Searching for the perfect name for a slate of candidates in local elections

Keeping in mind regulations, non-partisan traditions, and what might appeal to voters, candidates running for local elections in the Chicago area come up with some clever names for their slate:

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A court ruled in 2017 that candidates in Illinois don’t need to be part of a slate to run under the banner of a political party. So Dubiel decided to create a party of which he would be the only member — LZ Thrive…

When the calendar turns to the spring municipal elections, political passions are no longer contained to Republicans and Democrats. In suburb after suburb, you’ll find parties with monikers like People Before Politics, We’re in This Together, You Are the Village’s Heart, the Common Sense Again Party, the United Party for Progress or, most expansive of all, the Party of the Past, Present and Future…

One way to avoid such complications is to change the party’s name for every election, thereby making it a brand-new entity that can control its slate. That has been a routine practice in Bolingbrook, which for more than three decades was run by former Mayor Roger Claar under a variety of party names…

Those included Citizens for Bolingbrook First, the Bolingbrook First Party, Bolingbrook First and, in its most recent iteration following Claar’s 2020 retirement, the First Party for Bolingbrook.

I imagine there is an art to this. What exactly can capture a particular local spirit? Many of the names quoted above emphasize a bright future or emphasize a collective community spirit. There is a sense of optimism or forward momentum. (There could be the occasional anti-growth or preserve the community slate names in there as well – just not quoted above.)

If many of these are in the suburbs, other names might fit with the broad themes of suburbia: Making the Best Suburb for Your Children! Boosting Your Property Values! Keeping Certain Land Uses (and People) Out! Maintaining Our Lead Over Other Nearby Suburbs! And so on.

What if this was possible at the national level? What could Democrats and Republicans come up with every two and/or four years to really emphasize their particular focus in that election? Since each party does reconfigure their platform each election to fit current priorities, perhaps this would make some sense. It could also help eliminate the confusion over long-term shifts where one party used to support something but now it is the other party that pushes it.

Residential segregation – by political party

Residential segregation by race is a large issue and voting patterns in recent elections generally show Democrats winning in cities and close suburbs and Republicans winning in outer suburbs and rural areas. Put these two ideas together and you have residential segregation by political party.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/03/17/upshot/partisan-segregation-maps.html

As new research has found, it’s not just that many voters live in neighborhoods with few members of the opposite party; it’s that nearly all American voters live in communities where they are less likely to encounter people with opposing politics than we’d expect. That means, for example, that in a neighborhood where Democrats make up 60 percent of the voters, only 50 percent of a Republican’s nearest neighbors might be Democrats.

Democrats and Republicans are effectively segregated from each other, to varying degrees by place, according to the Harvard researchers Jacob Brown and Ryan Enos. And at least over the past decade, they believe this partisan segregation has been growing more pronounced…

For each individual voter, tied to an address, the researchers looked at their thousand nearest voters, weighting those next door more heavily than those a mile away. Drawn this way, about 25 million voters — urban Democrats especially — live in residential circles where at most only one in 10 encounters is likely to be with someone from the opposite party. Democrats in parts of Columbus, Ohio, and Oklahoma City live this way. So do Republicans in the reddest parts of Birmingham, Ala., and Gillette, Wyo…

These studies together suggest that as places become more politically homogeneous, people there are more likely to conform and to publicly signal their partisanship. Maybe no one says, “I want to move here because of all these Biden yard signs.” But perhaps one neighbor is swayed by the people who put them up, and another neighbor concludes, “This isn’t the place for me.”

Lots of confounding variables to examine across a lot of locales. But, the underlying patterns are fascinating to consider: do geographic communities, even in an era of reduced neighborly contact and participation in local institutions, influence people’s political belief and behavior? With more focus in recent years on how online and social media behavior influences politics, this connection to geography has the opportunity to reinvigorate conversation about the power of local communities.

I would be interested to see how this plays out among local governments of communities with similar traits. Take a suburb closer to a big city that leans Democrat and a suburb further out that leans Republicans. Are the local decisions made that different? Do local elections look different?

Or, how often are there tipping points across communities and neighborhoods where a majority of voters are of one party or another? The patterns now show some stability but these have changed in the past and could change again in the future. What happens when they do change and does the character of the community change?

