America’s liberal cities are readying to battle Donald Trump on almost every front

Mayors like Eric Garcetti are preparing to take on the mantle of progressive leadership now.
Mayors like Eric Garcetti are preparing to take on the mantle of progressive leadership now.
Image: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
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As a candidate and now as US president, Donald Trump has seemed hellbent on alienating urban voters.

During the campaign, the New Yorker repeatedly and, some would argue, offensively spoke of America’s “inner cities” as ”war zones” where life was “hell” for African-Americans. City voters returned the slight—Trump lost badly in urban areas on Nov. 8. Showing little interest in making amends with this slice of the electorate, he then nominated Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon with zero experience in either government or urban policy, as secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

So it was somewhat surprising when Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, dropped in on the US Conference of Mayors winter meeting on Jan. 17, three days before taking the oath of office as US vice president, and told the 300 assembled city leaders that “this administration is going to be a friend to America’s mayors.”

When guessing at Pence’s motives for reaching out to urban leaders, one fact stands out: Cities are the only major layer of US government where Democrats are in control—and massively so. While Republicans hold the presidency, both houses of Congress, and 31 of 50 state governorships, Democrats are in charge of all but three of the country’s 20 biggest cities. And the political leanings of the 32 million residents they represent tend to align very closely. Trump garnered just 10% of votes (paywall) cast in Manhattan, his longtime home, and 4% in his new stomping grounds of Washington DC.

With the blessing of their base, liberal big-city mayors have been among the only elected US politicians to openly and meaningfully defy Trump. Right after his election, the heads of over a dozen major cities said that, even at the risk of losing federal funding, they would refuse to cooperate with any Trump-ordered immigrant deportation force. On Jan. 25, the new president signed an executive order officially declaring he would defund them—and they’re still refusing to acquiesce, with Boston mayor Marty Walsh noting Trump’s inability to reroute funding without authorization from Congress and New York’s Bill de Blasio threatening a lawsuit.

A “constructive alternative” to Trump’s agenda

Mayors hold a fair amount of heft in America’s devolved political system. At a time of sustained sclerosis in Washington, cities (arguably with some exceptions) are “the one institution today that still works, where government functions, where trust levels are double the levels of other institutions,” according to Fordham University’s Benjamin Barber, an acclaimed social scientist and author of If Mayors Ruled the World.

They also pack a serious economic punch. In 2013, America’s 23 richest metropolitan areas produced almost half the country’s GDP. If the New York metro area (which includes Newark and Jersey City, New Jersey) were a country, it would rank above Canada as the 10th-biggest economy in the world.

Just after the US election, Barber told us, ”Cities are going to become the most important, constructive alternative to a Trump agenda.” He argued they will shore up civil rights and labor protections for millions, and take up the charge on the environment.

To do so, mayors plan to take collective action. “If you combine the power of America’s cities, that could really be a game changer in terms of moderating [Trump’s] agenda,” de Blasio said in November. “Maximum coordination. Maximum simultaneous activity.”

Plus, as de Blasio found during Trump’s campaign, they can get a handy approval-ratings boost from picking a fight with the new president.

To see how urban centers of liberalism plan to deal with the new White House administration, we spoke with the mayors of six cities around the country over the last couple of months, from Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, Pittsburgh, Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon.

Outlooks ranged from the bullish defiance of Atlanta’s Kasim Reed—who says his aim is to ”to do everything we can do to be left alone” by Trump—to the skeptical pragmatism of LA’s Eric Garcetti, who is cautiously hoping for some avenues to work with fellow city dweller Trump. Boston’s Walsh says planning to counteract Trump’s policies has been near impossible because the president has been light on policy specifics. But he encapsulates his fellow mayors’ promises to do all they can to nullify a Trumpian assault on liberals, saying simply, “Of course I’m gonna protect my citizens. It’s what I do. It’s my job.”

The idea of taking on the mantle as the leading voices of Democrats elicits palpable enthusiasm. “I think that we’re gonna be the ecosystem for where the solutions are developed—much in the way that states were for Republicans and conservatives for a very long time,” says Atlanta’s Reed.

