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Rural Areas Lose People But Not Power

Rural lawmakers are dwindling in number as people continue to migrate to metropolitan areas. But the battle between urban and rural politics is as big as ever -- and those out in the country may be winning.

This story is part of a special series on America's rural/urban divide.

Jim Wheeler represents Gardnerville, a little town of 5,600 people about a half-hour east of Lake Tahoe, in the Nevada Assembly. Last fall, he gained instant national notoriety when a video surfaced in which he said he would vote to support slavery if that’s what his constituents wanted. He was roundly criticized by media outlets both national and local, as well as leaders of his own party. Wheeler soon apologized.

But some of his other remarks on the tape triggered nearly as great a reaction, at least in Nevada. He suggested that Clark County in the southeast corner of the state—home to Las Vegas and 73 percent of Nevada’s entire population—should be split off from the state. “This is the biggest divide in the state, North and South,” Wheeler said. “Las Vegas wants everything, and they don’t care about the rurals.”

Ever since, legislators from southern Nevada have vowed to take revenge, strategizing about how they can get a larger share of state resources. It should be a snap. “Southern Nevada has had a majority of the legislators and now has a supermajority,” says Jon Ralston, a prominent commentator on Nevada politics. “If the delegation [could] stick together, they could get anything they want.”

That seldom seems to happen, though. If you looked at how state resources are allocated strictly in terms of where people live, Clark County is consistently shortchanged. For example, Nevada’s antique school funding formula awards lots of extra money to counties basically for being sparsely populated and remote. Clark County, which is home to 2 million residents, gets a little more than $5,000 per pupil from the state, while Esmeralda County—home to less than a thousand people—gets more than $17,000. That’s an extreme case, but consider that the commission designed to study equity in school funding is also disproportionately made up of people from the more rural north. That happens time and again in Nevada. Economic commissions might include agricultural representatives but no one from the gaming industry. Or they might give more seats to, say, Elko (population 18,200) than to Las Vegas.

Despite the massive growth in Las Vegas, people in Reno, Sparks and the vast rural parts of the state still feel entitled to more money than a metropolis made up largely of people from California, says Robert Lang, a professor with the urban affairs program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The native-borns are running the obscure, hard-to-fathom governance structure for one purpose: soaking this region and drawing as much resources as they can,” he says. “Northerners do one of the most impressive rearguard actions of any minority.”

Nevada is not unique. It isn’t true everywhere, but to a surprising extent rural legislators—whose numbers have been in steep decline for decades—are still able to hit well above their weight in numerous states. Rural delegations tend to stick together and take advantage of splits that are common within metropolitan areas. Generally they are Republican, which means at times they are able to form partisan alliances that can run stronger these days than sectional ones. And, as the South did in Congress throughout much of the 20th century, rural areas are able to increase their clout simply by giving their representatives long careers and thus the power that seniority entails. “While it seems that the urban/rural divide is diminishing because of demographics—and there are certainly less purely rural districts—the ideology and the stances legislators take do reflect an urban/rural divide,” says Lavea Brachman, who directs the Greater Ohio Policy Center, which advocates for urban areas.

Throughout the country, rural populations have either slipped or failed to keep pace with metropolitan growth. It’s a trend that’s been accelerating for most of the past century. A pair of Supreme Court decisions in the early 1960s ended the ability of rural areas to dominate state legislatures through the old system, in some states, of apportioning districts by counties rather than population. Since then, continued urban and especially suburban growth have meant that, even in farm states, purely rural districts have become scarce.


Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Decennial Censuses

There are certainly states in which rural residents feel forlorn. The traditional geographic fights over money for roads and schools have been joined by cultural divides over issues such as same-sex marriage, environmental regulations and guns. In a number of states, particularly those dominated by Democratic majorities based in metropolitan areas, it’s become fashionable in rural quarters to talk about secession. Last November, 11 Colorado counties voted on whether to split and form a 51st state. Five of those counties voted in favor of the idea. “We’re rarely listened to when it comes to legislation,” complains Ault Mayor Butch White.

Everyone knows secession is not going to happen. The state map of the United States is not going to change. For that reason, rural leaders know that they have to work with the cards they’ve been dealt. They don’t look like winners—rural delegations don’t dominate legislatures the way they used to—yet rural members in many states have become masters of coalition politics. Often, they’re able to take home more than their share of the pot. “Rurals are still overrepresented, despite their anemic demographics,” says Lang. “They’ve taken the legislature more seriously and can find consensus around regional issues. They don’t fight over the things that divide a metro.”

When it comes to geographical divides in states, nearly everyone seems to feel outmatched. Rural legislators are certainly aware of their declining numbers, with every round of redistricting leaving them with fewer districts to call their own. In some cases, rural legislators have to represent enormous areas because the population is so sparse. Texas Senate District 31, for example, now encompasses 37 counties, up from 26 during the last decade. The area that now makes up Nebraska’s largest district, the north central 43rd, lost 7 percent of its population in the last Census. “There’s always that feeling that Omaha and Lincoln get the lion’s share and rural Nebraska gets the crumbs,” says state Sen. Annette Dubas.