The later costs of sprawl

One writer suggests the sprawl of the Sun Belt leads to significant costs down the road:

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Over time, growth has reduced those advantages. Jobs and people moving to states like Texas and Georgia slowly bid up the price of land and labor. Ample spare capacity for land and transportation infrastructure — think six-lane highways — let sprawl be a growth outlet for decades, but over time congestion and distance from airports and job centers raised the cost of sprawl as well. The 2008 financial crisis arguably busted the sprawl model in the largest Sun Belt metros of Houston, Dallas and Atlanta, where until the onset of the pandemic single-family building permits had lapsed to 35% below the 2006 highs, despite those metros still having reputations for sprawl and fast growth…

What’s needed to maintain past growth momentum and meet the expectations of these new populations is a continued push up the value chain towards local economies based on knowledge work, with higher-paying jobs and college-educated workers. The specific services or investments needed to lure these types of jobs and workers will shift with the political winds — it might be a greater investment in schools and universal pre-K programs today, and transportation infrastructure tomorrow. It’s the same kind of policy arms race these communities have been accustomed to for decades, only with more services replacing low taxes as the policy lever.

For now, the most likely tweaks to the governance model will probably be incremental — stormwater improvements, sidewalk construction and other “complete streets” projects, modest increases to educational funding — simply because the votes aren’t there to raise taxes enough for the kind of revenue needed for bigger changes.

But these tensions aren’t going away. It’s eventually going to require larger investments than current leaders and older voters are willing to make. Ultimately, the choice for these communities is to spend the money needed to stay competitive in the new arms race, or lose out to places that will.

In the United States, growth is good. Communities need to grow to show that they are exciting, thriving places. New residents and businesses signal good things to come.

But, the piece quoted above notes the longer-term possibilities of such growth. What happens after the fast growth slows or ends? Is it sustainable? How do communities switch from fast growth to mature growth or stability? My own research in the Chicago suburbs suggests this is not necessarily an easy switch. When the land starts to or does run out, communities have to make important decisions. Should they grow through increased density and/or allow taller buildings? How much will it cost to maintain all of the existing infrastructure? How much redevelopment or teardowns will take place? Even during the high growth periods, the costs can increase – see battles within sprawl over the costs for new schools and who pays – let alone as the sprawling areas age.

More broadly, what happens to sprawling suburbs decades after the sprawl has ended? We can now look back at numerous postwar suburbs and see what happened. The Levittowns always draw some attention for the ways they changed and are still the same. Many of these suburbs are over a half century old (though others are newer). These communities revolve around single-family homes and driving, among other things, and this might continue for decades. Or, it might not if conditions and ideologies change.

Abolish townships or worry about turning them blue (or keeping them red)?

Illinois has many taxing bodies and government units. Illinois moved to stop creating new government bodies and DuPage County resolved several years ago to work to reduce the number of government bodies. Townships are a common target; they exist above municipal governments and below counties so are they necessary?

I thought of this recently with the lead-up to the upcoming local elections. On one side, I have seen signs urging voters to “Turn Milton Blue.”

This might be a strategy to boost local turnout and connect to broader political patterns. But, I do not know what these candidates want to do at the township level. What significant changes are needed?

On the other hand, I have seen campaign material for Republican candidates for Milton Township. This material listed all the things that the township does, presumably because of the Republicans there. For a party that at least talks sometimes about limited government, should they argue townships are unnecessary rather than fighting for political seats?

More broadly, how much do these township races benefit the people and communities of Illinois? In a time of budget deficits before COVID-19 plus further issues because of COVID-19, is it more important that one party or another holds the majority of seats in townships?

Will turnout increase for upcoming local elections?

Election season is near in our area. Local elections often have really low turnoutsuburban municipal officials can be elected by just a small fraction of the population. But, perhaps this year will be different for a few reasons:

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  1. Local battles over COVID-19. With disagreement with and mistrust of national responses, local elections offer an opportunity to weight in on local responses. In particular, decisions about school reopenings are hot issues in elections for school boards. Add in debates about local businesses and eateries and voters might want to weigh in.
  2. Carryover from national elections and political polarization. Traditionally, local elections are non-partisan. Yet, the rancor at the higher levels could carry over. For example, I saw a large sign today looking to turn township positions blue. How much local officials might actually be able to do in regards to these debates is likely limited but it could help some voters and officials feel better.
  3. The activism of Black Lives Matter in suburbs plus responses to it could send more voters to the polls. How should communities address inequalities or disparities?
  4. Concern about municipal budgets. COVID-19 has created new problems and a number of communities already faced issues. How should money be spent and what could be done to bring in more revenue? The competition might just be heating up among suburbs to find government and tax revenues.

