'Sanctuary Cities' Just the Start of Mayors' Opposition to Trump

The president's war on progressive policies presents a dilemma for almost every big-city mayor in America. But attacking urban areas also carries big risks for the president.
by | January 27, 2017
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Greg Fischer did a lot of business with the Obama administration. The Louisville mayor got White House help in modernizing the city’s police force, connecting residents to technology jobs and implementing programs aimed at helping minority youth, among other efforts. As late as December, Louisville received a $29.5 million federal Neighborhood Choice grant, which the mayor hopes to leverage into $200 million worth of redevelopment.

All this collaboration led Fischer to fly to Washington at least once every other month. And that wasn’t at all unusual for a big-city mayor over the last eight years.

“The Obama White House worked very closely with different mayors in a lot of different ways,” Fischer says.

Now with a new administration in power, Fischer, like a lot of his urban counterparts, is wondering if he should find some other way to spend his frequent flier miles. President Obama turned to cities as partners to a large extent because he found mayors far more receptive to progressive policies, such as raising the minimum wage or mandating paid sick leave benefits, than a Congress controlled by Republicans. The new president won’t be looking in that direction.

Even before he took office, President Trump and many of the nation’s big-city mayors found themselves at odds over issues such as climate change and immigrant rights. Baltimore, San Francisco and Seattle were among cities that approved resolutions either castigating Trump and his rhetoric or calling on him to condemn the instances of hate speech that followed his election.

The battle reached its boiling point on Jan. 25, when Trump signed an executive order to cut off federal funds to cities that refuse to detain undocumented immigrants. It could cost cities, collectively, billions of dollars. But numerous mayors swiftly pledged that their cities would remain sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants and minority groups, including Muslims who may be threatened by shifts in federal policy. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, for example, vowed to offer safe harbor to all residents, even if that means using "City Hall itself" as a sanctuary.

“It’s clear Trump cannot fulfill his desire to have mass deportation without using local police departments,” says Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. “I’m not going to do that.”

Politically, Trump and leaders in the nation’s major metropolitan areas inhabit separate worlds. That sets up a dynamic that’s likely to be more combative than collaborative. In contrast to their weakness at the state and federal levels, Democrats dominate cities, especially large ones. Democratic mayors -- most of them quite liberal -- control city halls in 22 of America’s 25 largest cities. As the only remaining stronghold of progressive political power in the country, they will be called upon by left-leaning interest groups to pursue policies that are now complete nonstarters in Washington and most state capitols.

All of this might jibe with their personal inclinations, but mayors know it puts them at risk of undermining their relations with Washington. Cities can’t constantly oppose an administration’s policies in the way an outside group such as the American Civil Liberties Union can. Cities depend on other levels of government for funding and to a large extent their authority is constrained by them. There aren’t as many federal dollars flowing directly to cities as there once were, but mayors don’t want to put the remaining millions at risk.  And there’s the additional fear that the federal government might emulate a game actively played by Republican states -- namely, passing laws that preempt liberal local policies.

But mayors are eternal optimists. They are hoping that Washington will not view them as an enemy. There’s a big difference, Stanton says, between campaign rhetoric and governing. Mayors may be at odds with Trump on certain issues, but they believe that Trump -- himself a creature of New York City, with significant real estate holdings in other large urban centers -- understands that cities are the economic engines of the country. Picking too many fights with cities will do nothing to further his agenda of creating highly paid jobs.

“It doesn’t make sense,” says Louisville’s Fischer, “to have super-negative consequences on areas that are driving the economy right now.”

Trump’s talk of a major infrastructure package -- with a price tag as high as a trillion dollars -- has mayors hopeful about at least one form of federal investment. They’ve been trying to make the case to administration officials that sending money directly to cities, rather than funneling everything through state transportation departments, would get shovels in the ground much faster.

“I do think cities are going to benefit from the administration’s work,” says Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City. “They’re intent on growing a strong economy, and that economy is going to be centered, of course, in cities around the country.”

Still, the fact remains that Trump was elected by a vote that seemed to pit major metropolitan areas against practically everyone else. In the presidential voting last fall, Hillary Clinton carried 88 of the nation’s 100 largest counties, but little else. Trump’s strongest regions of support were ones that have been left behind by a global economy tilted toward major cities. Republicans in Congress also mostly represent nonurban areas with different values from those of the major population centers.

