The Way Back for Urban Republicans

Democrats run almost all of the country’s big cities, in many cases virtually unopposed. Right now, they’re in the process of repeating almost all of the mistakes of the 1960s and ’70s, plus a few new ones. The resulting decay and discontent will be extremely unpleasant, but it may offer savvy Republicans an opening. Republicans should understand that no openings come without risks.

Urban Republicans are, if not extinct, then at least endangered. They are mayors of only 13 of the country’s largest 50 cities, and of those, seven are under 500,000 in population. Once you add in the dearth of city council seats, things look even more bleak.

In the 2018 midterms, Republicans lost their buffer: the suburbs. Ring counties across the country turned blue, or bluer. In Colorado, where I now live, Arapahoe, Adams, and Jefferson counties all went Democrat, sweeping away even longtime Republican office-holders. In the Virginia suburbs of D.C., where I grew up, once reliably Republican Fairfax County is now solidly blue, and Democrats made inroads into Prince William and Loudoun Counties.

Things might, or might not, get better in the 2020 presidential year, but the long-term trend is undeniable. We may blame ballot harvesting for the loss of all of Orange County, California’s congressional seats, but even supposing the worst to be true there, there can be no denying that as recently as 10 years ago, it would never have been close enough for Democrats to cheat.

For the Republican party and conservatives to survive, we have no choice but to stand and fight on this ground. We’re simply running out of real estate.

What to do?

The State of Our Cities
Part of the answer lies in the state of these cities. Urban progressive rule, far from being benign, is incredibly destructive. We all know the litany: Los Angeles and its typhoid-ridden homeless encampments, San Francisco and its “poop maps,” Portland’s city center routinely terrorized by Antifa. Seattle can mandate a minimum wage but can’t build a trolley or rebuild a highway; Chicago has third-world murder rates; New York’s transit system has given back two decades of improvement virtually overnight; in Washington, rain water cascades down the stalled, broken escalators to the Metro.

Increased density may not be a Democratic electoral strategy but it’s certainly one for central planners. Stanley Kurtz wrote extensively about the Obama Administration’s use of federal incentives and rules to tie the suburbs more closely to the urban core. And in cities all over the country, regional planners have obliged, compressing development into “transit corridors,” trying to recreate the 1950s’ commuting patterns, using light rail and bike lanes instead of the old commuter rail.

In my own city, Denver, the municipal government has responded to growth by spending its citizens’ money to make their lives worse. Already known as the heroin capital of the West, Denver has decided to protect illegal aliens who deal in the drug rather deport them, and open a “safe” injection site instead of cracking down on users.

The city, through its influence in the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) has deliberately increased density, worsening traffic, and its attendant aggravation and cost. By working assiduously to keep people from spreading out, these governments have only made housing more expensive than the substantial population growth would have done on its own.

Homeless encampments are popping up across the city, and the police response is to extend “outreach units.” The largest of these just north of downtown, is practically a law unto itself, protected by the efforts of City Councilman Albus Brooks. Since 2008, per capita property crime is up 8 percent. Violent crime per capita is up 41 percent since 2005.

It has declared a policy of not improving the city streets for cars. Actual car lanes on heavily-used downtown commuter surface streets have been removed to make way for bike lanes, even as bike ridership is down nationally. And now, major streets are about to lose more lanes to so-called bus rapid transit, all in the name of getting people out of their cars, against their will.

Denver’s Regional Transit District prefers to spend money on an overpriced, under-utilized light rail whose one useful line to the airport is at risk of being shut down because it can’t figure out how to get its at-grade crossings to work.

Bus service, which would actually improve the lives of citizens, is treated like the red-headed stepchild of transit. The city refuses to buy frontage for cut-outs, because that might improve the lives of drivers stuck behind the buses. Fares are the highest in the country, and service is continually being cut, punishing the lower-wage earners who have been forced out of the city by through housing unaffordability.

Astonishingly, few in city government see anything wrong with this. Their distaste for the aesthetics of sprawl outweighs their distaste for homelessness and the misery of commuters.