In other words, these are not typical local elections during good times. The local election turnout malaise might not be there. Since suburbanites tend to like local government, will they turn out this time when there are multiple pressing issues?

When new residents to an area bring a lot more money to spend on housing

A piece in the New York Times highlights what happens when residents from one part of the United States move to another. One aspect of this: the new residents can bring a lot of money with which to purchase a home.

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According to a recent study by Redfin, the national real estate brokerage, the budget for out-of-town home buyers moving to Boise is 50 percent higher than locals’ — $738,000 versus $494,000. In Nashville, out-of-towners also have a budget that is 50 percent higher than locals. In Austin it’s 32 percent, Denver 26 percent and Phoenix 23 percent.

As the commentary goes on to note, this means that prices in certain housing markets can then go up. New residents with resources compete with existing residents who may or may not be able to keep up. Several thoughts arise:

-Imagine current NIMBY practices at a national level instead of just at a local or regional level. The piece hints that people in multiple locations might want to restrict migration from California. Mass movements of people in the United States are not heard of and restrictions have been applied before.

-This presents an interesting conundrum for local officials and local planners. Growth is usually good. Until it is not the kind of growth local residents want or it is growth driven by outside forces. If communities want to grow and attract wealthier residents, are they also willing to accept the changes that might come?

-Just as some communities have requirements that developers of big projects pay fees or provide affordable housing, is there some way for a community to “tax” newcomers to help provide funds to offset changes?

-Do these patterns eventually lead to from a perpetual search for the new hot, lower cost of living location? Once Boise, Austin, and Nashville are different, what places come next – Omaha, Billings, Baton Rouge? This would take quite a while to work out but I do wonder how many attractive lower cost of living places there can be at any one time.

“Cities hope eventually to turn their smart street lights into cash cows”

Cities continue to look for ways to monetize their infrastructure. The new frontier: street lights.

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The poles can serve as billboards where companies buy ad space.

5G providers and others can pay monthly fees to hang their equipment on light poles.

The brass ring for cities is to compile data from smart street lights and sell it for profit.

The bottom line: “We’re seeing a lot of cities buying back their street lights from utilities,” Gardner tells Axios.

“Because all of a sudden, they’ve woken up to the fact that, hey — you know, the boring, kind of arcane corner of the municipal infrastructure space, the street light poles? They’re actually critical assets that we need to own and control.”

This could be the dream of city managers and public works directors everywhere: the same infrastructure that serves the residents of the community can also be used to generate revenue for the city. Imagine covering the maintenance and construction costs of the infrastructure and possibly even adding to the community revenues.

Residents could like this too. However, they might have a few concerns:

-Billboards in even more places? What about visual pollution? What companies are allowed to advertise on government owned property?

-Some communities already have controversy over 5G. This could raise the conflict from it just being present in the community to being officially endorsed by the municipality.

-Sell data about residents and visitors? Is there any expectation to privacy while driving, walking, biking in public?

It will be interesting to see how far this goes across different communities.

Combining local government and company towns in a Nevada proposal

A proposal in Nevada would create “Innovation Zones” where companies could form their own local governments:

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According to a draft of the proposed legislation, obtained by the Review-Journal but not yet introduced in the Legislature, Innovation Zones would allow tech companies like Blockchains, LLC to effectively form separate local governments in Nevada, governments that would carry the same authority as a county, including the ability to impose taxes, form school districts and justice courts and provide government services, to name a few duties.

Sisolak pitched the concept in his State of the State address as his plan to bring in new companies that are at the forefront of “groundbreaking technologies,” all without the use of tax abatements or other publicly funded incentive packages that had previously helped Nevada bring companies like Tesla to the state.

During his speech last month, Sisolak specifically named Blockchains, LLC as a company that had committed to developing a “smart city” in the area east of Reno that would run entirely on blockchain technology, once the legislation passes…

The draft proposal lays out the requirements for the zone, including the applicant owning 50,000 acres of undeveloped land, all within a single county but separate of any city, town or tax increment area. And the area would have to be uninhabited. The company would also need to have $250 million, and a plan to invest an additional $1 billion over 10 years into the zone.

This would appear to come at the nexus of trends. First, Americans generally like the idea of local government. They believe it to be more nimble and responsive to local needs as local officials can focus more on getting things done than getting bogged down in ideology or numerous competing interests.

