We Can Build Pro-Worker Cities

Richard Schragger

Progressives at the city level face all sorts of constraints, from business interests to hostile state legislatures. But we shouldn’t preemptively clip our wings: left reformers like Chicago’s Brandon Johnson can transform cities into pro-worker havens.

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson speaks to supporters during a rally at the UIC Forum on March 30, 2023, in Chicago, Illinois. (Jim Vondruska / Getty Images)

Interview by
Chris Maisano

An outbreak of yellow fever struck Baltimore in the summer of 1800, claiming the lives of over a thousand residents. In a letter to Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson looked on what he thought was the bright side of this deadly epidemic. “The yellow fever,” the sage of Monticello intoned, “will discourage the growth of great cities in our nation; & I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.”

Jefferson and many of his contemporaries viewed the yeoman farmer as the repository of republican virtue and sought to defend agrarian society against the advance of urban life. The political system they designed systematically disadvantaged urban areas relative to rural ones, and politically subordinated cities to their respective state governments.

US cities are weak, but as the legal scholar Richard Schragger argues in his excellent book City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age, they are not powerless. By focusing on the provision of public services and expanding the scope of home rule, Schragger argues, urban progressives can improve people’s lives and build capacity to exercise power at the state and federal levels.

Here, he speaks with Jacobin contributing editor Chris Maisano about the political potential of cities and what he would recommend to Chicago’s progressive mayor-elect, Brandon Johnson.

Chris Maisano

There seem to be two big nuggets of conventional wisdom regarding cities out there, one from the Left and one from more business-friendly quarters. From the Left, we often hear that cities can’t do much on their own to address big urban problems like poverty or inadequate housing. From the pro-business side, we hear that local governments need to be “business-friendly,” which in practice often entails giving out public subsidies, in order to attract and hold onto mobile capital. You’re skeptical of both those views.

Richard Schragger

Yes, that’s exactly right. On the progressive side, there has been a tendency over the course of the twentieth century toward centralization. This is the idea that the federal government has to come in and provide the kinds of goods that are necessary to deal with poverty, housing, equality, health care — the whole range of things provided by the social welfare state. Meanwhile, there is a skeptical view of the capacity or ability of local governments to engage in redistribution of any kind. The idea is that cities have to compete for mobile capital, and if they tax or regulate too much, mobile capital will flee. White flight and deindustrialization are explained in this way.

I resist both accounts in the book. First, I think both sides are too committed to centralization and, frankly, too skeptical of city power. City-based politics is a fruitful place to do many of the things progressives would like to see done, and redistribution is more possible than traditional accounts of the social welfare state assume.

So, too, the competitive model of city policymaking has just not been shown to be true. Cities have been business-friendly and tax-shy forever — it’s not that cities have failed because they’ve pursued grossly mistaken policies. Cities are affected by structural features of the economy. The idea that they can “compete” — with the suburbs, with other cities — their way into economic growth is simplistic and misleading.

Consider, for example, the urban resurgence of the last few decades. And consider the current work-from-home revolution. We have seen in a short time dramatic changes in how cities are perceived, who lives in them, where work occurs, and how economic growth proceeds. The competition story is not plausible. And cities have resources to engage in the kinds of social welfare spending that we often think is not possible.

The living wage movement in this country started as a city-based movement and continues to be a city-based movement. Revived labor rights and unionization efforts are enjoying the most success in urban places.

Chris Maisano

In City Power, you say you have three big preoccupations: the mechanics of local economic growth, the scope of city agency, and the role legal institutions play in shaping those two things. Walk us through the main points you make regarding each of those topics.

Richard Schragger

When we talk about “city power,” sometimes we’re talking about cities’ economic wherewithal and by extension their fiscal capacity. Other times we are talking about cities’ formal legal authority in the context of a federal system.

One overriding question is: What makes cities thrive, and what leads to their decline? But we also have to ask what we mean when we say cities are thriving. Do we mean that they have high property values and low tax rates? Do we mean that they’ve attracted investment? Do we mean that they’re good for employers or employees? Do we mean that they have a decent quality of life for all residents, including lower- and moderate-income residents and not just the rich?  We sometimes think of the city as one entity, but of course there are multiple interests in the city.

City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age by Richard Schragger. (Oxford University Press)

As for the mechanics of local economic growth, I call for modesty in the book. We actually don’t have a great account of why certain places thrive and why certain places decline. We think we do, but we frequently tell just-so stories, often based in technological change. One story might be, well, the Sunbelt cities prospered because of the invention of air conditioning. Well, it turns out it’s pretty hot in Chicago in the summer too. So air conditioning doesn’t quite explain what’s going on.

No one predicted the urban resurgence of the last two decades. In 1974, if you looked at New York City’s budget woes, you probably wouldn’t have invested in New York City real estate. If you lived in Detroit in 1954, at the peak of its population, you may have rightly believed that the city was going to continue to prosper as it did in the previous decades. We have to be careful about what we mean by economic development and how it happens. Jane Jacobs, whose work I draw on in my book, spent much of her life struggling with this very question.

