Connecting state and local government leaders
In North Carolina, Mecklenburg County’s 1775 declaration may have been the first exertion by Americans to formalize the value of self-governance.
A fact well-known by residents of Charlotte, N.C., is that the first declaration of independence was not the famous document adopted on July 4, 1776, but the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence signed in that city in 1775. “Meck Dec,” as it’s called by the locals, was a resolution declaring Mecklenburg county’s (not country’s) separation from Great Britain. Although the details of the declaration are disputed, it signifies the first exertion by Americans to formalize the value of self-governance. This act was wholly local and indicative of deep community-based roots of our nation’s progressive leadership.
Even today, the pragmatic, responsive nature of those leading closest to the people is born out of a local view of how government affects the lives of people. For example, when immigration is perceived at the local scale, the debate becomes less about who has a visa and more about the ability of cities to prevent and solve crimes by building trust between police and immigrant communities.
With a local lens on climate change, the debate becomes less about the validity of science, and more about preventing pervasive water crises, saving neighborhoods, and protecting food supplies. This local perspective on a whole range of national issues mandates solutions that make people’s lives better.
For this reason, leadership in cities tends not to get bogged down in partisan politics. Mayors do not play games of political advantage, but instead focus on solving problems and responding to the unique needs of their communities.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg put it best when recently describing the role of city leaders saying: “A mayor worries less about credit and blame, more about results. A mayor picks up the trash, plows the snow, fills holes in the road…A mayor cannot dismiss or ignore the press, because the press is made of people who live in the same community.”
Simply put, a mayor’s actions are driven by problem solving, and their standard of accountability is direct and immediate.
Despite differences in perspective about how government can or should affect the lives of people, each level of government plays an important role in the everyday lives of Americans. After all, our society and nation depends not only on the economic prowess of our urban areas, but also the diversity of ideas and values found throughout our country.
However, strong political and policy divides between city governments and their state legislatures are emerging in new ways. The use of state law to negate local ordinances is known as preemption, and we’re seeing conflicts increasingly play out across the country. From the Missouri legislature working to overrule wage increases in St. Louis to statehouses in Florida, Pennsylvania and Tennessee attempting to blanketly preempt cities from regulating businesses, pragmatic local solutions are being challenged.
On the other hand, when cities are empowered to expand rights, build stronger economies and respond to the needs of their citizens, local policy innovations often percolate up to states. California and New York had cities that implemented minimum wage and paid leave policies locally before they were adopted statewide. On plastic bag bans, 150 California cities had passed ordinances before Prop 67 passed in November.
But even in the face of preemption challenges, mayors are not sitting idly by. For example, with dwindling funding and programming support from state and federal governments, cities are rethinking their role in the social safety net. Despite being preempted, cities like Madison and Charlotte are leveraging their status as an employer to set the bar and model best practice for private sector. From livable wages to banning the box, this is a powerful strategy given that local government employment is a large source of middle income work in cities across the country.
All in all, ensuring that policies are aligned with the core wants and needs of citizens is of utmost importance to ensure progress. When we fast forward 242 years from the signing of Meck Dec, we find Charlotte once again at the epicenter of the fight to defend local control. This time, fighting state preemptive measures on bathroom rights of transgender individuals and minimum wage.
Although much has changed since the founding of our nation, pursuing action that responds to community needs and values is—and has always been—at the heart of local leadership.
Christiana McFarland is Director of Research at the National League of Cities.
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