Urban Gathering Addresses Bottom-Up Politics

By Hilary Silver, Gregory Squires, and Clarence Stone

Partisan polarization and gridlock at the federal level have effectively obstructed the path to positive solutions to the everyday problems of ordinary people.  One consequence of this has been a proliferation of local initiatives, many percolating upwards from the very community residents experiencing these problems.  To collect, analyze, and advance such “bottom-up” innovations, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Urban Sustainability Laboratory, with the University Seminar on Bottom-Up Politics at the George Washington  University and the Metropolitan Policy Center of the School of Public Affairs at American University, held a a symposium on April 12, 2018, in Washington D.C.  The symposium grew out of a grant from George Washington University.   Under it a team of D.C. area scholars including Clarence Stone, Gregory Squires, Hilary Silver (all from GWU’s faculty), Blair Ruble and Allison Garland of the Wilson Center, and Derek Hyra of American University provided the planning and made the arrangements.  Before his failing health forced him to withdraw, the late Thomas Kingsley of the Urban Institute was an integral part of the early planning.

The symposium featured three invited speakers: Phil Thompson, Deputy Mayor of New York City; the Honorable Philip Caroom, retired Judge of the Maryland Circuit Court and member of the Executive Committee of the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform (MAJR), and Jesse Van Tol, Chief Operating Officer of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC).

Setting the context, Hilary Silver opened the session with observations about the dysfunctional features of present-day politics at the national level, underscoring their damaging consequences for local governance.   The list of such features is long, and includes:  gridlock in many areas of policy, hyper-partisanship, tribal cultural bubbles, media segmentation, and an enlarged role for ultra-rich mega-donors who gain special political advantage from extravagant and early campaign spending on candidates they favor.  In this context, federal inaction on health care, immigration reform, fair access to mortgage and small business loans, affordable housing, and infrastructure accompany a fraying safety net and indifference towards mass incarceration leaving problems unaddressed and worsening.  While top-down politics holds little prospect for change, needs are far-reaching, urgent, even matters of life and death.  Despite obstacles such as state preemption, the local arena offers possibilities for a new day in problem-solving.  It is against this background that we can welcome fresh thinking about politics that percolates up from the bottom.

In his opening comments, Clarence Stone defined bottom-up politics as having three key features: (1) a focus on local, not federal, action; (2) a pragmatic orientation; and (3) a bridging capacity over conventional divides.  The local arena is open to grassroots involvement in a way missing from policy control from the top down.  At the local level, concerns are concrete and immediate.  With these features, bottom-up politics can draw otherwise disparate players into shared action built on a fact-centered foundation and shared evidence base.   For instance, deaths from opioid addiction are not abstractions derived from general principles, but rather, an everyday reality in communities across the nation.  The same can be said of asthma brought on by polluted air and subpar housing, or accidents resulting from deteriorating and inadequate infrastructure.

Brooklyn’s Interfaith Medical Center

In addressing the theme of “building civic infrastructure,” Deputy Mayor Phil Thompson talked about his experience with the revitalization of Brooklyn’s Interfaith Medical Center.  It began with nurses and other organized hospital workers.  [We note editorially, they turned to an academic team headed by then faculty member Phil Thompson, who framed and carried out a neighborhood health survey, building a factual base.]  That grassroots group, working with the survey team, framed the issue as one of community health focused on prevention.  With local political actors brought on board, the group connected with the governor and gained access to Medicaid funds to back what became a $1.4 billion plan to rejuvenate Central Brooklyn.  With its cumulative success, the initiative has brought other nearby struggling medical institutions into a growing alliance.

Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform

The second of the invited speakers, Judge Caroom, talked about criminal justice reform in Maryland.  Beginning in Annapolis with a biracial study group around Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, this modest start gave rise to an all-volunteer organization, the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform (MAJR), now with some forty organizational partners plus individual members.  Asking “what’s next?” after the study phase, participants made connections with other concerned groups to form MAJR and sought to grow geographically to become a statewide force.  Seeing itself as nonpartisan, MAJR chose to have bipartisan honorary co-chairs.  Operationally, the Alliance is heavily oriented toward being fact-based.  An early legislative victory was the creation of a Justice Reinvestment Council in 2015 that then served to provide evidence-based elements for a wide-ranging Justice Reinvestment Act in 2016, for which MAJR provides local observers to follow its implementation. This legislative record shows the usefulness of having a grassroots base as well as “grass-tops” connections, similar to the Brooklyn Interfaith Medical Center’s connection with Governor Cuomo.  Through its executive committee membership and other means, MAJR maintains connections with impacted communities of special concern such as inmates, returning citizens, and their families.

In MAJR’s work. Judge Caroom gave special credit to embracing the DeMarco Factor.  In forming its strategy, MAJR found especially helpful the factor’s six steps set forth in Michael Pertschuk’s book, The DeMarco Factor: Transforming Public Will into Political Power –  1) develop an evidence-based strategy; 2) get a high-quality opinion poll; 3) build a coalition; 4) involve the media; 5) make your policy an election issue; and 6) go win in the legislature.  Judge Caroom added a 7th step: identify an undeniable policy problem and offer solutions.  He also placed special emphasis on the importance of clearly identified problems understood in everyday terms, along with the presention of data showing that the public has a more nuanced understanding of criminal-justice  issues than such clichés as “tough on crime.”  “Smart on crime” has proven to be a viable alternative the public supports.

