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Unlikely Political Allies: Urban Democrats and GOP Governors

When it comes to certain issues, they put pragmatism before politics.

In Georgia, Gov. Deal, center, and Atlanta Mayor Reed, right, get along so well the media has dubbed them BFFs.
Most states now are run by Republicans. Virtually all big cities, by contrast, have Democratic mayors. That has led to a lot of conflict and a considerable number of state laws preempting local initiatives. But while many Democratic mayors are struggling to get a hearing from Republican legislators, a fair number have been able to forge working partnerships with GOP governors.

Maybe this isn’t so surprising. More often than legislators, mayors and governors tend to be pragmatists by nature. Given the importance of major cities to the economic health of their states, governors share a common interest in promoting development. That has led to some productive partnerships, including one between Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker to convince General Electric to move its headquarters to Boston. “GE said the fact that the Democratic mayor and his staff and the Republican governor and his staff were in this together gave them a really strong sense that there was a culture of focus on the work here, and not the partisanship,” says Baker.

In Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed get along so famously that when there’s a policy disagreement between them, the press frames it as a rare schism between two “BFFs.” Here too, the desire to work together has been rooted in economic development. Democrat Reed was able to use his contacts in the Obama administration to help secure federal funding for a $700 million dredging and expansion of Savannah’s harbor. “Kasim Reed has had a good relationship with Nathan Deal,” says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. “That mostly would fall under the heading of promoting development.”

Governors and mayors share more than an interest in economic vitality. They share constituents. Unlike legislators, many of whom represent districts far from major population centers, governors have to run statewide. A Republican like Deal isn’t going to carry Atlanta, but he doesn’t want to get blown out there, either. “If you’re going to be successful in Georgia state politics, you don’t have to win the Atlanta vote, but you have to do reasonably well there,” Bullock says.

In Tennessee, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, a liberal Democrat, have both expressed dismay over legislative efforts to regulate transgender bathroom use, efforts that have drawn opposition from corporations. Barry has become a cheerleader for Haslam’s transportation package, which includes a provision to allow local referenda on tax increases to pay for mass transit -- something Barry desperately wants. Since Haslam’s package includes broader tax increases, support from Nashville’s political and civic leadership could help him find some needed votes from the legislature’s urban delegations.

Democratic mayors and Republican governors won’t always be able to see eye-to-eye, particularly on contentious issues such as immigration and refugee policy. But when it comes to the economy and infrastructure, pragmatism is the glue that binds them. “Both the governor and the mayor are really in some sense problem solvers,” says John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “They’re willing to work together because they recognize it’s in their shared interest to get things done.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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