There are hundreds, soon to be thousands, of takes on why down-ballot Republicans in urban areas around the country performed so poorly during Tuesday’s midterm elections. People will blame: President Trump, the partisan divide of D.C., the long coattails of popular top-of-ticket Democrat candidates, and demographics — using the oft-repeated but lazy phrase: “our voters don’t live in cities.” What they won’t do is a serious self-analysis and understand that the problem lies with Republicans, not urban voters.
Rather than continue the “woe-is-me” narrative that comes from the fact that Republicans, in recent history, perform abysmally in cities (which happen to be the areas of the country, and of Texas, that are growing the most) we need to take a new approach to cities, which shouldn’t be hard since we’re not approaching them at all right now. We need to make urban voters our voters or we will cease to exist. We don’t have to change our values, we need to change our tactics.
To be fair, there are always individual candidates and activists that, whether out of design or necessity, take it upon themselves to carry the mantle and reach out to urban voters. But when the overall party derides cities and urban governments and refuses to make inroads, all individual grunt work can be erased with a simple, 5-minute Fox News segment from a talking head who says urban voters “don’t share our values” or spouts a nonsensical talking point about “urban wastelands.”
Cities don’t conflict with the conservative dream.
Cities were originally founded in Mesopotamia following the Neolithic Revolution, around 7500 BCE, and they were developed to bring more people and resources closer together as a free market way to reduce the transport costs for goods, people, and ideas. The idea was —and is — that, with more people closer together, not only does that naturally reduce costs but it generates a level of productivity and innovation that cannot be found elsewhere.
These cities were focused on trade, had substantial religious influences, and a sense of community. Cities haven’t changed that much, but our view of them has.
Whether the community is a group of residents on a city block, a community of neighbors in an inner-city high-rise, or homeowners in a suburban enclave on the edge of a city, this same sense of community and shared value can be found in inner-city Houston as easily as it can be found in Preston Hollow, Dallas, or Perryton.
Consider rent parties, which date back to the 1920s inner cities, from Chicago to Harlem. When renters found out one of their fellow community members couldn’t afford rent for that month or a few months, they would often hold parties charging an attendance fee. These parties — many times held without the explicit approval or knowledge of the recipient — often featured a live musician and residents would provide snacks and drinks. At the end of the night, the money collected would go to the renter in need of help. While that was a regular occurrence, and still can be found in some places, it’s not the sense of community, caring, or charitable giving that Republicans typically associate with inner cities or urban dwellers.
Many conservatives often talk about rural shop owners, diner waitresses, or mechanics who “know your name” and won’t take advantage of you, but they don’t often associate these with cities.
Where I grew up in New Jersey, the corner store was our community center in more ways than one. Cardy’s Candy Shop was run by Cardy, a man who has seemed to be 80-years-old since I was a child; he was our neighborhood watch, local news reporter, storage facility owner, occasional babysitter, safe haven, and, of course, candy supplier.
If you wanted to know why the cops were going down the street at midnight, Cardy would know. If some kids got in trouble for stealing from a nearby store or running across the street (outside of parental boundaries), Cardy would report. If we needed a place to sit on a hot day while waiting for our parents, Cardy’s bar stools were always available for us to sit and drink a malt as if we were in a ’50s time machine. If an adult needed to leave a key for someone to pick up later, a place to hold a package, someone to direct the mailman to a house he couldn’t find, someone to lend an ear or keep a lookout (since he lived atop the store), Cardy was all of those things. That same genuine, close-knit, community-grown, shop store owner found in rural life is also found in city life.
Cities exist as a place for economic opportunity because of the close proximity to employment, low cost of living due to the diverse array of housing options, and educational freedom, since in many cities (not in Texas, yet), parents can choose a school far across the city if they feel it fits their child’s needs. These are opportunities many couldn’t afford to take advantage of in rural areas or even many suburban neighborhoods. The close proximity and availability of transit allows them to live a freer life from government assistance than they could elsewhere.
However, cities do have problems — problems that conservative policy solutions fit squarely into.
Affordable housing, or affordable homeownership, is a phrase that gets the side-eye from conservatives as if decently priced housing is something to scoff at. Typically this housing is found in cities, in part because of the proximity to transportation and lax development rules, but cities are increasingly drive up the costs.
Housing is one of the most over-regulated industries in America today, and urban governments place restrictions on what you can build on your property, the property’s size and shape, and who can stay there and for what purpose. I previously wrote an article about the Houston Historical Commission requiring a property owner to paint their property a certain color. These are more than affordability issues, they are outright property rights issues, yet Republicans stop listening when they hear the phrase “affordable housing.”
This is an issue we can tackle and, again, not by changing our values such as offering more abatements or subsidies, but by simply liberalizing zoning and land use policies to allow for more growth where demanded.
Free-market housing policy allows people to build what they want and where they want on their property, and doesn’t force them to adhere to minimum lot size requirements that drive up the cost of a building; it also means they are not forced to have a minimum amount of required parking, which drives up their cost and limits the usable square footage. Why should someone who is developing a townhouse but doesn’t plan to own a car be required to build a driveway? Should that not be their choice? Only conservative policy solutions offer that type of free-market alternative, but we don’t try to provide these solutions.
The fact is that Republicans have by-and-large stopped trying in cities. While public unions and left-leaning groups have no problem spending heavily to elect their favored candidates to city council and then higher offices from there, urban republican candidates have to beg, borrow, and steal to get their supporters to give them funding or contribute in any meaningful way because everyone has already bought in to the idea that it’s a lost cause.
The last Republican mayors of NYC and Los Angeles, America’s two largest cities, only left office in 2001. The 2015 Houston mayoral election came down to 4,082 votes (50.96 percent to 49.04 percent) out of over 210,000 votes.
Consider that in two election cycles, Harris County went from having Republicans elected in every county office (county judge, district attorney, sheriff, district clerk, county clerk, treasurer, tax-assessor, and three of four commissioners) to having none countywide and only two Republican commissioners left.
According to Harris County data, the percentage of Texans living in the county grew from 16.2 percent to 16.7 percent from 2010 through 2017. That same data shows that during that period, the population of Houston grew by 7 percent. So while population is growing, it isn’t growing at such a pace that changing demographics are the lone reason for Republicans’ failures.
We can continue to deride urban areas, but they are the areas that are growing. Since 2000, 80 percent of Texas’ population growth has been in the four major metropolitan areas because that is where the work, opportunity, and affordable housing areas reside. We need not abandon the issues we regularly focus on, but we need to include issues that affect urban voters: unaffordability, over-regulation, zoning, poverty, and transportation. We need to address these in an earnest way, in which we stop speaking down to those who choose to live in cities and begin to explain how free-market and limited government policies can uplift and free people.
While the Republican Party platform is silent today on specific policies that address the problems unique to urban areas, it doesn’t have to be silent for long. Republicans can win the cities if activists will apply the party’s principles to the real-world problems created by the Democrats’ policies. As Republicans, we can and must do better.