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John Petro

After National Losses, Progressives Should Focus on the City

I wasn't surprised by the Republican takeover of the House. Unemployment, foreclosure, and economic stagnation--it was written on the wall. I was surprised, however, by how willingly Democrats allowed the GOP to shape media coverage of the victory as an American repudiation of the progressive agenda.

Republicans used their mid-term victories to claim that Americans had rejected Obama's policy agenda--though exit polling clearly suggests otherwise. Republicans came out swinging, gleefully proclaiming that their priority would be to undo the policy gains made by Obama and the Democrats in the past two years. Representative John Boehner said of Obama's agenda, "We're going to do everything -- and I mean everything we can do -- to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can."

Democrats, for their part, did everything they could to run from their achievements and their principles. Obama nearly apologized to big businesses yesterday, ceding the Republican narrative that his administration was anti-business. But after an infusion of cash from the federal government, corporate profits are healthy. It's every day Americans that are still suffering the effects of recession.

Even though Washington is about to turn its back on progress, there is still hope for those that worry about rising inequality, social justice, and sustainability. By focusing on advancing a progressive agenda in cities, we can pave the road for future gains at the federal level. As my colleague Harry Moroz pointed out earlier this year, "Cities are laboratories of progressive change where government plays an outsized role in improving our daily lives." By proving that progressive policy works, gains made in cities can be leveraged at the state and federal level.

Cities are still at the forefront of progressive policy innovation. Look at San Francisco.: in the past four years, San Francisco raised the citywide minimum wage to nearly $10 an hour, guaranteed every worker in the city paid sick leave, and established a universal health care system for city residents paid for by businesses.

Mandates on business, new taxes, and new workplace standards: conservatives would tell you that this is a recipe for economic disaster. But in fact, San Francisco's economy has been downright resilient during the recession, with both job and business growth up over 2006 levels.

But just as in Washington, big business interests can mobilize to quash good progressive policy in cities. Take New York City's recent fight over paid sick leave. Big businesses groups, like the chambers of commerce and the Partnership for New York City, defeated the bill by arguing that it would be a "job killer" and would harm small businesses. Although these claims were boldly false, the political pressure was strong enough for the speaker of the city council to pull her support.

The ten largest US cities alone hold 25 million people. Their metropolitan regions hold 71 million people. Clearly, advancing a progressive agenda in cities would have an outsized impact. And city-dwellers tend to get it; they understand how local governments can improve our quality of life. From passing new sales taxes for transit to pressuring local governments to take up sustainability initiatives, Americans have much more tolerance for progressive reforms at the local level.

So, my advice to disheartened progressives is to turn inward to your communities, to your local governments. By focusing on passing progressive policy the local level, we can build momentum for national policy.

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Posted at 10:25 AM, Nov 05, 2010 in Urban Affairs
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