Revival of urban conservatives in Southwestern cities?

Politico suggests that urban conservatives may be making a comeback in a few Southwest cities:

Squint, and you can see that Mesa is just one of several places where Republicans are creating a new model of conservatism for the post-Tea Party era, through an appealing blend of fiscal pragmatism and no-nonsense competence. Across the country, Republican cities are building new infrastructure and even embracing trendy liberal ideas like “new urbanism”—all while managing to keep costs in line and municipal workforces small and cost-effective. As the great, Democratic-run cities across the country—Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles—face fiscal calamity, America’s conservative cities are showing that there’s another way…

While Mesa has long pursued the lightly regulated development patterns that one would expect from the wellspring of Goldwater Republicanism, change is afoot. Over the past several years, the city has begun embracing development that’s downright trendy, and implementing policies that will make it more like Portland, Oregon, than Orange County, California…

The flair for new, pedestrian- and transit-friendly development extends beyond downtown. All through the city, Mesa is pursuing development policies that are downright crunchy. The city is undergoing a “road diet,” cutting one six-lane road to two, expanding sidewalks and adding bike lanes. “[We’re] trying to set the table for a more pedestrian-friendly environment,” says Richins, who has served on the City Council since 2008. A sprawling new park, adjacent to where the Chicago Cubs are building a new spring training stadium (another development that Smith spearheaded), has recently opened…

While it’s willing to make investments, Mesa is also lean in ways that more bloated liberal cities can’t boast. Take the City Council. Despite Mesa’s hefty population, council members are part-timers who have day jobs in fields from education to copper mining. City leaders also pay themselves considerably less than those in other cities do. Mesa City Council members make only $33,000 a year, and the mayor is paid only $73,000. (And those salaries represent the fruits of a big raise: Before last year, city councilmembers made less than $20,000 a year and the mayor earned only $36,000.) By contrast, as of 2012, in similarly sized Fresno, the mayor made $126,000; city council members brought home nearly $65,000. In neighboring Phoenix, meanwhile, the mayor makes $88,000 and city councilmen earn more than $61,000.

In fact, Mesa is lean all around. The entire municipal workforce stands at only about 3,200 people, down from approximately 3,600 before the recession, and only the firefighters and police officers are unionized. (The school district is separate from the city.) The city doesn’t hand out the fat union contracts that make infrastructure projects in blue states so outlandishly expensive (and thereby reduce support for infrastructure spending, period). During the Great Recession, when area construction companies were reeling and desperate for business after housing starts had fallen off a cliff, the city inked a number of extremely cost-efficient deals—literally building three firehouses for the price of four.

And the article goes on with brief descriptions of conservative moves in Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, and Colorado Springs. But, while the story of Mesa sounds interesting, this is the problem with such an article: how do we know that these cities are representative of other American cities or of a broader social movement? They may be representative but the article doesn’t give us enough information to know. In fact, the opening of the story makes it sound as if it is strange enough to find even one conservative city, let alone four. So, which is it: are these cities really rare or are there lots of cities like this?

If I had to guess, here is what I would put forward: if you grouped big cities in some different population categories (say 1+ million, 500,000-999,999, 250,000-499,999, 100,000-249,999), you would find more conservative versus liberal cities as you move down the categories. While I don’t have the time to look into this right now, this would be a fairly easy hypothesis to test.

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