The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The two ways Republican politicians are undermining cities

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba stands in prayer near a poster outlined with plans for improving the primary water system plant in Jackson, Miss., on Sept. 13. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

The crisis over undrinkable water in Jackson, Miss., and the decision by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida to remove a twice-elected Tampa-area prosecutor may seem unrelated. They are not.

They are two examples of a decade-long Republican attack on Democratic-led cities and counties that has weakened and undercut them through two tactics in particular: power-stripping and neglect.

Two political trends that have accelerated over the past decade are driving Republicans in this direction. Increasingly, the mayor of any large city is a Democrat — even in red states. Of the United States’ 100 biggest cities, only 26 are run by Republicans. And those mayors are fairly left-wing on many issues, as the Democratic Party has become increasingly ideologically consistent across the country. At the same time, state governments have become more dominated by Republicans. In 23 states, Republicans control both the state legislature and the governor’s office, up from only nine in 2010.

In most states, the big metropolitan areas are where the action is — they are the centers of population, economic development and education policy. Republican governors and state legislators don’t want to be cut out of the most important decisions in their states, particularly since they aren’t likely to agree with the choices Democratic officials make.

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Enter power-stripping. Over the past decade, wherever Republicans have control of state government, they are consistently passing laws putting strings on cities and counties. For much of the 2010s, Republicans were stopping local governments from raising the minimum wage, creating universal paid leave, increasing taxes or regulating businesses. In 2020, they rolled back or suspended numerous municipal covid-19 restrictions.

Last year, Republican legislators and governors across the country banned provisions adopted in Democratic cities in 2020 that made it easier to vote, such as ballot drop boxes and longer hours and more locations for early voting. They also made it harder for cities to change their policing practices and restricted how schools could teach racism, both attempts to rein in the racial liberalism that emerged in urban areas after the killing of George Floyd and resulting protests.

Now, Republican officials have begun going a step further — literally removing left-leaning officials from key posts to prevent them from enacting Democratic policy goals.

Andrew Warren, who was first elected as Hillsborough County state attorney in 2016 and then reelected in 2020, had taken a series of liberal stances, most notably pledging not to prosecute women who get abortions or doctors who perform them. DeSantis argued this was an improper use of Warren’s prosecutorial discretion and last month suspended him and replaced Warren with a lawyer who is a member of the conservative Federalist Society.

Pennsylvania Republicans are trying to impeach Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, even though he was elected in 2017 and reelected in 2021. Like Warren, Krasner is part of the national cohort of more progressive prosecutors.

This power-stripping is a terrible trend. It prevents cities from adopting sound policies and seems aimed at punishing people who vote for Democratic politicians. Removing local officials, particularly those who were popularly elected, over policy differences is an erosion of democracy. Other Democratic officials in Florida are already watching their words for fear of the governor removing them, according to a report from Bolts, an online magazine that focuses on local and state politics. If local officials are making decisions to placate DeSantis instead of their constituents, it makes local government and elections a bit of a farce, with a man in Tallahassee really driving policy.

Power-stripping is the tactic Republicans usually use when they are fighting metro areas with a lot of population growth, economic development and well-off White Democrats. When it comes to areas that have large Black populations and are struggling economically, Republican state officials just neglect them. It’s less the passage of policies to rein in these cities than the absence of policies to help them.

State Republican officials in Mississippi long refused to provide Jackson, which is about 83 percent Black, with enough money to improve its infrastructure, despite previous water crises.

Milwaukee, which is 39 percent Black, is planning to reduce spending for its fire department and cutting library hours as Republican state legislators in Wisconsin refuse to provide enough funding to the city or allow Milwaukee to raise sales taxes.

The Republican governor of Tennessee has over the last two years shifted funds for low-income housing to rural towns and away from the Memphis area, which is 54 percent Black.

Twelve Republican-dominated states, mostly in the South and with large Black populations, have refused federal expansion of Medicaid funds, much of which would otherwise go to uninsured people and the hospitals that serve them.

The problems of disproportionately Black cities aren’t caused solely by the neglect of Republican officials. Blue states across the country aren’t doing enough to lift Black communities either. For example, the water was also not safe to drink in Baltimore for some time in early September, and Maryland’s state legislature is controlled by Democrats. And sometimes blue states strip power from cities, such as when California passed a law in 2018 that prevented cities from imposing taxes on sugary drinks.

But it’s mostly Republicans employing these tactics — and they are likely to accelerate their use. Republican officials win state-level elections with the support of White rural and suburban voters in part by casting themselves as defenders of the rest of the state from what they describe as failing, overly liberal cities. Once they are in office, either neglecting or stripping power from these cities is an almost inevitable next step. There will be more Jacksons and more Andrew Warrens unless Republicans decide to respect cities and the people who live in them.