The Republican war on America’s greatest cities is not new. If Republicans are to be believed, Chicago is a “crime-ridden, corrupt, dysfunctional hellhole,” New York City is a hellscape of unchecked violence and chaos, and Seattle is a smoking ruin under the control of antifa militants. That big cities are often far safer than small towns never seems to come up.
But Republicans do a lot more to damage American cities than just keeping up the perennial fiction that no one wants to go there because they are so hellhole-y and hellscape-y.
In states where Republicans dominate legislatures, rural Republicans are using their power to punish cities—even when those cities are both home to most of their state’s population and the overwhelming source of income for their state.
Republicans claim to love local power, whether that comes in the form of book-banning school boards or immigrant-hating sheriffs, but what Republicans really believe is that power belongs to Republicans. So when those as-close-as-possible-to-the-voters entities decide to do something like encourage students to wear masks in the middle of a pandemic or protect immigrants, Republicans don’t hesitate to smack them down.
A 2018 law review article showed that as Republicans gained more power in state legislatures following 2010 redistricting, they used that authority to bear down on cities. “The past decade has witnessed the emergence and rapid spread of a new and aggressive form of state preemption of local government action across a wide range of subjects, including among others firearms, workplace conditions, sanctuary cities, anti-discrimination laws, and environmental and public health regulation.”
There is only one Republican mayor among the nation’s 20 most populous cities. However, as Bloomberg reports, Republicans are finding ways to get around their inability to win elections in urban areas. They’re just blocking the functions of city governments and taking more and more power for state legislatures.
That includes in Nashville, Tennessee, where local officials set up a police oversight board after police officers shot two Black men to death. That board found “that 96% of youths against whom officers had used force in schools were Black.” More than half of them were Black girls. The board suggested reforms including de-escalation training.
Republican state legislatures had a different idea. Rather than reforming the police, they got rid of the board. In fact, they passed a bill dissolving all community oversight boards.
In Texas, the Republican-dominated state legislature passed a very special law that affects just one county: Harris County, which happens to contain Houston. That law eliminates the county’s chief elections official and allows state officials to take over county’s elections. It also grants the Republican Texas secretary of state the authority to investigate any election complaints. So now Loving County, Texas, which has a population of 64, has a chief elections official who can supervise elections and deal with issues. So does every other Texas county—except Harris County, which has a population of 4.7 million.
Texas Republicans have gone as far as to override measures passed in Austin and Dallas that guaranteed water breaks for construction workers, because what good is power if you can’t use it to make people suffer?
According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, that Texas bill isn’t as bad as what Republican legislators in Mississippi aimed at their own state capital. HB 1020, frequently called a “Jim Crow” law, was signed by the governor in April. It takes control of Jackson’s police force away from the mostly Black city, creates a new judicial district, and allows the mostly white legislature to fill that district with their own unelected choices.
The bill was sponsored by a white Republican legislator whose home district is roughly 150 miles from Jackson, but who declared that “Jackson is the capital city. It belongs to all Mississippi.” Or, as the Inquirer’s headline put it: “Republicans taking over stuff run by Black people because GOP hates democracy.”
That seems to be especially true of capital cities, which suffer from being visible to rural Republican legislators and state officials looking to gain some anti-urban cred. In Nashville that has meant a whole series of attacks, including expelling Democratic legislators from the state house, forcing Vanderbilt University to turn over transgender patients’ medical records, taking control of the Nashville Airport board, and even attempting to cut the city council size in half in retaliation for the perceived snub of the liberal-leaning Nashville Metro Council failing to bid for the 2024 Republican National Convention.
As Bloomberg notes, “At one point this year the encroachment even reached the level of street names, when two GOP lawmakers started an effort to rechristen a city street named for the late Democratic civil rights icon Representative John Lewis as ‘President Donald Trump Boulevard.’”
That, at least, did not pass.
The situation in Nashville, and in many other cities across the county, is best described by Democratic state Sen. Charlane Oliver: “What’s happening to Nashville now, and to many other cities across the country, is that we’re being colonized by the state legislature.”
Republicans might not be displeased by the term “colony”—but they’d probably prefer “plantation.”
Why does it seem like Republicans have such a hard time recruiting Senate candidates who actually live in the states they want to run in? We’re discussing this strange but persistent phenomenon on this week’s edition of “The Downballot.” The latest example is former Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, who’s been spending his time in Florida since leaving the House in 2015, but he’s not the only one. Republican Senate hopefuls in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Montana, and Wisconsin all have questionable ties to their home states—a problem that Democrats have gleefully exploited in recent years. (Remember Dr. Oz? Of course you do.)