As for the scope of city agency, I ask whether a city has the fiscal and legal capacity to pursue certain goals. In the United States, cities are fairly weak, legally and politically. They have a lot of responsibilities to manage their economies, take care of their residents, provide social services like education and public safety, and yet they don’t necessarily have the resources to do so. Their autonomy is selective. Cities often have the formal right to act, but not the political ability to actually do anything.

Much of my book, City Power, is about the relationship between different levels of government in our federal system, and particularly the relationship between state legislatures and the city. The state-local relationship is the most important because state legislatures formally control cities and dictate the powers cities can exercise. They are also important because city leaders have to constantly negotiate with state leaders for resources.

Chris Maisano

In the US constitutional system, cities are considered creatures of their state governments, right?

Richard Schragger

Yes. State legislatures can, and in many cases have, changed the borders of cities, eliminated cities, and taken over their governance in various ways. To be sure, many state constitutions have home-rule provisions in their state constitutions, which are meant to protect some amount of city power. These provisions were adopted in various waves starting in the nineteenth century and then continuing into the twentieth century.

But “home rule” is weak even in those states that have what we would consider robust home-rule provisions. That is because home-rule provisions still allow states to override local decision-making, something legal scholars call “state law preemption.”

The rise in preemptive state policymaking has been one of the most dramatic political phenomena of the last half-decade or so. Cities are under attack today in many states. Blue cities are responding to progressive constituencies, and red state legislatures or governors are hostile to that politics. But the hostility to the exercise of city power also occurs in blue states.

Chris Maisano

The US left is very much an urban phenomenon today. I don’t think we’re going to be able to change that condition anytime soon. How is this situation a strength for the Left, and how is it a weakness?

Richard Schragger

Our federal system is based in part on the idea that states will have different policy preferences to some degree. A federal system is ideally designed to respect some of that diversity. But in fact, what we’re seeing is an urban/rural split within states. It’s not red states and blue states, it’s red rural areas and blue metropolitan or urban areas. Our state-based federal system simply does not track the most salient political divide in our politics today.

That phenomenon has actually been around for quite a while. Jonathan Rodden published a book recently called Why Cities Lose, which traces the urban/rural divide from the 1920s and even before that. Indeed, we see the urban/rural divide in state constitutional reform debates in the nineteenth century. In that era, folks worried about the power of the city over the rural areas — cities were growing, and wealth was increasingly concentrated there. Rural representatives were worried about political domination. So state legislators and state constitution-makers restricted city power by limiting city representation in state legislatures. Mind you, this was before the one-person-one-vote decisions, in which the US Supreme Court disallowed that kind of malapportionment. US politics has long been characterized by hostility to cities.

The plus for urban-based political movements is their capacity to generate good policy outcomes for their cities and the use of cities as a base for policymaking at the state and national level. The drawback is that the city itself, as I’ve pointed out, is weak legally, and can be weak politically if city residents aren’t able to exercise power in the state legislature.

So, too, at the federal level, we’ve got a bias toward low-population, rural states; the US Senate and the Electoral College are the main problems here. Every state gets two senators, so there’s an anti-urban bias built into our national politics that is difficult to overcome. If progressives are isolated in urban areas, that means they’re going to be at a structural disadvantage in the national political process.

Now, that points to a different strategy, which is for reformers to actually exercise power at the local level and protect that power. That’s a big part of the argument of City Power generally.

Chris Maisano

One policy area that mayors at least nominally have a lot of control over is policing. For instance, former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, at least early in his term, tried to do something to address people’s concerns with the police, but ran into very strong resistance. Despite the nominal authority, there are lots of complications in practice. Why do you think mayors often struggle to exercise authority over agencies they nominally have control over, particularly police departments?

Richard Schragger

We’ve seen a lot of struggles recently between mayors and their police departments, like in Chicago currently. Part of this is that any chief executive is going have trouble getting a handle on city agencies and exerting control over them.

It’s hard to do with policing in particular because the mayor may have authority to, say, hire and fire a police chief or dip down into the higher echelons of the police department. But they don’t have much to do with the hiring and firing of the rank-and-file officers, and the rank-and-file have certain kinds of views and positions. If you get into an adversarial relationship with the rank-and-file, that can be very damaging to your mayoralty and can be really tough.

And some of that is unfair. Crime rates are difficult to control. They do not seem to be responsive to particular policies, though we often pretend otherwise. But because crime and public safety is so directly attributed to the mayor, mayors get blamed.

Chris Maisano

Returning to the question of home rule, New York’s home-rule situation is not particularly favorable. It’s very heavily circumscribed by state law. But at least as far as I can tell, expanding home rule doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s agenda here right now. Do you think urban progressives should put more time and effort into expanding home rule?

