Republicans Surrendered Urban America
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Amid this year’s civil unrest, President Donald Trump has promoted the idea that disorder is a feature of “Democrat cities” — that in places such as Portland, Minneapolis and Chicago, decades of weak Democratic leaders have invited lawlessness by coddling protesters and rioters. Only Trump’s brand of “law and order,” the argument goes, can restore calm and safety.
Actually, America’s cities were the Republicans’ to lose, and they did so willingly. Since the 1990s, they have retreated to suburbs and rural areas, demonizing cities in the process.
Strange as it may seem, there was a time when Republicans ran more than a handful of prominent U.S. cities. From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, notable mayors included Richard Riordan in Los Angeles, Pete Wilson in San Diego, William Hudnut and later Steven Goldsmith in Indianapolis. And of course Rudy Giuliani in New York City. Although not a mayor himself, Jack Kemp, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President George H.W. Bush, did much to alter the perception that Republicans had little interest in governing big cities.
The mayors took a pragmatic approach, firmly grounded in conservative principles. Indianapolis’s Hudnut, for example, championed an aggressive economic development agenda that utilized amateur sports facilities as the catalyst. And despite his controversial tactics, New York’s Giuliani made crime reduction a central, and successful, issue. It seemed that Republicans might fully join in the work of creating better cities.
It didn’t last. Today, Republicans lead about 20% of cities with more than 500,000 residents, according to researchers Justin de Benedictis-Kessner and Christopher Warshaw (cited in The New York Times). That’s down from almost 40% in the late 1990s.
During the 1990s, Republicans went all in on the suburbs and the Sun Belt, perhaps because they saw growth opportunities compared to declining cities on the East Coast, West Coast and Rust Belt (what is the Sun Belt but the nation’s suburbs, writ large?). Aided by the rise of conservative talk radio, well-suited to rush-hour suburban commuters, they built a base that expanded outward to the exurban periphery and into rural areas. Over the ensuing decades, their efforts helped solidify the perception that suburban equals Republican and urban equals Democrat, creating a political divide that paralleled the social one, and leading to demonization on both sides.
More recently, however, demographic changes have undermined the Republican strategy. Suburbia became more economically and socially diverse, bringing broader political range to once homogenously conservative areas. Domestic migration fueled the rapid growth of Sun Belt cities, transforming the political calculus in much of the South and West. Immigration contributed to the shift as well, as did the back-to-the-city movement among younger and empty-nester suburbanites. The perception of both city and suburb evolved.
There’s a path forward for Republicans. It entails reviving their tradition of pragmatic local leadership — as Kevin Faulconer has done in San Diego, by eschewing ideology in favor of what will improve people’s lives. As the mayor of the largest Republican-led city, he has taken positions often seen among his Democratic counterparts. He’s in favor of increasing housing density to improve affordability, and he has advocated for more funding to address a profound homelessness problem. In 2014, he introduced San Diego’s first Climate Action Plan, which included a goal to purchase 100% of the city’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
Alternatively, Republicans can stick with Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric, which resonated for a while but has since faded. Millions of city and suburban residents around the nation grappled with the reckoning on race that was, and is, taking place. During the summer, there might have been a point where a majority of voters would have approved of a strong response to contain and eliminate protests. However, the administration’s overreach — the forceful clearing of peaceful protesters from Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square for Trump’s photo op, the disastrous escalation against protesters in Portland — diminished the power of the argument.
“Democrat cities” didn’t always become so willingly. Republicans can recognize the winds of change and adapt accordingly, or risk being pushed back and eroded by the breeze.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Pete Saunders is the community and economic development director for the village of Richton Park, Illinois, and an urban planning consultant. He is also the editor and publisher of the Corner Side Yard, a blog focused on public policy in America's Rust Belt cities.
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