Originally published in The American Prospect on January 13, 2019.
In the fall of 2017, a group of progressive city councilmembers across Texas decided to try a new strategy. Their Republican-controlled state legislature was a nightmare, preempting (and thereby repealing) every progressive ordinance that the cities enacted—but the legislature met only once every two years. What would happen if they worked together and collectively passed paid sick days while state politicians were out of session? “We knew if we passed a paid sick days law in any one Texas city we’d have very little chance of it surviving the legislative session and the courts,” explains Greg Casar, an Austin councilmember.
Austin went first, launching a paid sick leave campaign that Labor Day, and a few months later the Austin City Council voted for it 9-2, becoming the first city in the American South to require all businesses provide paid sick leave. State lawmakers were livid—but being out of session, there was little they could do.
Six months later, San Antonio local elected officials passed their own paid sick leave ordinance. The Dallas City Council followed suit in April 2019.
“At that point you had millions of Texans across three major cities with this baseline right and it made it much harder to just pick on one city’s law,” says Casar. Advocates managed to beat back opposition when the new legislature convened last spring, and while there are multiple ongoing lawsuits challenging the ordinances, the councilmembers feel good about their strategy.
More recently, nearly 200 local elected officials from across the country signed a letter calling for the abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and applauded Representative Mark Pocan’s federal legislation to transfer ICE’s legitimate functions to other agencies. “Above all else, we are responsible for the safety of people in our communities,” the local officials wrote. “The presence of ICE in our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, places of worship, and homes, makes this impossible.”
Such collective actions from municipal officials across the United States have been spurred by a growing national network known as Local Progress, which claims more than 1,050 progressive local electeds across 46 states and Washington, D.C. The network’s goal is to help these officials be more informed, more effective, and just maybe more courageous than they otherwise would be by themselves. Most local electeds, especially outside the Northeast and West Coast, have no staff or technical support; many work unpaid, and take on full-time second jobs. Getting into office can be a challenging task, but far more difficult, many say, is knowing what the heck to do once you’re there.
“When you run for office there are a million and one programs and networks to help you, and they often talk all about the obstacles you’ll face in a campaign, like barriers for money, patriarchy, and racism,” says Helen Gym, a Philadelphia city councilmember and the vice chair of Local Progress. “But once you get elected there’s almost nothing in place to support you, and you enter into a very dysfunctional environment that you are supposed to overcome.”
Gym was a longtime community organizer in Philly before she was elected in 2015; she decided to enter politics because of what she’d seen happening to public education. “I very much apply the practice of organizing to my own governing strategy, but when you get elected, politics is a set of things you have to learn,” she says. “The actual work of getting something over the finish line, it’s a balance of bills, strategy, and communications that take you far beyond what you would have ever been prepared for with just learning how to run.”
Brad Lander, a New York City councilmember and the chair of Local Progress, was even more blunt. “We probably spend at least $100 on getting people elected for every dollar we spend on trying to help them succeed once they have,” he says. “And that’s being really generous. It might be $1,000 to $1.”
LOCAL PROGRESS came out of a phone call between Lander and Nick Licata, who was then serving on the Seattle City Council. Lander had taken office in 2010, and in the wake of the financial crisis was exploring what kinds of legislation might help fix up or at least limit the blighted properties that were plaguing New York City neighborhoods. An organizer he knew recommended that Lander connect with Licata, as Licata was looking at this problem in his own city.
After speaking, they grew motivated to see if they could forge more such cross-city connections. They rallied some other progressive leaders behind the idea, and approached the Progressive States Network, a liberal counterpart to ALEC, to ask if they would be interested in adding progressive cities to their state organizing project. The group, now known as the State Innovation Exchange, said it preferred to keep its focus unchanged.
In 2012, the Center for Popular Democracy, a national organization that sponsors and supports local activist groups, was just getting off the ground. This was a time when driving progressive change from Congress looked increasingly unrealistic. As Republicans also dominated most state legislatures, activists turned their attention to cities—where diversity reigned, where minorities and millennials were often potent progressive blocs, and leaders saw their best hope for turning groundbreaking ideas into law.
The Center for Popular Democracy agreed to take on Local Progress as an affiliate, and Ady Barkan, now one of the nation’s leading advocates for Medicare for All, became its first director. It was a “precious opportunity for progressive elected officials, who are often surrounded by colleagues more interested in self-aggrandizement, machine politics, or neoliberal policy than in pursuing social justice,” Barkan writes in his memoir, Eyes to the Wind.
Today, Local Progress has a full-time staff of nine and is funded by local and national foundations, including the Ford and Open Society Foundations, and labor unions like SEIU, the AFL-CIO, and CWA (which also has representation on the group’s board). Members make voluntary contributions, which are augmented by support from more than 150 individual donors.
Members say one of the most tangibly useful benefits of a network like Local Progress is that leaders help each other pass progressive legislation, and then help each other strengthen those bills from one city to the next. They don’t circulate so-called model bills like ALEC does, but they do share best practices for shepherding bills through, amplify each other’s victories, and partner with policy organizations to help advise on crafting legislation.