The disconnect between cities and the new government in Washington has the potential to make life a lot harder for many mayors. And the domestic policies being discussed at the dawn of this administration, especially cuts to health-care programs, would have a big negative impact on urban areas.

“Most of the federal money flowing into cities flows to individuals in the cities, not to cities themselves,” says Erika Poethig, director of urban policy initiatives at the Urban Institute. “When we think about the policy changes under consideration -- the Affordable Care Act repeal, block granting Medicaid -- you don’t think of that as urban policy, but all of that will affect cities, with consequence for people who govern those cities.”

(Mark Newman/University of Michigan)

Although the Obama administration worked closely with urban governments, much of what it did was provide guidance, technical support and a relatively modest infusion of resources. The same Republican opposition in Congress that led Obama to turn to cities in the first place meant that there were no big-money urban initiatives coming out of Washington, along the lines of the HOPE VI housing program of the 1990s.

“Cities have enjoyed a close relationship with the Obama administration, but the administration was looking to cities as places that were producing results that could be replicated,” says Simone Brody, executive director of What Works Cities, which consults with mayors.

Yet while partisan gridlock prevented Washington from accomplishing very much over the past six years, the country, if not booming, certainly performed better economically than most other rich nations. A huge share of that was due to the increased dynamism of cities. They thrived under Obama, not because of federal assistance but because of a confluence of market forces. It wasn’t dollars from Washington but rather corporate and philanthropic investment and tens of millions of individual choices that brought jobs and new residents back into the centers of major cities.

The metropolitan economy is now not just dynamic, but wholly dominant. Metropolitan areas account for a majority of economic activity in nearly every state. Three-quarters of the nation’s gross domestic product is generated in the 100 largest metro areas alone. In Arizona, greater Phoenix makes up 70 percent of the economy. Tucson accounts for half of the rest. The pro-city combination of market forces and demographic change will continue, even if Washington becomes uninterested or even hostile.

“I don’t expect the trend of corporations and entrepreneurial startups moving toward urban centers and metro areas to stop,” says Stephen Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, S.C. “The decisions companies are making to come to cities are purely business decisions. They’re going where the talent is.”

Clinton carried fewer than 500 counties in November, but they accounted for 64 percent of the country’s economic activity in 2015, according to a Brookings Institution analysis. The 2,600-plus counties Trump carried split just over a third of the national economy between them. The same disconnect between blue cities and red states -- between Phoenix and Arizona, for example -- now applies to cities and the White House.

All of this leaves many mayors adopting a familiar posture when it comes to federalism. If you’re not going to help us, they’re saying to Washington, please just leave us alone. But that may be wishful thinking. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti notes that his city is a net donor when it comes to federal funds, getting back only 72 cents for every dollar sent out. It would be “unfair” if that distribution got any worse, he says. It could, though. Just before Christmas, the city and county of Los Angeles announced a multimillion-dollar legal defense fund for immigrants facing deportation. Other major cities are setting up or considering similar funds. Almost simultaneously, legislation has been introduced in Congress that would strip federal funding from states or localities that are not in compliance with federal immigration law.

That kind of bill should sound painfully familiar to leaders of major cities. Numerous states have stripped away the authority of local governments to set their own policies when it comes to transgender rights, minimum-wage levels, plastic bag bans and a host of other issues. Most federal preemption laws have been comparatively modest -- blocking local requirements for restaurant menu disclosures, for instance, or reserving regulation of certain chemicals at the federal level. But constitutional authority exists for a federal preemption wave that could equal or even exceed the one launched so far by Republican state governments.

Hence the dilemma for mayors. Their constituents and reliable political allies will be pushing them to oppose Trump, who elicits special levels of fear and loathing among millions of city dwellers.

“In this new world of Trump being president of the United States and Republicans having one-party control of Congress,” says Phoenix’s Stanton, “mayors are going to have to step up to the plate big time and be strong, not be afraid to adopt public policies that are often progressive public policies.” But, as the mayor of a city targeted for preemption by his own state, Stanton knows as well as anyone there are risks involved with such a strategy.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a multimillion-dollar legal defense fund for immigrants facing deportation. (David Kidd)

During the campaign, Trump said that “our inner cities are a disaster,” painting a dire picture through inaccurate statistics about poverty, crime and employment. Trump’s numbers may have been off, but they spoke to a grudge against cities that resonated with his voters. The more cities brag about being economic engines, the more they can fuel resentment among those who feel abandoned by the contemporary economy -- the people Trump spoke to directly with his pledges to bring back jobs in mining and manufacturing.

