Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Laboratories of Local Government

I’ve been seeing a lot of discussion lately among pundits, policymakers, and academics about how local governments may be the new frontier for progressive experimentation.

A recent Washington Post headline postulated that incoming NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio could usher in a “new era of liberal governance.”  The article synopsis on the Post’s homepage suggested that “his administration would become a laboratory for modern progressivism.”  I was particularly struck by the word “laboratory.”

The very same day, I received the latest issue of the Harvard Law & Policy Review in my mailbox.  No offense to this esteemed publication, but I am normally not taken aback by the article topics, which tend to address hyper-technical aspects of law and policy and be geared toward academic thought.  But Volume 7-2 was a symposium titled “Progressive Cities: Innovative Solutions to Urban Problems.”  It included, among others, an article by Michael Negron, the Chief of Policy to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (and, incidentally, the co-founder and first president of the Harvard Law & Policy Review), which opened with this paragraph:

Washington-bashing is a tried and true tonic for local elected officials looking to portray their work as prodigious when compared to federal sclerosis.  Amidst bona fide dysfunction and partisan gridlock in the nation’s capital, however, local governments have received more attention as laboratories of innovative policy making.  In recognition of the increasing national significance of urban policy making, President Barack Obama established a White House Office of Urban Affairs.  Following failures at the federal level to achieve progress on a host of issues, cities have launched vacant land-use initiatives, rigorous gun control regimes, and public-private infrastructure banks.  These successes should embolden local leaders to greet federal and state inaction on issues of local importance as opportunities to develop novel solutions that can serve as examples for other municipalities to follow.

Michael Negron, Limited Authority, Big Impact: Chicago’s Sustainability Policies and How Cities Can Push an Agenda Amidst Federal and State Inaction, Harvard Law & Policy Review 7-2 at 277 (2013) (footnotes omitted).

Then, during oral arguments for the public prayer case on November 6th, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan called local government “the most responsive institution of government that exists.”

Indeed, in the absence of federal and state leadership, local governments have recently taken it upon themselves to try to raise our region’s minimum wage.  Meanwhile, progressive educational and advocacy groups geared toward municipal leaders have been springing up lately.  For instance, Local Progress was founded a little less than a year ago as a network of progressive local elected officials around the country who share model legislation, best practices, and innovative policy ideas specifically for local governments.  As its website notes, “Many organizations focus on federal and state policy, but too few pay attention to our nation’s cities and counties.  Local Progress is filling that gap.”  The rise of such organizations is a warmly welcomed development, but it begs the question, “why now?”  Why not 10 or 20 or 50 years ago?

I’m not sure why this mantra is coalescing at this particular time.  Perhaps, as Negron argues, people are finally just fed up with holding out hope for federal and state government institutions to ever be nimble and forward-thinking enough to take a leadership role on certain issues.  Congress can’t even pass a budget, let alone ENDA or immigration reform or a new Voting Rights Act that will supplant the Supreme Court’s recent ruling invalidating the VRA.  Statehouses (though thankfully not Maryland’s) are riddled with legislators and governors who are refusing to implement the ACA, are peeling back environmental regulations, are gerrymandering tea-party Congressional districts, are placing restrictions on a woman’s right to choose (again), and are transparently trying to restrict the fundamental right to vote for minorities, women, and the elderly with onerous Voter ID laws.

So it’s no wonder we are pivoting toward the level of government that is closest, most accessible, and most receptive to voters to try to make some headway on the grand challenges of our time–the new front in the movement toward progress.  After all, it was then-mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom who challenged the discriminatory marriage laws of California by conducting gay weddings on the steps of City Hall back in February 2004, leading to the eventual implementation of marriage equality throughout the State.

Local governments are also usually comprised of a much smaller group of legislators, making it more feasible logistically for legislators to get together and talk things out.  Plus, local legislatures usually aren’t hampered by draconian procedural rules like filibusters and committee bureaucracies offering a thousand ways to “kill a bill.”  In Gaithersburg, for example, with our five-member Council, a majority requires only three “aye” votes.

But whatever the reason, I’m glad to see the drumbeat of this message of local government leadership getting louder, especially since I’ve been preaching this approach for years.

Back in February 2010, I wrote a guest blog for Maryland Politics Watch in which I recounted my proposal shortly after I was first elected to the Gaithersburg City Council to explore a voluntary public campaign financing system.  I argued that the municipal sphere offered one of the most promising avenues for actually passing campaign finance reform legislation in Maryland, and I wrote this: “We all learned in high school civics class that our dual sovereignty system of government encourages states to be laboratories of innovation, particularly when the federal government is reluctant to embrace change. By the same token, Maryland has more than 150 cities and towns that can serve as laboratories of innovation for the Counties and the State.”

