Faraway legislators, manipulated by shadowy special interests, are coming for your rights. “They’re threatened by the local control you earn with your tax dollars—your right to have local problems addressed with local solutions,” a new campaign warns. “And they’re threatening to take your local voice away with fines and other punishment.”
It sounds like a late-’70s tax revolt pamphlet, a Reagan-era protest against egghead planners and meddling bureaucrats—or even the Tea Party. But it’s actually a call to arms from a Democrat: Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, Florida, who is currently weathering a nutty standoff with the National Rifle Association.
Gillum, like officials in Birmingham, Alabama; Madison, Wisconsin; and other red-state cities, has been going to court over a “pre-emption” dispute between his city and the state of Florida. The issue is not whether a gun-owner can fire off a round in one of the city’s public parks—that, Gillum concedes, was settled by Florida’s 1987 law that vanquished hundreds of municipal gun control measures. The question is to what extent Gillum and his colleagues in city government can be held personally responsible for leaving the city’s obsolete, unenforced gun prohibition on the books—a symbolic gesture of resistance. A 2011 Florida law exposes local politicians to thousands in fines, legal expenses, and damages for the content of administrative codes in “knowing and willful” contravention of state law.
Which brings us to the Campaign to Defend Local Solutions, the initiative Gillum launched last week to build a coalition against heavy-handed state governments. As a rebellion against “pre-emption,” the statehouse method of stripping powers from cities and counties, his movement is nonpartisan. “There’s a will to expand the power of the state over local governments,” Gillum said in a phone call on Monday. “It’s a total trampling over local control.”
States have long used pre-emption bills to overrule local bans on smoking and firearms. In the past 10 years, with the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council, this has expanded to encompass sanctuary cities, puppies, paid sick leave, and more. Since Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011, Florida has passed dozens of laws restricting local lawmakers. State by state, these laws have helped build a nationwide wall against progressive policy both existing and imagined.
Defend Local, which has quickly garnered support in Florida and a signal boost from Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, offers a glimpse of a way forward for beleaguered progressives—a political framework to mobilize the American left around its heartening victories and infuriating defeats. With the GOP in control of Washington and most statehouses, the fight for local control has shifted from reactionary dogma to left-wing rallying point. Gillum has framed Defend Local as too “inside baseball” to form a platform for his suspected run for governor and, we may infer, for broader political action. But in that he may be selling the concept short. For progressives, the fight against pre-emption is not about legal minutiae or political scorekeeping. It’s the whole game.
Over the past decade, Democratic-run cities have delivered identification cards to unauthorized immigrants. They legalized gay marriage. They recognized climate change and required builders to adapt to it. They undertook ambitious new infrastructure projects. And they raised the minimum wage. Many of those victories have trickled upward into state and national policy and together form a pretty popular set of reforms. Big-city mayors such as New York’s Bill de Blasio have cast themselves as protagonists in the resistance to Donald Trump, especially on immigration. But in red states, those same initiatives have been thwarted by a GOP frenzy to institute small government by force.
Democrats are right to be wary of branding themselves as the party of cities. (Though that they are.) Skeptical Americans still view the city either as Trump’s racialized ghetto of crime and corruption—a crude stereotype built on outdated information—or as a fortress of out-of-touch elites. (This isn’t true either, of course: The “real America” looks more like New Haven, Connecticut, than lily-white Appalachia.) The first stereotype clung to Barack Obama, the second to Hillary Clinton. For both reasons, big-city mayors have floundered on the national stage. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel spent the 2016 campaign in “exile” as Trump invoked Chicago’s wave of gun violence. De Blasio belly-flopped into national politics and wound up a lowly door-knocker for Clinton in Iowa.
But Democrats would be wrong to distance themselves from the left-wing movements that local progressives have pushed forward. In retrospect, for example, it seems like a tactical error that Clinton did not endorse the Fight for Fifteen, a hugely popular local movement whose main opponents are Republican legislators and fast food CEOs and which may have drawn out reluctant Clinton voters in the Rust Belt cities where her campaign was lost.
Here’s where the Defend Local campaign tries something different. It doesn’t mention the word city. Instead, it invokes taxpayers, part-time politicians, and Little League coaches. It focuses not on the successes of the old Volvo-sushi-latte nexus, like Boston or Seattle, but on the injustice that has left citizens in Tallahassee and Chattanooga unable to make basic civic decisions.
There is real outrage here. Pre-emption may be legal, but it stinks of disenfranchisement. In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory used the statehouse to overrule Charlotte’s anti-discrimination statute, but he lost the governorship over the ensuing national controversy. After the Arizona legislature made it clear it would tolerate no local wage laws, voters in the state raised the state’s minimum wage and passed a paid sick leave law. (Both states voted for Trump.)
Gillum is in Florida’s First District Court of Appeal on Tuesday over a 2011 Florida law that legal theorists call “super-preemption”—it not only abolishes all local gun laws but imposes a range of punishments for noncompliance. Gillum and several other Tallahassee politicians are being personally fined for the unenforceable statute, a threat Gillum says is tantamount to a fine for voting. Additionally, the mayor would be liable for up to $100,000 in damages if he loses the case. He could also be removed from office by the governor. If it stands, he said, the law would have a chilling effect on local officials. (Only Arizona has a comparable law on the books; local officials there believe it too is unconstitutional.)
Superficially, his case is about a Florida gun law. But as Gillum wrote in a Medium op-ed last week, “How to Fight the NRA,” it’s not just about firing a gun in a public park or about guns at all. And it’s not really about Florida. The proliferation of boilerplate conservative legislation has produced identical political skirmishes over worker benefit laws, for example, in Milwaukee (2011), Birmingham (2016), and Cleveland (2016). Why shouldn’t those oppositions find common ground with movements in cities as diverse as Denton, Texas, whose fracking ban was overturned by the state, and Lawrence, Kansas, where an affordable housing program was banned by the state before it was officially formulated?
A progressive pushback utilizing the language of local control could have happened last year, too. But with the GOP in control of the White House, that rhetoric is now the Democrats’ to grab—not only at the municipal level but in the states, too. Already, Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina has promised he will propose a “concealed carry reciprocity” bill that would effectively abolish local and state laws against concealed weapons. Trump has promised to cut all funding from sanctuary cities. All of a sudden, the fight against big government belongs to progressive politicians in states and cities.
Democrats have spent the past six years trying to find their version of the Tea Party. Well, here’s a grassroots movement, based by definition in red states, that brings together politicians from small towns and big cities not around a particular contentious issue like guns, but around a political principle of devolution. (Liberal voters have been using the rhetoric against urban renewal and development since midcentury, so it should come naturally.) A spokesman for the group emphasized that outreach had just begun, but already the effort has support from a wide range of groups, including the Florida Immigrant Coalition, the Florida League of Cities, the Florida League of Women Voters, and the Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus, and officials in other cities and states.
With its focus on political principles rather than issues, Defend Local is a new kind of coalition, said Mark Pertschuk, the director of the Bay Area nonprofit Grassroots Change, which monitors pre-emption laws. “It’s unique and very important, because in the ecosystem of advocacy groups it’s much easier to raise money for single issues,” he said. The focus on guns or environmental protection or workers’ rights prevents local citizens from recognizing just how similar their predicaments are.
In an era when Washington could supervise voting rights and fight housing discrimination, a campaign for local control might have seemed like hypocrisy or a betrayal of Democrats’ ideals. But that’s not going to be the case during a Trump presidency: The local is all progressives have left. They had better fight for it.