In 2014, when Seattle was considering becoming the first major U.S. city to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour, Local Progress organized a convening there to unite electeds from other cities around the idea. “If they were going to go first, we wanted to show the public that other people outside Seattle agreed with them,” explains Lander. Many cities have since raised their minimum to $15.
Local Progress similarly built collective momentum in advancing “fair scheduling” bills, legislation which imposes rules on how employers can schedule and reschedule a worker’s time. San Francisco became the first city to pass such a bill in 2014, followed by Seattle, then New York City, then Philadelphia. Each bill was more progressive and far-reaching than the last. When Philadelphia took it up, Lander and Teresa Mosqueda, a Seattle councilmember, traveled to Philly to speak with the city council about their experiences drafting and passing their own versions of the law.
“That’s the kind of network you have access to and it’s really unbeatable,” says Gym.
“Overall policy support work was the bread and butter of Local Progress when I first started, and that’s an incredibly crucial and a huge component,” says Sarah Johnson, the director of the network. “That said, the biggest barriers elected officials face to turning their values into public policy is not always not knowing the policies, but needing the space to think through how to pass them, how to build the campaigns, how to cultivate allies outside of city council to create a shared strategy.”
Casar, the Austin councilmember, says when his city was thinking through reforms to its police department in 2018, he turned to his colleagues in Seattle who had overhauled their police accountability system one year earlier. In 2019, as he and his colleagues were dealing with a wave of anti-homeless violence, he turned to Robin Kniech on the Denver City Council, and Lander in New York, who had navigated similar situations. “The advice, and just feeling like you’re not alone is critical,” he says. “It’s being inspired by these people, and also being able to rely on them.”
ASIDE FROM building power locally and nationally, Local Progress has been moving to mobilize local electeds on a statewide level.
The paid sick leave campaign in Texas wasn’t the only time Local Progress Texas leaders tried to think through how to work together against their state legislature. In May 2017, Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 4, a polarizing piece of legislation that effectively banned sanctuary cities statewide, and gave local police and sheriffs the authority to ask individuals about their immigration status if they are arrested or lawfully stopped in their car.
Following its passage, a network of unions and grassroots organizations across the state, including the Texas Organizing Project, United We Dream, the Workers Defense Project, and others, partnered with Local Progress officials to launch a campaign called the Summer of Resistance, to demonstrate opposition to the anti-immigrant law.
The campaign began by “organizing and bringing pressure to bear on local governments to sue the state of Texas to stop the unlawful implementation of SB 4,” says José Garza, the executive director of the Workers Defense Project, an advocacy organization for low-wage Texans. As a result of those efforts, almost every major city in Texas, including Dallas, Houston, El Paso, and San Antonio, sued the state, arguing the law violated the Constitution on free-speech and equal-protection grounds. In addition to the lawsuit, that year Austin and San Antonio responded to the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment by passing new publicly funded deportation defense funds. Dallas followed suit with its own in 2019.
While the courts sided with the state legislature on SB 4’s constitutionality, in 2018, the Austin City Council passed a new law requiring that if Austin police officers ask individuals about their immigration status, they also need to tell those individuals that they do not need to answer the question, and there will be no consequences if they don’t. “While the legislature might try to force us to ask our police officers to ask about immigration status, we can and will continue to resist and come up with creative solutions,” says Casar.
Local Progress members across North Carolina have also been thinking about how a well-networked coalition of local progressive governments could provide a counterweight against a right-wing state legislature. “One of the things we hope to be able to do by working together is provide a stronger challenge to the state than we could necessarily do working alone,” says Jillian Johnson, a Local Progress member on the Durham City Council.
Back in 2016, when the North Carolina legislature passed HB 2, a sweeping bill that restricted legal protections for LGBT individuals and limited which bathrooms transgender individuals could use, the backlash was swift and intense. Corporations, sports leagues, musicians, and others immediately boycotted the state, leading the legislature to respond with a so-called compromise bill. The replacement bill effectively reset state bathroom access back to what it was before HB 2, but it also banned cities from passing local nondiscrimination ordinances until December 1, 2020.
“Something that about 50 Local Progress members across North Carolina have been thinking about is coming up with a plan for what to do when that legislation sunsets” in December 2020, says Johnson. “If the state doesn’t pass a replacement bill, then we can all pass comprehensive nondiscrimination bills at the same time.” As in Texas, that would mean the state would have to take action against multiple cities if it wanted to thwart the nondiscrimination ordinances. (HB 2 was originally a state response to a Charlotte ordinance.) And since Republicans no longer have a supermajority in the state legislature, even if lawmakers do take similar action, the state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, could veto it.
“Preemption is a huge challenge for us but I think we’ve also risen to that challenge,” says Sarah Johnson, Local Progress’s director.