But politicians in the big cities are keenly aware of the resentment felt by out-state areas. “Yes, the urban delegations are larger [in Kentucky], but collectively the decisions in Frankfort show that the rural vote is still strong,” says Dewey Clayton, a political scientist at the University of Louisville. “We [in Louisville] are looked upon as this den of iniquity, an area they would rarely go to and never live in.”

Meanwhile, the suburbs—which are the fastest growing areas of most states and are often home to the largest share of the overall population—can’t seem to get their act together. They haven’t been able to dominate states in the way their numbers suggest they might. Regional cooperation just doesn’t seem to be part of the American DNA, and that’s seen most clearly in the type of squabbling and rivalries that take place among suburban neighbors. “In many areas, suburbs are the economic engines driving regions,” says Lawrence Levy, dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in New York. “The problem is the suburbs are fragmented and have not learned how to use their clout. In most states, suburbs are the biggest bloc, but everyone else sees the suburbs as rich and greedy.”

Indeed, urban and rural areas sometimes find common cause in working in tandem against suburbs. Increasing state aid to education, for instance, might look like a good idea to people in both large cities and tiny towns that don’t boast property tax bases that can compare with more affluent suburbs. “Ironically, you may have rural legislators who have more things in common with urban legislators,” says Tom Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, who has worked with rural legislators on education issues in Wisconsin. “We find on some issues that we can actually reach out to some of the rural legislators, who feel within their party that the suburban-exurban ones are not favoring them, either.”

More often, though, that dynamic cuts the other way. Central cities are overwhelmingly Democratic (Democrats are mayors in 89 of the nation’s largest 100 cities), while most rural legislators are Republican. Cities are also much more likely to be home to racial minorities, while most rural areas are predominantly white. As with income levels and voting habits, the suburbs present a more mixed picture when it comes to racial composition.

Rural Republicans can offer themselves up as a bloc within their party. All kinds of horse-trading can happen when it’s time to divvy up capital construction dollars, for example, and suburban areas are split. “Most of the Democratic legislators are clustered in the cities,” says former Ohio GOP Gov. Bob Taft. “If you’re trying to get Republicans’ votes, that gives some clout to the Republican legislators who represent rural areas.”

Those rural areas don’t suffer the kind of image problems that big cities and wealthy suburbs tend to have in state capitols. In fact, the opposite is often true. In lots of states, the population might have mostly moved to the metropolitan areas, but lots of people seem to feel romantic ties to the countryside and small towns. People may not live in rural areas, but they’re still inclined to see that countryside receives its fair share—or maybe more—from the state. “There’s still such a connection,” says Nebraska Sen. Dubas. “Practically everybody comes from a small town or has relatives in small towns.”

Individual legislators themselves may view the world through a split lens. With rural areas losing so much ground, many districts are split between half-empty rural counties and slices of suburbia that give them a population base. Ohio Republican Ross McGregor represents not only the entire city of Springfield but most of surrounding Clark County (a Clark County with 1.9 million fewer residents than the one in Nevada). “I step in and out of the rural universe daily representing this district,” McGregor says.

In Maine, 90 percent of the population growth between 2000 and 2010 occurred in the state’s three federally defined metro areas, which together now represent 70 percent of the state economy. Yet state funding formulas for education and economic development put those areas—Portland, Bangor and Lewiston-Auburn—at a big disadvantage. Charles Colgan, a former state economist, likes to say that Mainers work urban, live suburban, yet still think rural.

Clinton County, Ill., which is about 40 miles to the east of St. Louis, has 38,000 residents. That’s only 5,000 more souls than lived in the county back in 1980. But if the county is not seeing a lot more population, it’s getting more gun shops. Two have opened just this year. As in the rest of the state, demand for guns and gun safety training is going up. That’s because Illinois last year gave up its status as the only state left in the country that didn’t grant concealed carry permits to gun owners. The law was enacted despite strong opposition from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, one of the nation’s leading supporters of gun control, and a veto from Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, a product of the Cook County suburbs. “Chicago and Cook County held that up,” says Kyle Moore, the mayor of Quincy, which hugs the Mississippi River just north of Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Mo. “If my area would have voted on it alone, we would have had it 20 years ago.”

There’s a definite split between cities and rural counties when it comes to social issues, whether you’re talking about guns, gay marriage or medical marijuana. In 2012, voters in 75 of Minnesota’s 87 counties voted in favor of blocking recognition of same-sex marriage. But the other 12 counties, including those in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, outvoted them. The cities have the people, and they are able to prevail in any number of statewide votes. But when it comes to money, rural advantages remain a powerful legacy. “A lot of the transportation funding systems were set up in more agrarian times,” St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman says. “In Minnesota’s case, those formulas are written into the constitution. I wouldn’t even know how you would change them.”

