Death knell for Republicans in Illinois’s 6th congressional district?

Democrat Sean Casten unseated Republican incumbent Peter Roskam in a House race in the 6th Congressional District in Illinois. Does this signal the end of Republican dominance in this suburban district? Some points to consider:

  1. This has been a Republican district since the early 1970s. Before that, the District was represented by a Democrat since the late 1920s and dominated by Republicans between the Civil War and 1911. Long-time representative Henry Hyde passing the seat to Peter Roskam may be the recent history but the district has more variation over the years.
  2. The demographics of these suburban areas has changed quite a bit. Like many American suburbs, the Chicago suburbs have become increasingly non-white and more diverse in terms of social class. The area covered by the district today is not the same white, middle-class swath that it may have once appeared to be.
  3. Redistricting and changing boundaries has happened with the 6th in the past and could happen again in the future. Read more about Illinois redistricting efforts in the 1970s and early 2000s. Some background on this particular district:

Roskam replaced conservative icon U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde in Congress, but much of his old territory in eastern DuPage County is now represented by U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley of Chicago and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Schaumburg, both Democrats.

4. The patterns of voting in the Chicago area suburbs mirror larger trends about suburban voters. The 6th district as well as several other House districts are comprised of the middle ground between Democratic voters in the big city and close suburbs and Republican voters in more rural areas and outer suburbs. These are the battleground areas and this will likely continue in future election cycles.

All this said, there are no guarantees in this district. Multiple factors could sway voters in this district in the near and far future including changes in what the national parties stand for (and what presidential candidates are leading the way), increasing diversity in the suburbs, possible redistricting, and particular concerns and issues that may resonate voters in the middle suburbs. As the suburbs continue to be important areas for both parties to try to pick up seats, expect this district to continue to be contested for at least a few elections to come.

Suburban voters, voting and acting out of fear

The much-discussed suburban voter of this election cycle may have multiple motivations for voting. One factor that appears present now is fear. Are our lives at risk? Will the country will be ruined if the other party is in control?

A little thought experiment: does this easily play into suburban anxieties and fears? Here are some fears scholars have suggested suburbanites face on a regular basis:

1. Fear of the “other,” usually referring to people of non-white races and ethnicities. This manifests itself in multiple ways including exclusionary zoning and gated communities.

2. Fear of losing a middle-class or upper middle-class status. This leads to trying to gather resources for just their family or community.

3. Fear that either their children are not going to succeed or that they are at risk. After all, the suburbs are supposed to be a safe place for which to launch them to excellence.

4. This dates back more to the early decades of postwar suburbia but a fear of losing their individualism and being pushed into conformity to suburban norms.

There are counterarguments to each of these as well as a general claim that suburbanites move to the suburbs because they wanted to, not because they were all fearful.

But, if there are indeed numerous fears in suburbia, does marketing politicians and policies on the basis of fear an even more effective tactic for suburban voters?

Contested House races in educated suburban districts

The road to political success for the national parties continues to run through middle suburbs:

On one side of that divide is growing Democratic strength in white-collar suburbs recoiling from Trump; on the other is continued Republican dominance in rural places and blue-collar communities that flocked to Trump in 2016 and haven’t wavered much since. These divergent forces explain why Democratic opportunities are expanding in well-educated suburban districts around major metropolitan areas all over the country while the party is still facing an uphill climb in almost all the House seats outside metropolitan areas that it hoped to contest this year.

The Washington race between first-time Democratic candidate Kim Schrier, a pediatrician, and Republican Dino Rossi, a three-time GOP nominee for statewide office, is one of several contests that capture both of those dynamics inside the same district. Democrats this year are mounting serious challenges for Republican-held seats that sprawl from suburban into rural areas around Richmond, Virginia; Lexington, Kentucky; Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina; Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, Iowa; Topeka, Kansas; Columbus, Ohio; Springfield, Illinois; and parts of upstate New York, among other places.

Republicans have controlled each of these districts for years, typically posting comfortable margins in both their rural and suburban areas. But the results in them this fall will pressure-test the electoral trade that Trump is imposing on his party: growing strength in small-town and rural communities offset by growing skepticism and resistance in many white-collar suburbs, particularly among women. The intensely divisive confirmation battle over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh appears poised to magnify the trends on both sides of that line.

The main contours of the political battle continues to hold: Democrats get votes from big cities and close suburbs, Republicans get votes from rural areas and exurbs, and the two parties fight over the middle suburbs characterized by relatively educated and wealthy residents with some pockets of poorer residents as well as various levels of racial and ethnic diversity. This was the pattern in 2016 (see earlier posts about Clinton winning in the Chicago suburbs, Trump losing ground in suburbs, and changes in suburban voting patterns) and it appears to be true in the 2018 elections (see recent posts here and here).