Denver isn’t alone in this, it isn’t even on the cutting edge. Unconscionably, our city council has taken as its governance model cities such as San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, which are already in worse shape because of making these same mistakes.

Do the Hard Work and Offer Real Solutions
Conservatives have the answers to these problems. Focus on what the city government should be doing—solving the basic problems of its citizens and providing a platform for them to make their lives better.

Police the streets. Get traffic moving. Stop inflicting an ongoing behavior modification program on the people. Stop taking so much of their money that they feel trapped and powerless.

Solve problems. In particular, solve the problems the Democrats and progressives have caused.

Be open to new technologies like ride-sharing apps, short-term rentals, and 5G cell towers, but recognize the obligations those impose on us to help the people who will have to adjust to such changes. Don’t be Luddites, don’t stand in the way of new technology, and at the same time, don’t pretend that scooters are the answer to our traffic problems.

But as conservatives, we also know that government can’t solve all our problems. The hopeless effort to do that has led to the mess we’re in. To that end, we must vigorously defend our nonprofits, our religious institutions, and civic organizations from government encroachment.

We will also likely have to de-emphasize social issues. As we do that, we must also aggressively defend the independence and liberty of non-governmental institutions which will have to pick up the slack. They must be around to shape society and conserve social capital. Otherwise, there won’t be much of a society to defend.

Indeed, we would do well to recognize that Americans at the lower end of the economic spectrum benefit the most from and contribute the most to charities, as a percentage of their income.

At a practical political level, Republicans need to go places we’re not used to going, places that will make us uncomfortable. NAACP meetings. Union meetings. PTA meetings. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce events. The goal is to listen first, not to persuade. Take an interest in people, treat them with respect, and they’ll respond in kind. If we’re looking for a world that has accepted conservative political principles, we need to be open 24/7/365, not just in October of even-numbered years.

In many cities, we no longer have the luxury of being taken seriously simply because we’re one of the two major parties. Instead, we have to earn that respect by being involved as citizens in our cities, getting appointed to local boards and commissions, spending time learning about issues, and recruiting candidates with deep ties to their communities.

Reliving the 1960s and ’70s?
The last time we did this to ourselves—liberalized our attitudes towards drugs, going soft on crime, and generally made our cities expensive, unlivable, cesspools—people fled to the suburbs. The poor decisions of the 1960s and ’70s led to the frustrations of the 1980s and ’90s, and cities found their way back to sanity. Losing population, commerce, tax base, and relevance, it was adapt-or-die time for the urban cores.

And the growing suburbs, which had generally been reliably Republican, helped boost Republican fortunes in Congress and eventually in state legislatures.

The flight to the suburbs may repeat itself, but may not bring those electoral benefits. Why not? The suburbs are becoming denser. Places with denser populations almost invariably vote for Democrats. Also, as younger people follow in the footsteps of previous generations, they’ll bring more liberal attitudes and voting patterns with them. Finally, given artificially inflated housing costs, moving to the suburbs may not be an option; already millennials and post-millennials find themselves with cash, but not enough cash to buy a home.

We won’t be able to use the strategy of running away to the suburbs or the exurbs, building something nice there, and waiting for the cities to figure it out, because increasingly, there’s nowhere to run.

Instead, we’ll have to meet people where they are, sympathize with their frustrations, regain their trust, and show them we can govern and solve the problems that government legitimately is there to solve.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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About Joshua Sharf

Joshua Sharf has headed the Independence Institute’s PERA Project for three years. In that time he has authored a number of Backgrounders and Issue papers on Colorado’s Public Pensions, contributed to the Institute’s weekly newspaper column, and spoken to political and civic groups across the state on the subject. He routinely testifies before the state legislature on proposed pension reform bills. He is Vice Chairman of the Denver Republican Party and has also done original reporting on PERA for Watchdog.org and I2I’s Complete Colorado news site and is a regular guest on local talk radio, discussing this and other state and national political issues. He has an MBA and an MS in Finance from the University of Denver’s Daniels School of Business, and has also worked as a sell-side equities research analyst.