In State Legislatures, Old Rivalries Are Reheated by National Politics

WASHINGTON — Rural legislators have looked down on big cities, and urban pols have returned the favor, since the farmer-statesman Thomas Jefferson called urban areas “pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.” But for most of American history, the rivalry has played out in state politics more so as a matter of parochial divisions than national ones.

Now, a dispute in Nashville raises the question of whether the nation’s barbed political divide — which splinters along the rural-urban axis as well — is infusing old local antagonisms with contemporary partisan acrimony.

It’s not just in Tennessee. In Wisconsin, North Carolina, Kentucky and elsewhere, old city-country political tensions have taken on a harder edge as Democratic-leaning urban areas become ever more isolated islands in an ever-redder, rural-dominated sea.

But the prime example is in Nashville, where the Republican-led General Assembly kicked off a partisan fury a year ago by filleting the city’s Democratic congressional district into three new districts, all safely Republican.

Then in August, as the Republican Gov. Bill Lee and legislative leaders were mounting an all-out bid to bring the Republican National Convention to Nashville in 2024, the Democratic majority on the Metro Council effectively killed the effort, voting overwhelmingly to reject a draft agreement on hosting the event.

Republicans immediately accused the council of favoring partisan vindictiveness over the good of the state. “The people of TN will remember this vote for a long time and so will I,” the majority leader in the state’s House of Representatives, William Lamberth, wrote on Twitter.

This month, Mr. Lamberth proposed legislation to halve the size of the 40-member council with a mandate limiting all municipal governing bodies to no more than 20 members. Nashville is the only city in the state that exceeds that limit.

Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee at a panel discussion during a Republican Governors Association conference in Orlando, Fla., in November.Credit…Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Now it is the Democrats’ turn to claim vindictiveness. “It’s clear that the trigger for them to talk about cutting the size of the council was the Republican National Convention,” Bob Mendes, a Democratic member of the council, said.

“That’s ridiculous,” Mr. Lamberth said. “This issue has been talked about since Nashville first became a metro 50 years ago.” He said reducing the council’s size had been the topic of back-room legislative discussions for at least three years.

Any definition of partisanship, of course, often reflects on which side of the aisle one sits. But urban-rural rivalries have a long history. A forthcoming study of the actions of six state legislatures from 1921 to 1961 — by Professors Thad Kousser and Gerald Gamm of the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Rochester, respectively — finds “clear evidence” that lawmakers deliberately underfunded the cities with more immigrant and nonwhite residents.

State laws that override city ordinances and policies have mushroomed over the last decade, especially in states where Republicans controlled both the governor’s office and the Legislature, a study by political scientists at Baylor and Butler universities concluded in 2020.

The dynamic can work the opposite way, too: In New Mexico, the Democrat-controlled State Legislature has drafted legislation to overturn local ordinances passed in conservative towns that restrict access to abortion clinics and abortion pills. The state attorney general on Monday sued New Mexico cities and counties to overturn the ordinances.

The new laws often take aim at issues where the parties are on different sides: Missouri’s lawmakers, for example, barred St. Louis from banning plastic grocery bags and stopped Kansas City from raising the minimum wage.

The 2020 study found that such laws were more common in states with a Republican government, a strong conservative bent and a higher share of Black residents.

“A hundred or even 50 years ago, Democrats in Atlanta may have wanted different things than the Democrats who were governing the state of Georgia, but they were in the same party,” said Professor Kousser,who earlier had tracked the urban-rural divide. “Now they both have different legislative interests and different political interests, too.”

Tennessee seems to epitomize the shift. The 2020 study found that its State Legislature led the nation in overruling local laws and policies. 

The argument in Nashville over downsizing the Metro Council continues apace. Republicans argue that 40 cooks spoil the legislative broth and that only New York and Chicago have bigger governing bodies. Democrats say that Nashville voters already soundly rejected a move to shrink the council in a 2015 referendum, and that if it should shrink, Nashvillians should be the ones dictating their own governance.

But plenty of other city and country politicians are at loggerheads, too.