LOCAL PROGRESS likes to emphasize its commitment to “collaborative governance”—or working in “deep partnership” with labor and grassroots organizations. However, this system of “mutual accountability” is often easier affirmed than actualized—or sustained.
“It can be a grind sometime; we’re not just one big happy family,” says Gym.
Lander says collaborative governance can mean coming up with ways to craft and implement progressive laws so that they actually strengthen grassroots organizations—for instance, by issuing government contracts to community-based groups to help enforce those laws.
Garza of the Workers Defense Project, which also works with elected officials who are not in Local Progress, says the difference he sees is that Local Progress members tend to bring a more serious commitment to institutionalizing their community partnerships.
“We don’t just meet with them on an issue-by-issue basis, or only when a campaign is getting off the ground,” he says. “We meet more consistently, and we do more long-term planning.”
Lander says mutual accountability is both about establishing a level of trust where political leaders can be honest with community groups about the challenges they face, and disagreements they may have, but also about creating the space for local groups to push electeds to take bigger risks.
He pointed to rent control, which New York lawmakers strengthened in 2019. “You can really get in the habit of thinking things aren’t passable because it’s hard to do politically, because economists say you can’t do it,” Lander says. “The movement for rent regulation, for stronger tenant protections, they really have pushed a set of people like me who have always cared about affordable housing to be much more aggressive than I think we would have collectively been otherwise.”
One concrete way Local Progress tries to help elected officials navigate these relationships and their jobs overall is by organizing educational trainings.
The idea first came out of Baltimore, at a time when there was significant turnover on the Baltimore City Council. Eight new members were elected in 2016 to its 14-person council, and the novice electeds were not only younger but also campaigned on being more progressive than their predecessors.
Local Progress partnered with Wellstone Action (now known as Re:Power) and the Maryland Working Families Party to lead an orientation program for these new members. “In most cities no one sits you down on your first day of elected office and walks you through the budget process, or gives you a concrete understanding of how legislation is drafted,” says Johnson. “We wanted to teach the technical aspects of governing, but also talk about how you build power with your colleagues in a system that can be insanely individualized, where districts are so often pitted against each other.”
Out of that pilot program came the Progressive Governance Academy, which officially launched in November 2018 and now offers trainings for newly elected local and state officials on a regional basis. It’s a partnership between Local Progress, Re:Power, and the State Innovation Exchange, which has 3,000 members across 50 states. Trainings have been held all over, from Pennsylvania and Florida to Michigan, Texas, Colorado, California, D.C., and New York.
“One thing I love about it is that it’s really catered specifically to elected officials who are progressive,” says Yterenickia Bell, a city councilmember from Clarkston, Georgia, and the project director for the trainings. The program has 19 trainers, Bell added, all of whom are elected officials themselves.
SO WHERE might Local Progress be headed in the coming years?
Leaders say they know they’re just scratching the surface in terms of organizing and leveraging the network’s potential. “We are always getting new requests and interesting ideas that we don’t yet have the capacity to act on, but one thing we hope to do is build more state power,” says Johnson. Already Local Progress has three full-time state coordinators, based in Texas, New York, and Florida.
The network has both a 501(c)(3) organization and a (c)(4), but it hasn’t done much to date with its more electorally oriented (c)(4) arm. While Local Progress doesn’t make formal political endorsements, doesn’t fundraise for members’ re-election campaigns, and doesn’t really do any direct electoral engagement, Johnson acknowledges that its members are “inherently political people” who would generally like to see more individuals with kindred politics run for office.
But the fact that most local elected jobs are low-paying and time-consuming stands as a real barrier to achieving that goal—and could be one area in which a network like Local Progress might be well positioned to take on the undoubtedly tricky issue of raising local electeds’ pay. Prioritizing the salaries of people in power when there’s a laundry list of other municipal needs can be an extremely difficult thing to do. As a result, elected officials have long disproportionately been lawyers or independently wealthy.
“There’s nothing harder than having to ask for a pay raise in public, but we’re in an interesting moment because we’re seeing people running for jobs that just frankly weren’t made for regular people,” says Johnson. “We want to see governments that deeply reflect the communities, that have lived experience that will drive better democratic outcomes.” In many ways, local government is not yet structured to support that, she says.
One key lesson Local Progress emphasizes is that to be effective in office, local electeds need to embrace playing different roles. There’s the “public representative” who is always being quoted in the news, the “bridge-builder,” who is trying to build consensus behind the scenes, the “fighter” or “truth-teller,” who is always outside on the picket lines or marching in the community, and the “wonk,” who is really gung ho on all things policy details.
“What we teach folks is that you don’t have to be all of these, and you don’t have to be one all the time,” Bell says. “We try to help people understand that even if they all came into office running as the truth-teller, you can’t all be the truth-teller once elected or else you’ll never come to a consensus and get anything done. And that can be hard for people who ran on certain issues and in a certain way, but it can also be really inspiring to see that ‘aha’ moment for them when they start to realize well, OK, this is bigger than just me.”