Do political signs in yards lower property values?

Homeowner’s associations often have restrictions about signs and displays owners can have on their property. The supposed goal of all of this is to protect property values. Without such community organizations, someone might do something odd to their property (ranging from painting their door an unusual color to having stuff in the yard to hanging) that would affect selling prices nearby.

Two questions:

  1. Do political signs and displays actually lower property values?
  2. Even if they do drive down property values, isn’t political expression worth it?

Regarding the first question, outside of legal opinions, I cannot quickly find scholarship with empirical evidence about this. I could see how such an argument could be made: certain political opinions or just the clutter of political signs or displays could detract from the particular aesthetic of a block or neighborhood. As realtors often suggest that the interiors of homes should be relatively depersonalized and uncluttered so that any prospective buyer could imagine themselves there, perhaps the same applies for the exterior. If political signs do indeed have a negative effect, I imagine it would be quite small. (Could signs have a positive effect? Perhaps it could indicate the political leanings of a neighborhood that some would find worth knowing. Or, it might suggest a level of political engagement that some could find attractive.)

But, even if political signs have a negative effect, how much are they worth regulating given that Americans typically like to have the right to political expression? Should HOAs have special regulations about signs or displays that go beyond what a municipality might have about size or noise or crowding? (See a recent example involving a large “Impeach Trump” sign in Elgin, Illinois that the owner reduced in size after the city said it violated their codes.) HOAs often go beyond municipal regulations to make sure that property owners are protected against possible threats to their property values.  Why not allow a little more politics in HOA developments rather than clamp down on matters that could be handled by someone else? (There is already a sorting process that goes on for homeowners at the municipal level before they even consider entering an HOA.)

Another argument to make in favor of more freedom for political signage in HOAs is thinking about the common good – theoretically what politics is about – rather than individual property owners. If more speech is better so that all sides have a chance to participate, why would we then allow HOAs to limit some political expressions just so owners can benefit?

Ultimately, homeowners voluntarily enter such communities; they do not have to purchase one of the millions of housing units governed by an HOA. At the same time, many Americans seem willing to enter HOAs to protect their property until they run into regulations they do not like. If higher property values are the ultimate goal of suburban life, perhaps these HOA dispute stories will simply continue because people cannot afford to not utilize them. On the other hand, if HOAs do not serve the common political good, perhaps they should be avoided.

 

HOAs, political signs, and elections

What would a national election cycle be without stories of how politics and homeowner’s associations do (or do not) mix? The latest in reactions to political lawn art from Katy, Texas:

Shannon Bennett and her husband painted the tribute to O’Rourke in an effort to keep people from stealing the their political lawn sign, the Star-Telegram reported Thursday.

Bennett said she and her husband were immediately confronted by the the president of the Chesterfield Community Association, who she said was “very hostile” over the sign.

This sounds, in many ways, like a typical HOA conflict. The homeowner does something that may not be explicitly prohibited or at least is more difficult to find in the association’s regulations and conflict ensues. Painting your lawn for a political candidate is an unusual step and it is not surprising that the HOA had concerns. Add a contentious political battle and this is a Grade A HOA dust-up.

But, more details in the story suggest this is more than just an election year battle:

Bennett told the paper that she felt like there is a double standard in the neighborhood, noting that she lives near a house with a sign that reads “I stand for the anthem, and kneel for the cross.” According to Bennett, the neighbor’s sign should not be allowed under the HOA rules because it is not a political sign.

Bennett said she was forced to remove a sign that reads “kindness is everything” due to the same guideline.

And from the HOA company:

“This is not a violation for them placing a political sign; it’s the type of signage that they’ve actually placed on their property being an extremely large painting on the actual grass of their front yard,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle. “It is a landscaping and signage violation. It has nothing to do with it being a political signage. Any type of signage of that nature would be in violation.”

Now this is not just about an election for a senate seat; now this is about which rules are enforced, which messages are deemed political, and what forms these messages can take. And in a state known for its conservatism, these disputes could fester. Neighbors are pitted against neighbors all in a quest to maintain property values.

Tomorrow: do political signs affect property values and if they do, isn’t the right to political expression worth it?

The suburban dimension to the Kavanaugh hearings

The testimony from Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh all revolved around a suburban high school social scene. Some suburban features of the matter at hand:

-Kavanaugh lived in Bethesda, Maryland. This community just northwest of Washington D.C. is largely white as well as very wealthy and educated. Ford also lived in the Washington D.C. suburbs.

