Like many new organizations, Local Progress sprang from the ashes of a crisis.
In 2012, New York City Councilmember Brad Lander, who represents Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, and Nick Licata, then Seattle council chair, had a phone call about how to deal with the tidal wave of foreclosed homes that had swept the country. A few loosely organized collectives had emerged around the challenge of blight, with some cities trying innovative and legally risky strategies like using the power of eminent domain to seize the foreclosed mortgages. But there wasn’t a place to convene like-minded local officials around that issue — or any other. “It really grew into 'hey, there should be something like this,'” Lander says.
Rather than creating a new organization, Lander reached out to the Center for Popular Democracy, another young outfit that secured grants to support a few staff members for the project. They first gathered in 2012, at the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington. The group has grown — with annual convenings and ones that are more ad hoc, like a forum in support of Seattle’s first-in-the-nation vote to raise its minimum wage to $15 in 2014. The show of solidarity helped. “One thing they said was, 'make it look like we’re not crazy,’” Lander says, of Seattle’s council.
Many cities have a klatch of liberal legislators who push for higher minimum wages, paid leave mandates, taxes on plastic bags and the like. By putting them in contact with one another and other community groups, Local Progress has in recent years created a policy feedback loop that’s accelerated the spread of new laws in municipalities across the country. In the absence of federal action on many issues, it’s trying to make local government into something that doesn’t just pick up the trash — but solves some of society’s biggest problems as well.
City-level cooperation, of course, isn’t a new idea.
Its first iteration came about a century ago, during the Progressive era, when urban leaders fought for home rule for cities in order to establish construction codes, health and safety standards, and the architecture of good government through state-based alliances called Municipal Leagues. Later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal created programs that bypassed the more conservative governors and state legislatures, filtering aid for infrastructure projects through local Democratic machines.
That relationship started to weaken through the 1970s and ‘80s, when some Democrats migrated to the suburbs, urban politics became more racialized, and the flow of money slowed to a trickle.
“What’s new in the last 30 years is that federal role has been eroding, and by now it’s really difficult to get anything done,” says Margaret Weir, a professor at UC Berkeley who specializes in urban politics. "The Reagan administration signaled to cities that 'you’re pretty much on your own.’"
Meanwhile, the old Municipal Leagues had evolved into bodies like the National League of Cities and the National Council of State Legislators, which serve as convening entities — but don’t tend to push the policy envelope that much, so as to remain all-inclusive. Licata, in particular, was frustrated that there seemed to be more focus on issues of greater concern to small towns, rather than those of large cities; he also wanted to see more emphasis on issues of social justice and racial equity than the existing organizations were willing to take on.
"The old ones got defined in more nonpartisan terms,” says Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard. “Today’s progressives want a harder edge."
"There wasn’t a place where you could find progressive elected officials in the aggregate. You’d find one here and you’d find one there.”
— Angela Glover Blackwell, president of Policylink
Creating an organization of self-described progressive elected leaders serves another purpose: It creates an easy and fast way for liberal activists to access the people most likely to take action.
"There wasn’t a place where you could find progressive elected officials in the aggregate. You’d find one here and you’d find one there,” says Angela Glover Blackwell, president of Policylink, which focuses on equity for communities of color. Local Progress “was a gold mine.”
So far, Local Progress has appealed to reform-oriented elected officials like D.C. City Councilmember Elissa Silverman, whom the organization recruited last year. In October, she made a quick trip to Los Angeles for the group’s first large convening, where she found about 100 people like her trying to think creatively about what local officials can do within the law — like require predictable schedules for retail employees, for example, or crack down on non-payment of freelancers.
"I was not totally sold on the value of going out there, but I said ‘what the hell,’ and I’m really glad I did,” Silverman says. Now, when she wants to workshop a new policy idea or learn what others had experienced with proposals that crop up in D.C. — like funding a new arena that will be used by a professional sports team, which Silverman opposes — she can tap into the network with one email to a listserv, or look up a policy toolkit that Local Progress’ small staff has put together on the issue.
