"Local control" is one of the bedrock principles of the Republican Party. But as Arizona shows, this only applies when Republicans are in control locally.
Thus, the Legislature has passed laws forbidding cities from banning plastic bags, threatening to withdraw revenue sharing from those that mandate sick leave, and retroactively prohibiting Roosevelt Row from forming a business improvement district. In each case, these were pushed by suburban lawmakers.
For Arizona, this is a retrograde move from the 1960s and 1970s. Before the Supreme Court's 1964 "one man, one vote" decision, state policy was ruled by powerful rural state senators who consistently voted against education, transportation, and other infrastructure." With a Legislature that actually represented the population, Republican leader Burton Barr in the House and Democratic leader Alfredo Gutierrez in the Senate pushed through a slew of modernizing bills.
In recent decades, it's been moving in the opposite direction, from continued funding for sprawl-producing freeways to some of the worst cuts in education funding in the nation. It has fought and sabotaged light rail (WBIYB). Land-use restrictions are non-starters. Commuter rail or passenger service between Phoenix and Tucson are pipe dreams. New "takings" laws have severely limited cities' economic development and preservation efforts.
Arizona is one of the nation's most urbanized states, with 80 percent of the population living in the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas and most of the rest in smaller metros such as Flagstaff. Almost all of the intelligent responses that Arizona needs are to urban problems. Yet the Legislature is adamantly anti-city and growing more so with each session. (And, of course, it is against any mention of climate change).
The rural-urban split in American politics has been well documented (see here, here, and here). Take Seattle and some of its suburbs out of Washington state and you'd have Idaho. The same is true of Colorado without Denver. In both cases, although Republicans remain powerful at the state level, they are restrained by city voters. Washington is solidly blue in presidential elections and has two Democratic senators. Colorado's Democratic governor is a former Denver mayor and pioneering entrepreneur in LoDo.
The split underscores our Cold Civil War, where, for example, the Los Angeles metropolitan area has more people than but four states. But LA doesn't have any U.S. Senators.
In Arizona, every statewide office is now held by a Republican. There's no path up for a Terry Goddard, Phil Gordon, or (sorry) Greg Stanton, all widely respected Democratic mayors of Phoenix. The city fails to sway the state as Denver, Seattle, Portland and others do their states. Not for nothing did St. Janet pull the ripcord and bail for D.C. and then California. In 2012, President Obama carried less than 44 percent of the vote in Maricopa County, the most urban, diverse, and theoretically bluest county in the state.
The problem is that a majority of people who actually vote are suburbanites with deeply suburban values. Most are relative newcomers with no sense of Arizona history or issues.Even longtime residents still consider the Midwestern towns they came from "home." And most of these migrants came from either suburbs or small towns in the Midwest or "Inland Empire" of California. If only Phoenix attracted more people who were actually from the city of Chicago.
To make matters worse, Phoenix is a largely suburban city. With nearly 517 square miles (compared with 153 for Denver and 84 for Seattle), Phoenix has suburbs within the city limits with little or no connection to the actual city, its history, or its downtown. Not for nothing was "Better Call Sal" lobbying the Legislature to sucker punch Roosevelt Row. He doesn't represent the area, but a wide swatch east and south that is mostly subdivisions and very red. These districts self-segregate against the city, especially the one-third of its population in severe low-income and poverty areas.
Meanwhile, Phoenix's Latino population, which represented nearly 41 percent of the city's population in 2010 (vs. 29.6 percent for the state) has a perpetual low voter turnout. "Mexicans don't vote," as the saying goes. Suburban Republican Anglos do. And in a state with so much suburban detachment and apathy, this makes the difference.
The inability to apply urban responses to urban problems — not only that but the Legislature's active opposition to it — carries deep consequences, even if it helps the short hustle of the Real Estate Industrial Complex. So does the refusal to embrace urban opportunities.
We recently saw a moment of hand-wringing over a study showing Phoenix is the worst metro in the nation for retaining college graduates. This is evidence of a long-term brain drain and no coincidence. Real cities attract talent and high-end capital investment. Places without them get the short hustle.
Read more about city issues on Rogue's City Desk.