As a local government official, I know how important it is to try to work together with our state and federal leaders to get big things done.  And I am grateful for the incredible support and cooperation that we receive in Gaithersburg.  But perhaps it is time to usher in a new era in which local government is recognized as the primary driver of progress in our society.  The scope of local government authority is obviously much more limited than that of the state and federal governments, but we are small and flexible enough to explore, experiment, and implement new ideas much faster.  With creativity and vision, bolstered by community support, local governments have been — and will continue to be — leading the way on a whole host of policy areas from climate change to civil rights, from job creation to healthcare, and beyond.  So let’s think globally and act locally.

Why You Should Vote — even in uncontested elections.

Tomorrow is Election Day in the City of Gaithersburg for the position of mayor and for two councilmember seats.  (I am not on the ballot myself as we have staggered terms.)

A few citizens have asked recently why they should bother to vote, or why the City is even holding an election, given that the incumbents are all running unopposed.  One person suggested that the entire exercise of holding an election under these circumstances smacks of the sort of illusory “elections” held in some autocratic, one-party nations.  (What happened recently in Azerbaijan would have been funny if it wasn’t so sad.)  Another citizen wondered if it was a responsible use of taxpayer dollars to fund an election when the outcome is already guaranteed.

As an initial matter, we are required by law to hold this election.  Section 31 of the City’s Charter mandates that an election shall be conducted at this time, regardless of how many candidates are running.  So we don’t really have a choice.

But beyond that, I feel strongly that no election should ever be cancelled simply because it is uncontested.  The franchise is the one fundamental right from which all other rights flow in a democratic society.  Daniel Webster said “that the exercise of the elective franchise is a social duty of as solemn a nature as man can be called to perform.”  It is precisely because of elections that we have the ability to hold our officials accountable, even if we don’t always use that ability. For that reason, the very exercise of the act of casting our ballots, of being counted, is important — apart from the outcome of the election.  I imagine that the many new citizens we swear in during our annual naturalization ceremony on the grounds of City Hall would tend to agree.  Indeed, George Washington ran essentially unopposed in our nation’s very first presidential election, but I doubt that many of the Founding Fathers or other voters of that era felt that it was not worth having an election.

Moreover, maintaining a regular, predictable schedule for elections is important for solidifying the trust and credibility of institutions of government.  If a voter arrives at his usual polling place on Election Day only to discover that the election has been cancelled, that might foment uncertainty and discourage him or her from showing up to vote in future elections.  For this reason, I believe it is imperative to keep all the polls open as usual on Election Day.

Even in an uncontested election, citizens may cast votes as a protest against, or an affirmation of, certain candidates or policies.  Rather than succumbing to cynicism, we should heed the idealistic advice of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Those who stay away from the election think that one vote will do no good: ‘Tis but one step more to think one vote will do no harm.”

As for the costs associated with conducting an election, I agree that reasonable steps can be taken in circumstances where the candidates are unopposed to reduce the expenses for advertising.  For example, where possible the City could order fewer banners or newspaper ads announcing the election.  Similarly, where a full-color publication educating the public about each of the candidates and their views would certainly be justified during a contested election, the City might scale back to a smaller, black-and-white version for uncontested races.  However, there are practical problems with implementing these types of changes.  For one thing, we don’t really know whether a race will be uncontested until the deadline for candidates to file has passed and the Board of Supervisors of Elections has certified the candidates.  This usually doesn’t happen until about just 5 or 6 weeks before Election Day, in order to provide enough time to let potential candidates decide whether they want to run, collect signatures, and file their paperwork.  In fact, our later filing deadline is consistent with a desire to make it easier, not harder, for challengers to enter the race.  But the downside is that funds are already dedicated and orders are usually already placed for ads and marketing materials touting the election by the time the candidate list is finalized.

We are not Azerbaijan.  In our society, other potential candidates for office are just as free to decide that they do not want to run as they are to decide that they do.  In that sense, an uncontested election is just as much an exercise of freedom and democracy as a contested one.  While we cannot say for sure, it is possible that the fact that the incumbents were not challenged reflects a general feeling among the voting population that the incumbents are doing a good job and deserve reelection.  It is also possible that the lack of challengers reflects a pervasive sense of apathy among the citizenry, in which case it is only the voters, as a whole, who are to blame for the absence of a contest.  Or perhaps in today’s digital age of social media, more people feel that they have sufficient alternative avenues to express their views, spread their messages, and spur social change without necessarily having to run for public office.

Regardless, as Jim Hightower said, “Democracy is not something that happens just at election time, and it’s not something that happens just with one event. It’s an ongoing building process. But it also ought to be a part of our culture, a part of our lives.”  Echoing this sentiment, the simultaneously communal and highly personal act of standing up and being counted every two years is an essential part of the organic and evolving spirit of Democracy.  With every passing election, contested or not, we build upon that foundation and, in so doing, improve the chances that Democracy will survive and flourish in the generations to come.  And that’s why I’ll be voting tomorrow.  I hope you will join me.