A few months later, while introducing a proposal for public financing of municipal elections, she mentioned the experiences of three young council members she met at the conference: Antonio Reynoso, Ritchie Torres, and Carlos Menchaca of New York, all of whom had triumphed in unlikely campaigns against powerful opponents.
"Antonio in particular said 'Hey Elissa, if it wasn’t for public financing, I wouldn’t have been able to win,’ and that was very important for me to hear,” Silverman recalls. ”I was already convinced, but to have all three of them say that made a big impact.”
In trying to push a progressive agenda in cities, Local Progress hasn’t escaped opposition.
Some of the most formidable comes from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative membership organization that helps Republican state senators and representatives pass laws confining the size of government, often to tremendous effect. In 2014, liberals formed the State Innovation Exchange to try to serve as a counterweight, but its influence is so far fairly limited.
ALEC doesn’t have to fight Local Progress’ members directly. Instead, the group has favored “pre-emption” laws that enforce uniform rules across a state -- preventing a city on its own from passing stricter gun laws, or higher minimum wages. Pittsburgh’s new paid sick days ordinance, for example, was just thrown out by a court on the grounds that the city didn’t have the authority under state law to enact it.
“As cities step out and move the ball forward, states have come in to take away their power to do just that,” says Andrew Friedman, co-director of the Center for Popular Democracy, where Local Progress is housed.
About a year after Local Progress had its first meeting, ALEC formed the American City and Council Exchange, also focused on local jurisdictions. The group’s director, Jon Russell, met with LocalProgress co-founder Nick Licata, who had joined as a member to learn more about the group. Russell thinks they could find common ground on some issues, like openness and transparency in local government. But that doesn’t usually include the question of what cities should control, and what should be left to the state.
“As cities step out and move the ball forward, states have come in to take away their power to do just that."
— Andrew Friedman, co-director of the Center for Popular Democracy
“There’s some situations where the state does a better job, and wants to have consistency,” Russell says. “What we tend to tell our members is to focus on what we do best — making sure our budgets are effective and efficient. Don’t get tied up in these political issues that more recently have crept into local government.” He thinks that local officials shouldn’t listen to environmental groups, for example, trying to ban fracking or keep coal trains from coming through town.
“If they want to work on state issues, they should run for state government,” Russell said, of the policy entrepreneurs. "People want their trash picked up. They want their police to respond to calls. They want their fires put out.”
The central idea of Local Progress, however, is that no issue is out of bounds for city government. Besides environmental groups, it has heavy involvement from the labor movement; an AFL-CIO vice president sits on the organization’s board, and the conference in October had a session on the Service Employees International Union’s Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign, along with numerous appearances by union officials. Those outside groups are essential to getting new policy ideas into practice.
In time, Lander sees the direction of policy innovation starting to flow in reverse: From pioneering cities up to state and federal lawmakers, who might take cues from what appears to be a groundswell of support. He recently won the passage of a bill banning credit checks for employment, for example.
“Eventually that should be a national law or a CFPB regulation. That’s not going to happen until a lot of cities and states do it,” Lander says. “And if there’s a competition for who can do the strongest law, eventually it’ll make sense for businesses to say 'we should have a national law.'"
But right now not all cities are able to adopt the kinds of path-breaking new laws that councils can pull off in liberal enclaves on either coast. Take something like allowing Uber drivers to unionize, which could entail years of litigation while courts decide whether it’s kosher — as the mayor of Seattle pointed out in a letter to council members after they voted unanimously in favor of it. Being the first takes both political will and financial resources to enforce new mandates and weather the inevitable legal hiccups or unforeseen consequences that might require adjustments down the road.
That’s also where the leaders of Local Progress think a central clearinghouse of information could come in handy: It might help a city councilperson in Terre Haute, Ind., or Tempe, Ariz., avoid having to design an inclusionary zoning ordinance from scratch. Moreover, it makes members feel connected to a larger movement, rather than just slogging away in the trenches.
“It’s a question of looking at a progressive issue, and understanding that progressive issues do reflect the interests of everyone,” Licata says. “As an additive to the gas, we’re able to get more mileage and oomph on this issues.”