All of this leaves cities scrambling to find areas of common cause with the administration and its rural and small-town loyalists. Some mayors are already making the case that cuts to programs benefiting large cities will also hurt residents of smaller cities and rural areas. They hope that issues such as raising the national minimum wage will be seen less as liberal causes and more as a means of addressing the grievances of the struggling working class. They’ll seek to frame debates over education and housing in a similar light.

“The common ground will be the issues the stereotypical rural, white, blue-collar voters are concerned about,” says Louisville’s Fischer. “These are the same issues our urban Hillary voters have been complaining about for decades.”

In order to make their case, cities are hoping to find allies within the administration. They don’t know yet whom Trump will appoint to many of the agency and White House jobs that interact most closely with other levels of government. In contrast with the Obama administration, which had a former mayor as its last director of intergovernmental relations, it’s not clear who -- if anyone -- will speak from an urban perspective when decisions are being made.

“[We] have made a forceful case to the president to maintain a strong voice for local officials inside the White House,” says Michael Wallace, federal lobbyist for the National League of Cities. “At least have someone with the city’s point of view [help shape] policies before they’re really public.”

Mayors are convinced they’ll need to network more among themselves, figuring out how best to speak to Washington. Since the election, there have been coordinated efforts on immigration policy involving mayors from cities such as Atlanta, Chicago and New York. But going forward, working with Washington could require some self-effacement on the part of the highest-profile mayors. Even as big-city mayors keep the progressive flag flying on a variety of issues, they may turn to leaders of smaller communities to speak for them on some issues before Congress and at the White House. They don’t want the dynamic to be Manhattan and San Francisco versus farm country.

This sort of thing already happens in many states. The major city may not have great relations with the legislature, but its suburbs often do. The mayor of the second city may therefore speak for the metropolitan area as a whole, lending it a more favorable face.

“I get asked a lot of times to speak for the region,” says Jim Brainard, the longtime mayor of Carmel, Ind., an exurb of Indianapolis.

Such a strategy requires cooperation within metropolitan regions. All too often, cities within a metro area view each other suspiciously as competitors for jobs and residents. It will now be more in their interest than ever to see themselves as partners on a larger stage, one that includes their rural neighbors. It’s easy to forget that half the country’s rural population lives within metro areas.

Rather than simply deriding the main city as a place that’s perverse on cultural issues and sucks up all the jobs, rural residents and leaders have to be convinced that the city is the transportation hub and major market for agriculture and rural manufacturing products.

“Even though cities and suburbs and rural areas rise and fall together, that hasn’t resulted in true collaboration in most places,” says Bruce Katz, an urban scholar at Brookings. “There’s a real question from this election of whether cities and their surrounding counties and municipalities can focus on a shared and common vision. If they can’t, states and the federal government will continue to divide them. They’ll be hijacked by partisans at higher levels of government.”

Metropolitan cooperation may require a change in rhetorical approach. Politicians in major cities are fond of proclaiming their commitment to values such as tolerance and inclusion. They aren’t going to abandon those principles, but they will have to talk about them in a different way, suggests Nick Licata, a former member of the Seattle City Council. Progressives may want to borrow a page from the playbook of same-sex marriage proponents, who sought to cast their cause conservatively, not as an act of personal liberation, but as falling squarely within traditional family values, including the protection of children.

The need for sanctuary city policies, for instance, might be framed not as protection for vulnerable individuals, but rather as a way of maintaining public safety.

“The internal dynamics within the cities are not going to change,” Licata says. “If they want to get elected, they’re still going to be promoting progressive issues. But that’s not necessarily a winning strategy for turning the country around.”

Without an obvious friend in the White House, city leaders are going to have to improvise. Lacking much financial support from Washington, they’ll be more on their own than in the past when it comes to innovation and service delivery. But most seem determined to continue the policies that they believe have contributed not only to their citizens’ well-being, but their economic success.

“The partnerships we’ve relied on out of Washington for 70 years may go, but the resolve of cities will remain,” says Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto. “If it makes us adapt as cities, there will be opportunities when the pendulum swings in the other direction. This century is the century of cities, not just in this country, but globally.”

*This appears in the February print issue of Governing, which will be available online Feb. 1. It has been updated to reflect events that happened since the magazine went to press.