In North Carolina, where Democrats and Republicans have warred for a decade over gerrymanders, voting restrictions and social issues, the Republican speaker of the State House, Representative Tim Moore, seemed prepared this month to scuttle a $13.5 billion initiative by the Democratic leadership in Charlotte to expand mass transit.

Representative Tim Moore on the opening day of this year’s legislative session in Raleigh, N.C.Credit…Kate Medley for The New York Times

Charlotte leaders aim to move half of the city’s trips away from cars by 2040 through embracing light rail, buses and bike paths. But they need the Legislature’s approval of a local sales tax referendum to finance the effort.

Mr. Moore, who lives in the Charlotte exurb of Kings Mountain scoffed at the plan. “If you put more bike lanes in, that doesn’t mean more people are going to ride their bikes to work — that’s not going to happen,” he said at a political forum this month. “You need to build and expand roads because we are driving cars.” Charlotte’s mayor, Vi Lyles, later said she hoped to meet with Mr. Moore to explain the proposal.

Charlotte and the State Legislature have sparred before. In 2016, the General Assembly approved a so-called bathroom bill that blocked the city’s guarantee of rights to L.G.B.T.Q. residents, including transgender residents’ choice of an appropriate restroom.

That was a clear partisan override of a liberal city’s preference, said Michael Bitzer, a scholar of North Carolina politics at Catawba College. But the standoff over Charlotte’s transportation network, he added, isn’t much different.

“Finding a Republican who would be supportive of public transit versus finding a Democrat who wants to build more roads?” he said. “They’ve been extinct for years. You can’t find them.”

Some 175 miles up Interstate 65 from Nashville, Democrats in Kentucky’s largest city have railed against what they call a “war on Louisville” by the Republican supermajority in the state General Assembly. Since 2020, the Legislature has approved bills that sapped the authority of the elected board running the metro area’s 100,000-student public school system, weakened the ground rules of a city-county merger approved by voters two decades ago and limited the city’s mayor to two terms.

Republicans there deny waging war, noting last August that they approved more than $450 million for city projects in the current budget. Democrats say the partisan edge since the G.O.P. took full control of the Legislature in 2016 is evident.

Poll workers assisting voters at Gordon Park Pavilion in Milwaukee in November.Credit…Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

“You get a push for partisan politics and constitutional political games nowadays that you didn’t see a decade ago,” said State Senator David Yates, a Louisville Democrat who served earlier on the city’s Metro Council. “You see more conflict at every level.”

In Wisconsin, where a gerrymandered, rural-dominated State Legislature is frequently at odds with Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, leaders say they will have to cut a quarter of the city’s work force unless legislators help to direct more resources to the city.

City leaders want the Legislature to let them approve a local sales tax increase and to change a state policy that shunts state revenues to rural areas at the expense of cities. The lawmakers have rebuffed the pleas for money for years, instead casting the city as a prime example of Democratic overspending and financial mismanagement.

The Legislature raised eyebrows in 2019 by rejecting a request by the Democratic governor for $40 million to replace lead water pipes — partly because too much money would be spent in Milwaukee, some Republicans said.

Kathy Bernier, a Republican who represented Chippewa Falls in largely rural northwestern Wisconsin in the State Senate until this year, said she was reluctant to rescue the city from a crisis she believed it created. She said it’s a feeling that many rural lawmakers shared.

“Their pension fund is in trouble. The Wisconsin state pension fund is the best in the country,” she said. “As a legislator representing a different part of the state, I don’t have empathy for Milwaukee and how they’ve managed their business.”

Dan Shafer, who writes a newsletter on Milwaukee politics and finances, said evidence of fiscal incompetence is mixed at best. “It’s definitely partisanship,” he said. “It seems like they’re putting Milwaukee in a box and then blaming Milwaukee for being in that box.”

Still, Milwaukee said yes when Nashville said no and will host the 2024 Republican convention. The city’s new mayor, Cavalier Johnson, said endlessly battling with the state at some point becomes a losing proposition. 

“Milwaukee has been shortchanged by the Legislature and state government” under the leadership of both parties, he said. “I’m trying to reset the narrative.”

Kirsten Noyes and Susan Beachy contributed research

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