Second, tech companies and other big companies like the idea of large campuses. Having a sizable portion of private land where employees can do all sorts of things, including work, is already a feature in some tech headquarters.

Third, governments want to attract businesses, whether headquarters or manufacturing facilities or office parks, that can help bring jobs, tax revenues, and status. This proposal provides different incentives compared to the traditional tax break.

Fourth, businesses like the idea of controlling activities regarding their company. Company towns are not new nor are ideas about creating regulation free zones for business activity. Being able to create local regulations, collect taxes, and more could be attractive to some companies.

Would such a proposal prove successful? It might depend on the definition of success: it could work out well for the business but perhaps not for employees or surrounding communities. And even if it does work, is it broadly transferable to other locations? The conditions in Nevada might be different than many other locations in the United States.

Steps for growing the tiny house movement in 2021

If more Americans are interested in tiny houses, what steps might be needed for them to become viable options for more people?

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Experts say the movement’s main goal this year should be to convince more states and municipalities to legalize tiny houses across the country…

Some leaders in the movement hope to end the narrative that tiny houses are for families…

Tiny houses also need to be seen as viable affordable housing in the future, experts say…

Some of the leaders of the tiny-house movement said they hope to distance themselves from the rise in RVs and camper vans this year

It is interesting to see these four strategies together. Based on this article and previous articles I have seen claiming tiny houses are trending up, I have not seen enough evidence that there is a sizable shift toward tiny houses.

But, perhaps those who claim these four strategies are necessary would say that each point addresses something that holds the tiny house movement back. I would put these four into two broader categories that are worth exploring more.

The first category has to do with important local zoning regulations. Communities are prepared to handle single-family homes and many would be prepared to address multi-family housing. But, tiny houses are out of the ordinary and present unique challenges and opportunities. Should they be allowed on the same lot as an existing home? Do they go with micro-lots? Do they threaten the character of single-family homes? How many could be put on a regular residential plot of land? What are their water and services needs? Are these going to be cheaper or more luxury tiny homes? It would take some time to figure this out in many communities.

The second category involves the next three points. These are marketing and perception issues. Who are tiny houses for? What are they about? What social needs do they serve? The three points above try to answer these questions: tiny houses are for smaller households, they could be affordable housing, but they are not like RVs and camper vans. This puts them into an in-between category: not as permanent as a single-family house but not as mobile as an RV or camper van; cheaper than a typical house but there is still a cost (plus possible land costs); for some people but not others. Perhaps growing more quickly within a particular niche is what would help tiny houses as a whole become more popular.

There could be additional issues to address. If many more Americans wanted to order a tiny house in the next few weeks, could the orders be fulfilled relatively quickly? Do we have sufficient public and private spaces around tiny homes so that people can enjoy living in such a small space?

This is a lot to do. That can be okay; not all products have explosive growth and slow positive change could work out in the long run.

Selecting a suburban mayor by picking a ping pong ball out of a hat

Last week, one tied mayoral race in a Houston suburb came down to selecting names from of a hat:

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Sean Skipworth and Jennifer Lawrence were vying to be the next mayor of Dickinson, but they each ended up with 1,010 votes after a runoff election last month and a recount earlier this week.

According to Texas law, a tie in a race for public office can be resolved by casting lots.

Skipworth became mayor after a ping pong ball with his name was pulled out of a hat during a ceremony Thursday that lasted about 10 minutes, the Galveston County Daily News reported…

Dickinson, located about 40 miles southeast of Houston, has more than 21,000 residents.

What a way to peacefully resolve an election.

Two things strike me in reading this. First, many Americans like having local government at a relatively small scale. This is a medium size suburb: it could be small enough to be considered a small town, large enough to feel bigger than a small town. Such elections can be decided by a small number of voters: the article suggests each candidate had 1,010 votes, meaning the front-runners had slightly more than 2,000 votes out of over 15,000 residents who might be available to vote (rough calculations from Census data).

Second, Americans often feel better about their local politics – from their community through their representatives in Congress – compared to national politics. Perhaps people want to think better about those from their places or the stakes at the local level are lower (though local disagreements can get heated). The mayor of Dickinson, Texas may not be able to do much in the grand scheme of things but local officials are often non-partisan and say they are about getting things done.

Because this happened at a very local level, there is likely little from this particular solution – casting lots – to apply to the national level. Yet, the spirit and means of local politics may provide regular reminders of what is possible and how politics can be conducted.