Urban leaders are often frustrated by the fact that, while they might dominate the state in terms of population and economic activity, they can’t always convince rural legislators to give them a break—not only when it comes to slicing up the pie, but on matters such as use of red-light cameras that hardly seem to touch on rural life at all. “Rural communities really don’t see a benefit from TIFs [tax-increment financing], and they don’t support it,” says Roy Buol, the mayor of Dubuque, Iowa. “You go into rural Iowa, they think they’re being ripped off somehow.”

A study published last November in the American Political Science Review by political scientists Gerald Gamm and Thad Kousser found that major cities—those with populations above 100,000—had little luck passing state legislation. From 1880 until 2000, passage rates for bills that benefited big cities were consistently 24 to 34 percent less likely to pass than those that dealt directly with smaller cities and towns. “Year after year, while most bills affecting smaller districts pass, most big-city bills fail,” Gamm and Kousser conclude.


Source: Gerald Gamm and Thad Kousser, "No Strength in Numbers: The Failure of Big-City Bills in American State Legislatures"

After urban delegations got bigger, following the 1960s Supreme Court reapportionment decisions in Baker v. Carr and Gray v. Sanders, the big-city batting average only got worse. As they became more numerous, metropolitan legislators were more likely to break ranks, splitting not just on partisan votes but on measures meant to help out their own areas. “It appears that legislators from the rest of the state follow the cues of the big-city delegation and split when its members divide, often dooming bills,” according to Kousser and Gamm.

Census estimates last year showed that rural America is not only failing to keep up, but is now actually losing population for the first time. Given the long period of relative decline, it would seem that rural areas would have to become marginalized within the politics of most states. “With their loss of political power, their loss of numbers, it’s hard for them to make the case for their needs and they don’t have the votes, oftentimes,” says Jon Bailey of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb.

But you can’t write rural America off just yet. The ability of rural legislators to hang together and form coalitions has preserved their status as important players in many states. Like so many back-country Davids, they are often still able to outmaneuver the urban and suburban Goliaths. People in Nevada still talk about how Bill Raggio, who reigned over 10 sessions as majority leader of the state Senate prior to his death in 2012, stood as a sentinel for northern Nevada, understanding the legislative process far more intricately than anyone Clark County managed to send to Carson City.

In Ohio, the very layout of the state gave rural legislators an advantage, at least before term limits. Rural legislators would spend much of their lives hanging around Columbus, often working their way into leadership, but senators and representatives from Cleveland quickly despaired of once again making the 300-mile round trip to the capitol. In most of the state, local officials would work their way up to careers in state government, but ambitious politicians from Cleveland got out of state government as soon as they could to seek local posts. It’s a tradition that continues to this day, with former House Speaker Armond Budish running this year for Cuyahoga County executive.

Cincinnati is even farther from Cleveland—it’s much closer to Indianapolis or Louisville. People in the “three Cs” think of themselves as inhabiting separate worlds, so getting any of the state’s major cities to collaborate—let alone bringing along Toledo, Akron or Youngstown—has always proved difficult. “It’s very hard to get Cuyahoga County working with Columbus or Dayton, even though they’ve got an awful lot in common,” says Ned Hill, dean of the college of urban affairs at Cleveland State University. “The regional interests break down very quickly.”

The state’s urban elites recognize this problem, at least. Over the past couple of years, leadership from the chambers of commerce of the eight largest metropolitan regions have begun holding monthly meetings, seeking ways in which they can work together. “We understand the need to have one voice on a lot of issues,” says Carol Caruso, chief lobbyist for the Greater Cleveland Partnership. “We’ve made great progress in the last couple of years.”

The work of this ad hoc group has mainly centered around policy, making good government recommendations in areas such as seeking efficiency. Caruso says she wouldn’t hesitate to support projects to help out Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which is just outside Dayton, and she says she gets support from all over the state for the NASA research center in Cleveland.

State lawmakers are supposed to be able to put parochial interests aside and have the greater interest of the state in mind when they formulate policies and decide where to invest their dollars. With metro areas not only home to most of the people but serving as the economic engines of most states, it makes sense to put money where it will do the most good. But bulldozers have to bulldoze in some specific place and legislators are known to judge any school funding proposal mainly by the spreadsheets that show how their own districts would do. “Obviously, it’s a fair argument that if you’re bringing in tax dollars you should get to keep them,” says Quincy, Ill., Mayor Moore. “It’s also important that we must invest in other areas of the state. We have to bring some of the rural areas up.”

McGregor, who chairs the transportation subcommittee in the Ohio House, notes that his state has an advisory council that helps sign off on capital projects, making sure that limited dollars are allocated in ways that best serve the state as a whole. It’s an attempt, he says, “just to try to take the politics out of where the money’s being spent.” Yet he concedes the attempt is not always 100 percent successful. “I think it would be exceptionally naive to think that there’s no politics involved in anything we do.”

Half of U.S. Population Map

In 2012, half the total U.S. population lived within the 39 largest metro areas.


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