faced the reality of growing disparities. The population beneath the poverty line is increasing everywhere. A lot of us were underdogs, populists, reformers, and the public was ready for us.”
This isn’t the first time that America’s cities have collectively shifted their political identities. As political journalist Samuel Lubell documented in his 1951 study The Future of American Politics — most particularly his chapter “Revolt of the City” — the New Deal coalition was prefigured by the change in urban voting patterns during the 1920s. Since the end of the Civil War, the cities of the industrial Midwest and the West Coast had tilted Republican. In 1920, GOP presidential nominee Warren Harding carried the nation’s 12 largest cities by a margin of 1.54 million votes. In 1928, however, Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith carried the same 12 cities by a margin of 210,000 votes. Smith was a Catholic — the only Catholic presidential nominee until John Kennedy ran in 1960 — whose speech and manner stamped him unmistakably as a product of New York’s Lower East Side. His candidacy brought to the polls for the first time millions of Southern and Eastern European immigrants — predominantly Catholic, Jewish and Eastern Orthodox — who had transformed the composition of American cities during the preceding 40 years but who had never before voted in large numbers. Four years later, they voted in still greater numbers, sending Franklin Roosevelt to the White House and cementing the nation’s major cities in the Democratic column for decades to come. At the municipal level, cities long controlled by Republican machines shifted either to control by Democratic machines or by progressive reformers like New York’s Fiorello La Guardia.
This pattern of demographic transformation is now repeating itself. New coalitions and the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama have brought millions of Latino, Asian and African immigrants and the millennials to the polls, remaking the politics of cities in the process.
Even as the wave of non-European immigrants since the mid-1980s has reshaped the United States — whose white share of the population was down to 63 percent in 2012 — it has reshaped its cities even more. In New York, which was 53 percent white in the 1980 census, the white share of its population dropped to 37 percent in the 2010 census. During the same 30 years, Los Angeles saw the white share of its population drop from 48 percent to 29 percent, Houston from 53 percent to 26 percent, Phoenix from 78 percent to 47 percent, San Diego from 69 percent to 45 percent, Dallas from 57 percent to 29 percent, Columbus from 76 percent to 59 percent, Boston from 68 percent to 47 percent, Seattle from 79 percent to 66 percent and Denver from 67 percent to 52 percent.
It’s not just the racial makeup of cities that is changing; it’s also their generational profile: Cities have seen a marked increase in their share of 20-somethings. These changes in demographics have coincided with the change in economics. With both manufacturing and unions in steep decline, major cities have come to be characterized by levels of economic inequality — reinforced by levels of racial inequality — the nation has not experienced since before the New Deal.
In America, politics follow demographics: Voters of color and millennial voters stand well to the left of their white and older counterparts in their support for government intervention to counter the market’s inequities and for Democratic candidates generally. The voting habits of major cities reflect these transformations. For example, Barack Obama’s share of the vote in the 2012 presidential election outpaced Walter Mondale’s share of the vote in the 1984 presidential election by 10.5 percent nationally, but the difference was far greater in cities. Obama outperformed Mondale by 20 percentage points in New York City, by 26 points in Los Angeles, 20 in San Diego, 24 in Dallas, 27 in Columbus, 22 in Seattle and 24 in Denver.
At the level of municipal politics, the change is even starker. Twenty years ago, half of America’s dozen largest cities had Republican mayors. Today, only San Diego is governed by a Republican and he was elected in a low-turnout special election held to replace disgraced Democrat Bob Filner. Indeed, of the nation’s 30 largest cities, just four (San Diego, Indianapolis, Fort Worth and Oklahoma City) have Republican mayors and even they have to swim with the urban tides. Mayor Greg Ballard of Indianapolis supported increased federal aid to mass transit and opposed his state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Not every Democratic mayor is progressive, as the record of Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel makes clear. Demographic recomposition has proved a necessary but insufficient prerequisite for urban political change. The newcomers to America’s cities also have had to come together as an effective political force. With few exceptions, the cities that have elected left-populist governments have first reconfigured their power structures by building coalitions dedicated to greater economic and racial equity. Aided in some instances by liberal foundations, these coalitions consist chiefly of unions, community-based organizations in low-income minority neighborhoods, immigrants’ rights groups, affordable-housing advocates, environmental organizations and networks of liberal churches, synagogues and mosques.
The unions that have been key to the formation of these new coalitions — it’s labor, after all, that has the capacity to provide the lion’s share of funding for these ventures — generally aren’t the municipal employee locals that have a bargaining relationship with elected officials that can limit their freedom of political action. They tend, rather, to be unions of private-sector workers — janitors, hotel housekeepers, hospital orderlies, supermarket clerks. Their members and potential members are often overwhelmingly minority and substantially immigrant. Indeed, the growing importance of these unions coincides with the growth of immigrants’ rights groups in most major cities. Their constituencies stand to gain the most from city policies that raise wages, create affordable housing and establish community-based policing.
The new urban coalitions develop common strategies, register voters, regularly canvass their respective communities, groom candidates, research issues, propose policies, lobby elected officials, run their candidates’ campaigns and walk precincts. New York’s Working Families Party — the organization that defined the issues and mobilized the constituencies for the campaigns that elected de Blasio and a progressive near majority on the city council — has proceeded furthest down the path to becoming a permanent social democratic and green political force. But many of the cities that went left last year have coalitions that have begun their own way down this path as well.
Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Seattle are among the cities that have incubated new labor-community coalitions over the past decade. In Pittsburgh, the coalition — named Pittsburgh United — began to take shape during the revitalization of the city’s affiliate of SEIU’s Local 32BJ, the East Coast regional local of janitorial and building-service workers. Along with Pittsburgh’s union of hotel workers, 32BJ supported the city’s main African American community organization’s campaign to make inner-city hiring a condition for the city council’s approval of the new Pittsburgh Penguins sports arena. In turn, the community group backed the unions’ effort to persuade the council to enact an ordinance guaranteeing the jobs of fast-food and other franchise workers in city-owned facilities even if the franchise changed hands. These campaigns divided the city’s unions — the building trades wanted to construct the arena regardless of who was hired to work inside it — but united the minority communities and the service-sector unions. In time, the alliance grew to include liberal clergy and groups devoted to cleaning Pittsburgh’s air and water, particularly in working-class communities.
Initially, the coalition’s sole council ally was Peduto, but that was soon to change. A group of young professionals who’d come together on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign set out to elect other progressives to the city council. “We didn’t know the old ways of campaigning,” says Matthew Merriman-Preston, the political consultant who has managed Peduto’s campaigns and those of every other progressive council member for the past decade, “so we made it up as we went along. We had people on the ground talking to their neighbors year after year.”