Time to Get Serious About Urban Governance
Blue dominance of urban government has been a practical phenomenon — and the practical realities have just changed
Most right-leaning commentary on urban government is insipid. Conservatives largely ignore urban, local issues and focus on DC — well most Americans do that, but it is particularly odd that conservatives do it. Even benign neglect of local issues is inconsistent with classic liberal ideals that are usually part of conservative thought. To completely ignore city governance is at least hypocritical.
On the odd occasions when conservative thinkers do offer policy solutions, they opt for grand urban planning ideas that will either get co-opted by local government cronyism or never pass until we win some urban elections. Nary a thought is given to how the right might win those local urban elections. Compounding the problem, if we won a local election, conservative thought leaders offer little to nothing on how to proceed after decades of urban fiscal mismanagement have left cities with few funds to act on the grand urban planning. Finally, aligning the base’s focus with action — hypocrisy here would actually be welcome — the Republican party powers-that-be provide little to no effective local campaign support.
I’ve seen all of this play out for decades in Houston, but the problem is nationwide. Conservatives are left with a chicken and egg question: Do we lose urban areas because we lack good and workable ideas or do we lack ideas because we’ve written off urban areas since we rarely win them?
At Arc Digital, Avi Woolf has started a series of articles arguing the latter. The right basically concedes blue government for the major US cities, even advocating for admitting defeat and retreating. (Not an exaggeration. Rod Dreher wrote the book sounding a retreat last summer. I don’t recommend it. It is written from a Christian perspective because he is primarily a social conservative (…), but I missed the part in the Sermon on the Mount about conceding defeat in the name of the Lord.) But I digress.
I will eagerly read Avi’s articles, and my hunch says I will agree with much of what he will say. But, as a local campaign veteran involved in two Houston mayoral elections when the city almost went red (Orlando Sanchez’s runoff with Mayor Lee P. Brown in 2001 and Bill King’s runoff with Sylvester Turner in 2015), I have observed a problem of under-appreciated consequence that is not part of the chicken and egg discussion — and one that might have gone away last month.
Cities are more conservative than they appear.
The right, especially the libertarian leaning right, can get ideas to resonate at the local level. We have to make workarounds for lack of favorable, or sometimes any, media coverage. Our candidates have to do more face to face events. We need better social media and web efforts. But we can manage all of this. I’ve seen it happen many times in Texas politics, notably Ted Cruz, who was almost unknown 18 months before his win, and the two mentioned Houston mayoral races, Sanchez and King. Twelve, nine, even six months before their election days, these guys were written off as future also-rans. Each of them campaigned on ideas and either won or came razor close. Ballotpedia has King losing the 2015 runoff by less than 700 votes. (Hence, my general agreement with this voting take but only for national elections. At the local level, votes matter more.)
Effective GOTV could make the difference. For that, however, the right needs better voter data. The GOP really, really stinks at this even at the national level. Remember the Romney voting day collapse compared to team Obama’s innovations using social media data mining? It was a new and promising thing, as Patrick Ruffini explains. This is why Ted Cruz was seeking Cambridge Analytica data, and it is how the outfit ended up with the Trump campaign. The Mercers (the money for the project) switched to Trump.
The scandal aside, national campaigns with the money find it difficult to get good data, which makes sharing it with the local campaigns problematic. This is not such a problem in small towns or in rural areas where the candidates know the voters. It is a problem in the cities.
But the main impediment to the right’s local campaign success is not within our control. It is a systemic advantage the Democrats have had for decades. And it is the practical fact that might have just changed.
Follow the money
In my Houston primer, I discussed public pensions. When private companies moved to 401k’s, that is, defined contribution pensions, urban (and state) governments stayed with defined benefit plans. Why? Because defined benefit plans allowed the hopeful politicians to offer hefty benefit packages to public employees in the here and now. The bills for those benefit packages would not come due until later, likely when someone else was in office. Besides, it was the 90’s, that holiday from history underwritten by a soaring stock market. The public pension funds would be fine because they would always and forever have double digit rates of return. Alas, pride does cometh before a fall.
The fall was the dot-com bust of the turn of the millennium and later the financial crisis. These days realistic, responsible municipal governments have reduced their pension funds’ rate of return assumptions to the more realistic 6–8% range. But more realistic doesn’t mean realistic. In real life, the public funds, the good ones at that, have been managing rates of return in the 3–4% range. It’s caused this whole crisis in public finance, “Where are the screaming actuaries yelling ‘fire’ in these burning theaters?” But again, I digress.
The public employees getting the big retirement plans were in public unions. Those unions brokered the retirement deals through collective bargining power — a simple thing when membership is mandatory. Those mandatory memberships came with mandatory dues or fees. That is, the unions had lots of money. The hopeful politician would promise the union members bountiful benefits, without actually paying those benefits, a neat accounting trick using those unrealistic rate of returns mentioned above.
Back in the ’90s, stock market gains helped fuel pension investment growth so much that by 2001, the average pension was fully funded. That meant the money it had in assets would grow through investment returns to eventually cover the pensions promised to current workers and retirees. That’s when many governments got too comfortable and made two fatal mistakes: They stopped regularly paying their annual pension bill, and they boosted retirement benefits for workers.
Find your local municipal debt graph to see it. Houston’s graph is in the Houston primer I linked to earlier. City debts rise sharply in the early aughts. Almost every urban government was doing it.
Here’s the important bit, though: not only would the unions make generous donations to the hopeful politician, but also they would rally their members to participate in the campaign. Members attended events, knocked on doors, put out yard signs, and worked GOTV when the voting started.
Thus, on election days, Team Red with a rag-tag band of volunteers hardly knows which houses to call or which doors to knock, and they likely spent the last of their funds on media buys. Team blue, on the other hand, is flush with money, organized volunteers, and data — the latter of which was bought with earlier money. Furthermore, demographically, Team Blue’s reliable voters are easier to gather. A blue volunteer can reach 25 doors at a single apartment complex in about the same time it takes a red volunteer to reach maybe 10 doors in a suburb.
At the local level, turnout matters.
I’ve seen two elections in Houston come down to small votes in the late hours. In the recent Bill King race, 10% more turnout in a couple of red precincts would have done it.
If the conventional wisdom about urban voters being lost to right ideas were true, then King — a rich, white-haired white guy up against a carasmatic black state representative in Houston, a city in which most of the concentrated red areas are incorporated into interior cities that cannot vote in City of Houston elections — could never have come close to winning. In fact, through most of the summer, the King campaign was pooh-poohed for that reason.
Fast forward to today. Voting day dynamics have changed in the past few weeks. The United States Supreme Court case handed down at the end of this past term, Janus, held that the mandatory union dues were infringement on free speech. Mandatory unions can no longer compel their members to pay dues, which means they aren’t going to have as much money to dole out to hopeful politicians. Politicians will then lose the moral hazard problem of promising big future benefits for big present donations — or lately, of refusing anything more than band-aid solutions for arterial budget bleeds. (They will find another moral hazard problem, I am confident.) Without the promise of big benefits, then public union workers may be less motivated to hit the pavement for a politician.
Or shorter, Democrats have been using union money to run vote and talent farms in city campaigns, and some of that money is now going away. No one knows how much the decision will affect dues collection for unions, so the overall effect is still spectualtion. But it will have effects — and by this November. Yes, unions have already collected dues for the year so they have more money than they will likely have in the future, but they can’t spend it on political speech. The rule changes start now.
Conservative write-off of urban governance has always been unwise and unjustified. Now, it would be ignorance and folly.