Former Texas Governor Rick Perry—unable to conceal his distaste for Austin—once described his state capital as “the blueberry in the tomato soup.” Austin is a staunchly Democratic city with a liberal mayor, in a county that gave Hillary Clinton 66 percent of the vote in the 2016 presidential election. The rest of the state went 53 percent for Trump.
Just to make sure Austin understood its place in the Texas political machine, Perry and his Republican cronies have sliced the “blueberry” into six tiny and inconsequential pieces. Austin has a population of about 900,000. The average Texas congressional district includes 700,000 people. In a rational world, Austin would have two congressmen. In irrational Texas, however, the state legislature has gerrymandered Austin into six districts and—spoiler alert—five of those seats are held by Republicans.
While Texas is not the only state to draw ridiculously indefensible district lines, Austin is truly the poster child for gerrymandering. Austin and its residents are not representatively represented in Congress. That is a travesty our Founding Fathers could never have envisioned.
Texas has long advocated for states’ rights (including repeated threats of secession). In January 2016, Texas Governor Greg Abbott called for a national Convention of States with the intent of amending the Constitution to limit federal powers and return more power to the individual states. The Convention would allow states to propose amendments to the Constitution.
In a speech announcing the initiative, Abbott said, “the threat to our Republic doesn’t come just from foreign enemies, it comes, in part, from our very own leaders.”
You might wonder how he’d react if an Austin resident made the same statement about threats from the Texas State House.
“The threat to our Republic doesn’t come just from foreign enemies, it comes, in part, from our very own leaders.”
It’s no secret that rightwing constitutionalists abhor federal government interference in the states and the lives of private citizens—except, of course, is when it comes to issues related to the bedroom and women’s reproductive systems. With Republicans controlling the executive and congressional branches, plus a large majority of governorships and state houses, the my-way-or-the-highway culture wars will only intensify. Progressive cities will have no choice but to fight back against xenophobic, anti-LGBTQ, anti-environment, and racially motivated, vote-suppressing rules and regulations.
The good news is that this fight is already happening. The bad news is that it will be a long, slow slog.
Gerrymandering is not the only way that states subvert the will of communities. Another favorite tool is “Preemption”—the concept that federal law over-rules state statutes. The most well-known example of state preemption of city rights is North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” a.k.a. HB2, passed in March 2016.This was a measure passed largely to block Charlotte, the state’s largest city, from providing protection to the LGBTQ community. But the North Carolina legislature, perhaps recognizing that the transgender aspects of the bill would garner the most attention, saw no reason to stop with just one atrocity. The bill also removes long-standing protections for workplace discrimination and bars cities from increasing the minimum wage.
Under Governor Rick Snyder, Michigan recently enacted a ban on the banning of plastic-bag bans. You read it correctly. The legislation expressly prohibits cities and towns from “regulating the use, disposition, or sale of, prohibiting or restricting, or imposing any fee, charge, or tax on certain containers,” including bags, cups, bottles, and other packaging.
Arizona has also jumped on this bandwagon, taking action as soon at the cities of Tempe and Tucson began contemplating a paid sick-leave benefit. Governor Doug Ducey signed a law to block cities from passing such measures.
In February 2016, Alabama, with a white governor and mostly white legislature, worked quickly to overturn Birmingham’s increase of the minimum wage to a modest $10.10 an hour. Birmingham’s population is 73 percent black and includes many people working low-wage service jobs. The 38 percent salary increase would have significantly improved the quality of life of Birmingham’s residents.
State Senator Linda Coleman-Madison, a Democrat, crystallized the issue in simple language: “Alabama is a poor state. But I say we are poor by choice because of bills like this that keep people poor.”
The most profound state vs. city issue centers on the voting booth.
The disenfranchisement of minority voters, a hot-button topic through much of U.S. history, again reared its ugly head following the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that neutered the Voting Rights Act.
Once you get past the relatively few federal and constitutional provisions regarding suffrage, most of the power to regulate voting resides with the states. This power has often been used to restrict voting in urban centers where racial minorities, the elderly, and the poor—traditional Democratic voters—reside. The tactics used include mandating voter IDs, limiting early voting days, and reducing the number of polling places. Regardless of the tactic, the result is the same: diminishing the voting power of city dwellers.
This was not the intent of the Framers when they introduced the concept of states’ rights. They couldn’t have imagined a situation like today’s Pennsylvania, which James Carville famously described as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” That is precisely why Thomas Jefferson recommended rewriting the Constitution every twenty years to protect the rights of the living from the ideas of the dead. It’s also why the states’ lordship over cities should be reevaluated and confronted.
Thomas Jefferson recommended rewriting the Constitution every twenty years to protect the rights of the living from the ideas of the dead. It’s also why the states’ lordship over cities should be reevaluated and confronted.
In the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote: “The powers . . . which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite.” Madison’s words have long been the rallying cry of the far right’s quest to undermine Roe v. Wade, suck every ounce of fossil fuel from our planet, and embrace discrimination in the guise of “religious freedom.”
But lost in this fervent avowal of states’ rights is the equally important right of municipalities to protect their residents from abuses at the state level. If you truly believe that states need protection from federal overstepping, you would logically argue that cities need similar defenses against their state. To strident constitutionalists, however, the concepts of states’ rights and cities’ rights are mutually exclusive.
That comes as no surprise to anyone who recognizes that today’s Republicans possess no inviolable principles. They cherry-pick the Constitution to support their foregone conclusions. They cling to Madison’s words about states’ rights solely to promulgate their own ideology, rather than protect citizens from federal intrusion.The rights of Austin, Charlotte, Birmingham, and other cities across the country have been summarily dismissed by governors and state legislators who have sworn to represent the people—all the people—but are focused on advancing a rightwing agenda.
It’s time for progressive mayors, city councils, and their citizenry to bring this issue of states’ abrogation of city rights to national prominence. Without meaningful change, urbanites will feel like strangers and outcasts in an increasingly divisive and mean-spirited world. A world that even Madison, the patron saint of states’ rights, would adamantly decry.
Phil Fragasso is an author and adjunct professor at Boston College. His most recent book, 20/20 Mind Sight, was co-authored with Jillian Vorce.