Despite Pence’s olive branch and Trump’s Dec. 15 promise to maintain the tax-exempt status on bonds that cities issue to pay for infrastructure, the past week’s war of words on immigration means it’s highly unlikely mayors will find as close an ally in the White House as they had in former US president Barack Obama (who saw working with cities as a way of sidestepping congressional intransigence). Instead, they’ll likely try to extract whatever they can from the president while hoping to avoid punishment for defying him elsewhere.

So, as the new administration gets underway in Washington, in what policy areas can cities find practical ways to shore up their progressive agendas? And where does their power end in the face of a presidency that seems determined to work against them?

Policing and criminal sentencing

Trump has nominated the most hardline US attorney general in recent memory: Alabama senator Jeff Sessions. Together, their favored policies include mass deportations, strict drug-crime sentencing, and “stop and frisk” policing, which has massively marginalized urban African-Americans (and probably exacerbated crime rates). Mayors can’t do much to stop Trump from issuing these policies, but they say in practice they can help render them ineffective in their cities. One major motivation for this: they have no interest in swelling mass-incarceration rates, which began slowly dropping under Obama.

For example, should Sessions and Trump impose harsher drug sentences or take a stronger view of addiction as a criminal rather than mental health issue, mayors can simply tell their police forces not to focus on arresting people for low-level drug offenses. ”Local police chiefs and sheriffs decide what their police practices will be,” says Charlie Hales, who finished his term as mayor of Portland, Oregon, on Jan. 1. “Then local sheriffs get to decide who goes to jail and local district attorneys get to decide who gets prosecuted. That’s America, that’s how it works.”

He says the federal government “doesn’t get to hand down a mandate that ‘Thou shalt stop and frisk, thou shalt put these people in jail, and thou shalt impose these sentences.’ That is simply unconstitutional.”

Immigrant deportation

This is where Trump has pulled out his biggest weapon. His Jan. 25 executive action threatens to pull federal funding for ”sanctuary jurisdictions,” a term for cities which refuse to arrest undocumented immigrants who haven’t broken any other laws.

Most of the mayors we’ve spoken with, and several others, have refused to bow to the threat. Walsh promised to let immigrants “live” in city hall if need be. And he and de Blasio both have said they don’t think Trump is authorized to unilaterally nix the funding.

But when pushed, none of the mayors interviewed for this piece said they could stop Trump from succeeding with the deportations if he were really intent on them and if, as Reed puts it, he were “prepared to blow a hole in the federal budget” to make them happen.

If Trump does make a serious attempt to cancel federal funds, mayors say they hold cards to make life tough for the president. Among the more overt mechanisms they say they have available:

  • Helping as many residents as possible become US citizens or get legal residency—27 cities have aligned under the Cities for Citizenship coalition to do so, headed by New York, LA, and Chicago.
  • Refusing to give any police cooperation. This would starve federal officers of local knowledge needed to help find and arrest people.
  • Fighting deportation cases in court to slow the process to a near halt. “Seeing how slow the immigration courts are working now, if we load people up on top of that with new deportations and protect their due process it’ll be pretty slow going,” says LA’s Garcetti. He has announced a $10 million “justice fund” to do so, while Chicago has a $1 million fund. New York already does this, and Walsh says he’s working on a $1 million to $2 million fund in Boston.