While echoing Phil Thompson’s message about the importance of problem-focused infrastructure at the local level, Judge Caroom also stressed the importance of state connections.  In seeking legislative action, MAJR has pursued bipartisan connections with a Republican governor and Democratic leaders in the Maryland legislature.  Connections include as well other key figures, such as the state attorney general and leaders of various statewide advocacy organizations in areas like jobs and mental health.

National Community Reinvestment Coalition

The NCRC provided further evidence that problem-solving action occurs from the bottom -up with non-profit community organizations and the private sector taking the lead. NCRC is a national membership-based organization, established in 1990, that advocates for fair access to credit and banking services in order to build prosperous, sustainable communities in urban and rural communities throughout the nation.  Currently there are 600 members including community development corporations, civil rights groups, faith based institutions, local and state agencies, minority and women-owned business associations, and local social service organizations.  NCRC and its member organizations do utilize key federal government tools.  These include the 1975 Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, which provides public information on where mortgage lending does (and does not) take place in neighborhoods across the country, and the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, which prohibits redlining by requiring federally chartered depository institutions to affirmatively ascertain and be responsive to the credit needs of their entire service areas, including low- and moderate-income communities. These diverse groups have conducted a range of local and national studies (often with the assistance of scholars associated with academic and other research organizations) that have brought local savings associations and global financial institutions to the bargaining table, generating over $4 trillion in credit to traditionally underserved neighborhoods.

At the conference, Jesse Van Toll described some of the recent community benefits agreements that NCRC and its members have negotiated since 2016.   Below are just some of the highlights:

  • KeyBank:  $16.5 billion for home lending, small business lending, and community development lending and investments in low-and moderate-income (LMI) communities along with a commitment to stop financing payday lenders;
  • Huntington Bank:  $16.1 billion for home, small business, and community development lending and investments in LMI communities, opening 10 new branch offices and addition of mortgage loan officers to serve these neighborhoods;
  • Fifth Third Agreement: $30 billion for home, small business, and community development lending and investments in LMI communities, opening 10 new branch offices and hiring CRA small business loan officers in Chicago, Cincinnati/Dayton, Cleveland, Detroit, Columbus Louisville, Tampa and Indianapolis.

NCRC and its members have an agenda.  But they are also very pragmatic in their effective approach to solving critical problems in local communities.  While federal tools have played an important role, it is the local organizing and partnership activity that has succeeded at a time when key federal agencies (e.g. HUD, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) have been gridlocked or taken significant steps backward.

In the concluding formal presentation, Gregory D. Squires began by noting that progressive social change in the US has almost always bubbled up from below.  Abolition, the labor movement, civil rights movement, women’s suffrage and feminist activity generally, and other social justice initiatives all began with local organizing, advocacy, civil disobedience and often violence.  Local and state rules were enacted and then federal laws were passed. A key difference is that today, unlike in the past, there is no champion at the top, no Lincoln, FDR, JFK, or LBJ.  The absence of national leadership makes local action more urgent.   As Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak argue in their 2018 book, The New Localism, “Federal and state governments, for the most part, are no longer in the problem-solving business; they have dealt themselves out of the equation through a combination of dysfunction, incompetence, and hyperpartisanship.”  Similarly, in their commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission, Healing our Divided Society, Fred Harris (the last living member of the Commission) and Alan Curtis (Director of the Eisenhower Foundation) wrote “At this point in the nation’s history, with gridlocked government in Washington, more and more significant decisions are made by state and local office holders.”

Fortunately, as these observers noted, and as clearly demonstrated at the Wilson conference, there is a growing cadre of local actors with the skills, tenacity, and willingness to take on pressing challenges.  An institutional and political infrastructure of bottom-up politics is emerging.  Squires concluded with the caveat that we need to identify, publicize, and build on the local victories that are taking place.]

In the Q&A with the audience, one important “bottom up” theme was the variety of nongovernmental organizations and the rich civil society that the U.S. enjoys, compared with most other countries.  GWU’s Hal Wolman posed a central question: given that bottom-up civic and political activity is a long-standing attribute of the U.S., what is new and different about the present, and what might we aim for as a future for bottom-up politics?  Part of the answer brings us back to the dysfunctional character of contemporary top-down politics, neglecting and even aggravating problems felt in local arenas.  Another part of what’s new is the emergent local infrastructure of bottom-up politics.

In cautioning against a tendency to lean uncritically on policy guidance from the top, Clarence Stone offered three examples of how, over time, top-down policies have worsened the urban condition: (1) post World War II urban redevelopment policy, consisting of urban renewal and expressway construction; (2) the punitive turn in criminal justice, through the “war on drugs” combined with harsh and longer sentencing; and (3) neoliberal education reform embedded in both Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race to the Top.  All three have been recipients of cross-party support at one stage or another.   Besides wariness about anything that is top down, is there something that bottom up politics might help bring about, despite its inherently fragmented and constitutionally constrained nature?  Is it possible that, as more activity and connections percolate upwards, that the political and civic arena will see a growing number of less ideological and more pragmatic actors? Will we be able to build effectively on the local activism that is emerging?

A current state-level candidate said of his political engagement: “I like dealing with people….  I like hearing their stories.  And I like figuring how we can put our perspectives together to solve problems.” Elevating that mindset over the dual evils of ideological dogmatism and the perpetual chase for campaign funding would seem to be a desirable pathway.  So far, that political pathway has yet to provide the needed traction to bring about a new day.  If it comes, bottom-up politics promises to be its likely launch pad.

Related: Cities on a Hill? by Clarence Stone in The Boston Review

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