Anthony Williams served as the mayor of Washington, D.C. from 1999 until 2007. He’s currently the Chief Executive Officer of the Federal City Council, a nonprofit that promotes D.C. advancement.
A former Democratic mayor argues that his party’s grip on urban politics needs to end.
One-party rule is hurting America’s big cities. But not everyone thinks it’s a problem. Bruce Katz of the Brookings Insititution, for example, has called for a national Metropolitan Party that advocates for urban interests. In truth, the country already has a Metropolitan Party, and it’s called the Democratic Party. Cities overwhelmingly went for Hillary in 2016. And since the election, national politics is moving even more toward a big-city alignment against the policies of President Donald Trump on such issues as climate change or sanctuary cities for immigrants.
One-party urban rule may have its benefits in the national context, giving Democrats a competitive showing in a near-parity Congress. But it’s not all that great for representing competing interests in city politics. What cities need is not one party, but many—offering more distinct, organized options for citizens at the local ballot box that reflect the diversity of city life.
Look at a map of congressional or presidential election results and you could be forgiven for thinking that cities were neatly homogenous. You’d see a sea of deep blue. Local elected representatives, even in nominally nonpartisan elections, are deep blue too, and have been for a long time. Indeed, most big cities have had Democratic mayors and councils for over 50 years. Routinely, local election results mirror national party loyalties. Where Republicans have won in city elections (like in New York City), it’s usually for mayor, where powerful personalities and media attention can bypass the party ID.
This is all part of a geographic sorting of Americans based on ideology. Liberals prefer walkable urban lifestyles and so choose to move to cities and like-minded communities. And their local elected officials are delivering on the menu of standard liberal policies. Cities do generally have more government spending, more public debt, and more redistributive policies.
Republicans have largely given up on cities, and that’s too bad, because a number of challenges cities face could use a dose of Republican-inspired solutions. Michael Bloomberg and Steve Goldsmith brought good business management to local government in New York City and Indianapolis. Working mothers may want more public school options for their children. Investors want to see progress on community investment projects in their lifetime. Taxpayers ask that their cities stop writing checks that can’t be cashed. Without any real competition at the ballot box, officials may not drive as hard to solve urban problems.
Meanwhile, another barometer of city democratic health is nose-diving—election participation. Turnout in city elections is abysmally low, at about 25 percent, and has been trending down for decades. In some cities like Dallas and Las Vegas, turnout is below 10 percent. We know that low turnout means incumbents keep winning. We also know it leads to lopsided representation. Turnout is even more skewed (and decisive) in cities than elsewhere because cities have sharper inequality and greater diversity.
Part of the problem is timing. When city elections are not timed with national elections, participation is half as high, and three-quarters of all cities hold their elections off-cycle.
But one-party rule surely contributes to the malaise. Municipal voting is worse in cities than in the more politically competitive suburbs. The city electorate—faced with what appear to be the same or unclear options at the ballot box—is simply checking out.
Without any real choices for voters, the lively jumble of diverse, competing interests that constitute a big city is embalmed in one-tone, one-party rule. Underneath that veneer of deep blue, cities should be roiling with political diversity: public unions, historic preservationists, pro-growth developers, new landed gentry, immigrant newcomers, and long-term residents. And this is on top of the different voices surrounding an income gap that is worse in our cities than in suburbs and rural areas. A healthy democracy would give form and clarity to these points of view—that’s what political parties are built to do.
When all the candidates are just different breeds of Democrats, what signals does the voter really receive about how these choices stand on a range of local policy questions? Many of the young urban Millennials gentrifying neighborhoods are part of the same national party as the working-class African-American or Latino voters they are displacing, even though at a local level their interests do not necessarily align. Yet they often vote the same way nationally and locally, if for no other reason than a lack of choice.
Nonpartisan elections, which are common in cities, make things worse because they provide even fewer cues to voters. Without a D or R by the candidate’s name, voters cast their ballot based on superficial cues like ethnic last names or gender stereotypes.
By the basic metrics of a healthy democracy—candidate competition, public participation, and locally relevant party platforms—big-city political systems are ailing. There is little party competition on local issues, and voters don’t know what local policies they are voting for or what is at stake, all the while struggling to hold anyone accountable. Pity that local government touches everyday lives far more than national government.
Local voters deserve better, and that means giving them real choices and making it easier to participate. In the short term, one easy fix is moving municipal elections to the same day as national elections. Instantly, twice as many people would vote, with young and low-income voters gaining the most. Another quick, easy fix involves giving more relevant information to voters: Get rid of nonpartisan elections, and put as much information on the ballot as possible, giving more information than a simple D after the candidate’s name.
Over the longer term, there should be more than just the Democratic Party, and those parties could operate separately from the national party system. In Canada, there are a handful of local parties that are distinct from national parties. Perhaps big-city Republicans could rebrand themselves as the Bloomberg Party, which has instant recognition and a relevant urban policy platform.
The election regimes of cities could be changed to open up space for multiple parties. States could change laws so that someone could be registered in a local party distinct from the national party. Where city-level third parties have emerged in American history, in locales like Cincinnati or New York City, there was proportional voting: 20 percent of the vote got you 20 percent of the representation.
Our current winner-take-all system doesn’t lend itself to third parties because people don’t want to waste their vote. Ranked-choice voting (RCV), where voters rank candidates, may be the most realistic option: Several cities have already adopted RCV since 2000, including Minneapolis and Portland, Maine. With RCV, candidates have to work harder to appeal to different coalitions of voters.
A healthy democracy in our federal system requires competing voices at the different levels of government. Real consequences at stake in every election demand robust elections with clear choices. At the national level a more forceful, organized metro voice may well be in order. At the local level, however, the solution is not one Metropolitan Party, but several parties competing for citizen support.