There also are more subtle tactics they could use. Among them:

  • Leveraging the fact that Trump also depends on cities. In New York’s case, this could get personal. Federal dollars funneled to the city will be needed to help pay for Trump’s personal security when he’s in town, and will continue to be needed to pay for first lady Melania Trump and youngest son Barron’s protection.
  • Leveraging Trump’s business interests. Mayors like de Blasio have significant influence over real estate and other regulations that could have a financial impact on the Trump real estate portfolio.
  • Reaching out to Republican allies in Congress on issues like federal funding that provides vouchers for homeless military veterans.
  • Working with state legislatures. Atlanta’s Reed says even staunchly conservative administrations like in his state of Georgia may quietly recoil against attempts at mass deportations and funding cuts. “It would have a chilling effect on our state’s reputation as a business-friendly state that is welcoming and inclusive,” says Reed. “So I think you would have a serious triage to consider if you’re going to start enforcing very aggressive and draconian immigration policies.”
  • Rallying their citizens. If Trump follows through on his promises, mayors can make themselves opposition figureheads by encouraging local action. “I believe there would be massive resistance from ordinary citizens in Portland and lots of other places if federal agents started swooping in and rounding up our neighbors,” Hales says.

Climate Change

There’s a silver lining for environmentalists who are horrified by the climate-change denialism concentrated in Trump’s cabinet, not to mention his assault on the US Environmental Protection Agency and his support of two highly controversial pipelines. Cities produce 75% of global carbon emissions, and they have no desire to go backward here.

It’s not just altruism at work on this issue. With solar panels becoming cheaper than fossil fuels in 2016, it’s making less and less economic sense to shy away from green energy.

Declaring he was “probably the furthest thing from an Al Gore clone you could find,” the Republican mayor of Georgetown, Texas, in 2015 announced plans to go 100% renewable simply because green energy was a better deal for residents. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff to Obama, came out with a similar message in December. “Even if you didn’t believe in climate change, [green energy] is a pure driver of economic activity,” he said. “The city is never going back from this.”

Garcetti has rallied more than 60 mayors from both parties to sign an open letter calling for the president to ”shift” his views and embrace the Paris climate change agreement, insisting “we are prepared to forge ahead even in the absence of federal support.”

As for actual climate policy, city leaders say there are both global and local levers available. For one, they see an opportunity to collectively take over the global leadership role that Trump is abandoning.”This is where an American network expands across the seas,” says Pittsburgh’s Bill Peduto, arguing that mayors around the world can work together to step up carbon reduction targets (like New York aiming to drop emissions 80% from 2005 levels by 2050, or London’s goal for a 60% drop from 1990 levels by 2025) and cooperate on practical reduction measures.

They’ll also try to limit the global reverberations of steps Trump might take to stall progress. For example, if he leaves the Paris climate agreement, Garcetti and Walsh said cities across America could adopt it locally, undermining both the symbolism and the environmental consequences of Trump stepping away from it.

More locally, mayors can tackle big problems by twisting the arms of hometown businesses and ramming small, unsexy measures through their local bureaucracies. Reed, for example, claims he can cut emissions by “25 percentage points” by picking off ”low-hanging fruit” like retrofits on wasteful buildings and incentives to businesses to cut energy use. “To take action in the city of Atlanta, the center of the ninth largest metro in the country…it takes my decision and eight votes from [the city] council. In my opinion, that’s very efficient,” says Reed.

Of course, volunteering themselves as the new leaders on this issue means mayors also become responsible if it fails. And already there is concern that even the more aggressive pledges on the table, from cities like New York and in the Paris agreement itself, won’t be enough to stave off disaster for the planet.

Bandaids for a creaking social safety net

America already has among the lowest government spending for OECD countries, and the relatively meager social safety net that still exists looks imperiled by potential cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, a promised repeal of Obamacare, threats to defund women’s health care provider Planned Parenthood, and a possible drop in public housing funding under HUD nominee Carson, who has said that in his experience poverty is “more of a choice than anything.”

On top of all that, Trump has to find a way to pay for tax cuts. The fiscal promises he campaigned on would cost the country an estimated $4.5 trillion over a decade.

Clearly, city budgets can’t stretch to cover all these costs, but Pittsburgh’s Peduto says he’s laying plans to address the needs of the most vulnerable. He’s promising to work with insurance companies and hospitals to get together healthcare funding to cover seniors, children, and people with pre-existing conditions. After that, he says, he would aim “to scale up” funding for everyone else. “We can’t just let people be at the mercy of federal policy that would affect quite literally their lives and the lives of the people they love,” he says.