Richard Schragger

Yes, I am strongly in favor of putting this at the top of all of our policy agendas. It’s hard to get people excited about the distribution of power between the state and local governments, because it’s abstract. It seems detached from the kinds of interests that most people have. In fact, they might not care where their favored policy gets adopted. In most cases, advocates want their favored policies adopted nationally or statewide, and it’s only third best to have that policy adopted at the local level, even though that’s the place where it would do the most good.

But I think to be effective in our policymaking and advocacy, we have to get our minds around the distribution of power in a federal system, because it has really significant effects. The preemption explosion is just one example of how progressive policies at the local level can be easily dismantled by states.

I was part of the drafting committee that wrote up the Principles of Home Rule for the 21st Century, which is a National League of Cities (NLC) publication. The idea was to give local governments, and cities in particular, more authority to do the things that are being demanded of them and also to provide cities with the fiscal capacity to do so.

The Principles recommend state assistance for cities in maintaining fiscal stability — including not imposing unfunded mandates of various kinds, which make it hard for the city to do its work, and giving cities ample taxing authority so they can raise revenue. The Principles don’t call for absolute local autonomy across the board, but instead they favor a presumption that when the city governs, city policies should not be overridden except for when the state has a really serious statewide interest in doing so.

With a federal system that is structurally biased against cities, home rule should be part of the reformist agenda across the country, in all states. In the Progressive Era, reformers pursued home rule first and then sought to adopt policies once those policies could be insulated from contrary state commands.

Chris Maisano

Because this issue is fairly abstract, I can anticipate a counterargument from within progressive reform circles that we should just go where the power currently is, which is the state level. Elect as many leftists and progressives to the state legislature as possible, try to elect the best governor possible, focus on the state. What would you say to that?

Richard Schragger

I understand that as a matter of political strategy. If you want to advance your policies you’re going to try to do so at every level of government. You’re going to pursue those policies by supporting candidates at the local, state, and federal levels.

But I do think it is a mistake conceptually and strategically to put one’s hope in unreliable centralized institutions, especially the presidency and Congress. Reformist movements need to show that policies can work at the local level, need to create momentum and interest there, and need a core of supporters and advocates who want to protect what they have created in their communities. This goes beyond cities. Rural outreach requires showing how policies at the local level can be effective. Defending local prerogatives is also a potent political issue.

Living wage movements that eventually resulted in higher state minimums started in the cities. But we should also observe that the living wage movement has gotten derailed by state preemptive laws in many places. This leads to the realization, “Uh oh, I guess the structure of government matters a lot!”

I think it’s a mistake for progressives to think that decentralized local government is an enemy. There are certainly forms of decentralized local government that are oppressive and exclusionary. But I think on balance, progressives should rethink their allergy to localism. We’ve seen how destructive that can be, just in the last few years.

Chris Maisano

One place where progressives have put a lot of energy into building and exercising power is Chicago, which just elected Brandon Johnson to be the next mayor. Illinois’s home-rule provision in its state constitution seems to provide fairly substantial leeway to local governments, so there may be room there for a strongly progressive governing agenda. I know this is a hard question, but if Brandon Johnson and his transition team came knocking on your door for advice, what would you tell them?

Richard Schragger

That’s a difficult question — I’ll send them City Power!

There’s a political reality, there’s a fiscal reality, and then there are opportunities. The political reality is even if you have a significant amount of home rule, you’re always constrained by your state legislature. You have to figure out how to exercise influence in that realm in order to gain the authority you need to do the things you want. That can be tricky, obviously, so a partnership with state officials is always necessary. Make alliances with state officials — that’s just what you have to do as the mayor.

There are also some serious fiscal constraints. Illinois and Chicago both struggle with pension and other significant liabilities. One always worries about taxing capacity and ability. To be an equitable city requires balancing the need for revenue with the need to favor revenue sources that meet the general needs of everyone in the city. The goal is to rebuild an urban middle class, not exacerbate the wide disparity between the rich and poor that is characteristic of our current economy.

But I do think there are possibilities we often foreclose. In City Power, I argue that mayors are often preoccupied with economic development policy and “attracting jobs.” I argue that what they should focus on instead are basic municipal services. Focus on your schools, focus on healthcare, focus on transportation, and public safety. That’s not easy; it’s very hard. But those are the things that cities should be doing.

A lot of mayors focus on big redevelopment projects aimed at drawing folks into the city in various ways. This is what I call an “attract-and-retain” strategy, and it emphasizes providing amenities to wealthy or “desirable” incomers and tax breaks to businesses, instead of focusing on what current residents need. Attract and retain is not a viable strategy — it simply does not work. My argument in City Power is that a growth agenda is a mistake, in large part because we do not know what encourages or discourages growth.

Thus, the city should instead pursue justice to the best of its ability. Mayors should seek to build an urban-based politics that recognizes that what we think of as the city’s limited capacity is really a political claim, not an economic one. Once we do that, we can start reimagining what the city is truly capable of.