-Kavanaugh described his summers in high school as involving working (having his own lawn mower business, working in construction) and getting together with friends. It sounds like they were able to drive themselves places. They had some measure of independence to engage in teenager activities. Ford described spending many summer days at the country club pool.

-Both Kavanaugh and Ford went to private schools in high school and highly ranked colleges (Yale and the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill).

-The partying and drinking scene at people’s houses and other settings (like the beach) sounds like descriptions I have heard about parties in wealthier suburbs as well as occasional stories relayed to me from my own suburban setting.

-Kavanaugh described himself as working really hard at school even as he also came from a family with good jobs and resources. He also described participation in a number of high school activities including football.

-Kavanaugh had a decent-sized group of friends who hung out and knew each other fairly well (even if they have not kept up so well over the years since high school).

-A number of the physical settings mentioned in the hearing are common in suburbia. The alleged assault took place at a two-story suburban house in nearby Chevy Chase (also a very white and wealthy suburb) that probably does not stand out much from neighboring houses. Ford described running into Mark Judge at a local supermarket.

-Both Ford and Kavanaugh ended up in successful careers that might be considered befitting of their wealthier suburban origins: Kavanaugh has a law degree and is a judge and Ford has a Ph.D. and is a psychologist.

The descriptions of this suburban life from the allegation and the denial seem like they could come from any number of wealthier American suburbs. These are places where teenagers often have a good measure of independence and some access to vehicles, money, and alcohol (and/or drugs), the teenagers generally end up as successes, and some mischief or misdeeds are allowable for kids from good families (and perhaps even encouraged). On one hand, these are the sorts of places where teenage life can look pretty good. On the other hand, as the hearings imply, wealthier suburban life can go horribly wrong in ways that resources and success can not easily remedy.

Can proposed legislation on housing prompt a public discussion?

A new bill proposed in the Senate by Elizabeth Warren attempts to address housing issues:

It aims to lower the cost of developing housing so landlords don’t have to make rents so high, coming at the issue from two different angles. From one end, it tries to increase the supply of affordable housing by pouring billions of federal dollars into programs that subsidize developments in rural, low-income, and middle-income communities.

From the other end, the bill attempts to strip away the zoning laws that made developing housing so expensive in the first place. Many of these zoning laws limit low-income residents from moving to wealthier neighborhoods. In Tegeler’s opinion, the laws are one of the main drivers of housing unaffordability. Those laws typically exist at a local level, so in order to target them, Warren’s bill creates a competitive block grant program. The grant money could be spent flexibly—on schools or parks, for example—and is intended to appeal to suburban communities with stricter zoning laws.  Those communities can only access grants if they reexamine and redress their land restrictions.

The bill also focuses on the ways housing inequality falls along racial lines. Notably, it assists populations that federal housing policy has historically failed: formerly segregated African American populations and families whose housing wealth was destroyed in the financial crisis. Under the bill, black families long denied mortgages by the federal government qualify for down payment assistance, helping many in formerly segregated communities to become first-time home buyers. The bill also invests two billion dollars to support borrowers still recovering from the financial crisis with negative equity on their mortgages.

The bill also restructures the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a 1977 law proposed to monitor banks with discriminatory loan policies against communities of color. Warren’s bill gives the CRA more enforcement mechanisms and expands its policing power to include credit unions and nonbank mortgage companies, which were not as ubiquitous when the bill was passed. Lastly, the bill strengthens anti-discrimination laws by expanding Fair Housing Act protections to include gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, and source of income, attempting to limit housing segregation in the future.

It sounds like the bill tries to strike a balance between incentives for communities and developers and strengthening enforcement of guidelines against housing discrimination.

It will be interesting to see what tone the public debate takes, if it even reaches the level of public discussion. Housing issues are not on the national political radar screen. Historically, many Americans are reluctant to address housing concerns through the federal government. They would rather leave these matters to local governments, if government should address the matter at all. Support for public housing has always been limited.

Similarly, even stating an intention of trying to encourage certain suburban communities to open up their doors to different kinds of residents is a hard sell. Minorities and immigrants are indeed moving to suburbia but where they locate or can live is not necessarily even. (See this recent example from the Chicago suburbs of high black homeownership in certain communities.) A good number of suburbanites would attribute the residential segregation patterns to economic options and/or the ability of local communities to draw up guidelines of what kind of community they want to be (such as one without certain kinds of housing).

I would not expect such a bill to be an easy sell or even one that can garner much attention, even if it addresses issues that affect millions of Americans.