Boston’s Walsh is confident he can work with his state to return universal health coverage to Massachusetts (Obamacare was based on Massachusetts’ healthcare system put in place by governor Mitt Romney) and perhaps to ease Trump’s cuts on federal funding for Planned Parenthood. But he admits there’s little states can do to deal with more systemic effects that could result from some of Trump’s promised policies. “This isn’t about Massachusetts, it’s about the whole country. It’s about potentially sending the country into recession,” says Walsh.

Peduto and Walsh are also looking to deliver on an unfulfilled Obama promise to make pre-kindergarten education free. Stymied by Congress, Obama appealed directly to US mayors to bring the idea to fruition, but, as Peduto puts it, “it’s doubtful that the Trump administration’s going to pick that up.”

But de Blasio, who accomplished the feat in New York, has provided a model to other large cities, and Peduto says he can stitch enough dollars together in Pittsburgh through a combination of city funds, a state handout, private-sector donations, and fundraising by the schools themselves. Walsh has been trying to square similar circles in Boston—his most radical proposal being to sell off City Hall to pay for it—and hopes his state will let him dip into city tourism profits.

When it comes to housing, Carson’s nomination puts cities in unchartered territory—since we just don’t know what his views are on the matter. For this crucial front in the war on poverty, mayors across the country are largely left to take what Walsh calls “a wait and see approach.”

Civil rights and gun control

Mayors love pointing out that cities have long been the first places to try out progressive policies that are now in or near the mainstream—and they’re promising to keep delivering on this. San Francisco was the first to allow LGBT marriage in 2004, Seattle passed a $15 minimum wage in 2014, and Philadelphia in 2011 restricted all employers from discriminating against people with criminal records.

If Trump were to appoint US Supreme Court justices who help overturn the landmark ruling protecting same-sex marriage, many cities can now revert to laws that enshrined it locally. If the court overturns the Roe v. Wade decision that guarantees women the right to abortion, cities might look for ways to protect abortion rights locally—though they would face tricky legal barriers to do so—while pressuring their states to offer protections, too.

San Francisco mayor Ed Lee and Boston’s Walsh also have an inventive idea to get around Congress and improve gun safety, involving the arming of their police forces with “smart guns.” The weapons only respond to one person’s fingerprints—so they can’t be used if they’re stolen—and only fire when gripped tightly, making them less liable to result in accidents. If the idea is adopted broadly enough, it is hoped, there will be a shift in the firearms market. As producers adapt to meet the enormous demands of city police departments, it could start making less financial sense to make more dangerous guns for private consumers. Lee has the support of San Francisco’s tech community, but Walsh says the National Rifle Association’s opposition has so far scared major guns manufacturers from producing the technology on a large scale.

Working with Trump

But every resistance has its limits. Asked whether Democrats should oppose the new president full stop, some mayors take a measured view.

“I think we need to get in the mix, not try to burn it down,” says Garcetti, the Instagram-loving, jazz piano-playing, Jewish-Latino mayor of LA who was on Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential longlist. “Ultimately, this federal administration will succeed or fail if it produces results—same thing with us here. So, we have a mutual interest to serve the same people.”

At the US Conference of Mayors, Pence brought a message directly from Trump: “He said, ‘tell ’em we’re going to a do an infrastructure bill and it’s going to be big,’” Pence said. That’s just the kind of message big-city mayors love to hear, no matter whose mouth it comes from.

Garcetti, whose city in November passed a measure for a massive $120 billion transport fund, was pleasantly surprised to encounter a Republican president whose understanding of infrastructure goes well beyond rural “highway investments.” The LA mayor says that in phone conversations with Trump, he found the president “immediately had fluency about things like public transportation and the quality of our streets. That jumped out at me, like, ‘Ok, this is a person who lives in cities.'” 

That may be enough to bring mayors around the table for substantive talks with Washington. But working with the White House on infrastructure while openly defying Trump on a host of other matters will mean walking a deeply tricky line—with both the administration and the voters at home.