Urban Agenda -- 21st Century Political Renewal


Reprinted w/permission-Washington Post Writers Group & the artist

Building a pro-city platform and Urban Agenda for the next Presidential campaign & locally.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

This is a test, it is only a test

The nice thing about blog platforms is that they can either have images displayed separate from text, or text can wrap around them.

This shows the image with text wrapped around it, at the size that I usually employ for such images.

If you click on the image, it will display it at the size of the original download.  To do it this way I can either upload it from my computer or via Flickr.

On the other hand, sometimes I display photos and graphics at the "full width" of the column of text, which is about 420 picas.  To do that I use Flickr.  This is how that would look.

Nope, for some reason, the code isn't working in this blog, I don't know why.  I did a brief test and then deleted it in the main blog, and it appeared just fine.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Comments on the Central Avenue Connector Trail concept

1.  The Connector Trail proposal, by linking four Metrorail stations, would be a significant access improvement and an example of national best practice of shared use paths being constructed in association with rail transit.

Because it will be so prominent and visible, you may also want to co-brand it as the Prince George's County Blue Line Transit Trail as a sub-head.

Fred Marquis Pinellas Bicycle Trail signAnd because it will be so prominent and visible it will market improved biking and walking infrastructure to other areas of the county.  So it is very important to get it right.

Design of great signage and a logo and brand is key.

2.  The approach on having the trail be a connector (transit, neighborhoods, commercial districts, schools, parks, and other institutions) is sound and doesn't require comment.

However, while the Potomac Yard Trail was shown as an example in the Toole presentation, another example that comes to mind includes the S-Line Greenway trail parallels the streetcar line serving Sugar House in Salt Lake City.

It's a multi-modal and recreation corridor parallel to the streetcar line, with "public plazas, art, walking paths, a bocce court and a new segment of Parley’s Trail" ("Walk, ride, play: S-Line Greenway opens in Salt Lake City," Salt Lake Tribune).

If necessary, you should consider organizing some field trips for stakeholders to show by example that these types of infrastructure work.

Plus, PGC already has a great example in the section of the Northwest Branch Trail from Rhode Island Ave. to Queens Chapel Road and on to West Hyattsville Station.

It only gets to one Metrorail station, but the way it provides protected access to various park and civic assets, and to shopping options, including grocery stores, is awesome.  The Cynwyd Trail in Lower Merion Township, connecting to the Manayunk neighborhood in Philadelphia, is another similar example.

In the region, the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail is a good example of how to encourage integration with businesses and support local economic activities.  Rails to Trails did a good story on this and the trail about 6 years ago.  Over time, businesses are adding back entrances to serve trail users.  (This is starting to happen on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail too.)

Houses abutting the Catonsville #8 Trolley TrailDepending on the household, abutting properties along trails in Catonsville may have fences, fences with gates, or no fence.

In response to concerns expressed by residents in terms of residences abutting the trail, in Catonsville, the main "trolley trail" was created as a response to the nuisance uses of an abandoned streetcar right of way.

The trail immediately abuts houses, and with experience people don't have problems with it.  Positive use ends up outweighing negative use--whereas before, the unused right of way was used for illicit activity, illegal dumping, etc.

3.  Initiatives to increase biking take up by African-Americans.  One of the people at our table made the point that African-Americans "don't bike," even though she herself is a recreational cyclist.

We had a spirited discussion on how to do programming, outreach and engagement activities to address this and increase biking and walking and use of the trail.  There are many things that can be done to do this, including park, school, Metro station, and neighborhood based programs, rides, etc.

A whole year of special promotion activities should be launched to build use of the trail, rather than to merely expect use to trickle up.

The Community Cycling Center of Portland (Oregon) has a particularly good initiative directed to increasing bike as transportation take up by low income and African-American riders.

The Major Taylor Bike Club program (especially in Seattle, see "Seattle bicycling clubs for disadvantaged kids get rolling" and "Young people find cycling gets the wheels turning," Seattle Times) and Neighborhood Bike Works and the Cadence Cycling Foundation ("Cycling comes to the inner city," Philadelphia Inquirer) in Philadelphia and Recycle-A-Bicycle in New York City are other examples.  As is the Black Women Bike initiative in DC.

4.  Although implementation of systematic approaches to increasing the take up of biking as transportation amongst all demographics is the best way to address demographic categories across the board.

For example, working with senior centers and retirement communities could increase biking activity by seniors.  The Ateaze Senior Center in Baltimore County has a serious biking club.  Retirees in the Blue Bell community in Greater Philadelphia created the "Old Spokes" club which holds rides every couple weeks in area parks ("Freewheelers The Old Spokes, members of a bicycling club, venture from their retirement community to cruise the region's byways," Philadelphia Inquirer).

Disabled access was mentioned in the meeting.  The Metropolitan Branch Trail is used by some programs to provide walking access to people with serious disabilities.  This allows them the ability to walk, very slowly if necessary, without having to worry about motor vehicles.

Some jurisdictions have special programs which promote bicycle use by the disabled as well.  See "Two-wheeled self-confidence: Special bikes for special kids," Philadelphia Inquirer.

Kidical Mass is a ground-up community program that encourages biking by families.

Open Streets programs are another way to promote biking and walking.  Launched in Bogota, Colombia, and held every Sunday, such events are now offered across North America, where the street is closed to motor vehicle traffic, to encourage walking and biking and related activities.

In Greater Los Angeles, the LACMTA is the major sponsor of such programs, which move around the region, and are held in the fall and spring.  Many organizations hold parallel events in association.

Recently, BikeMaryland was one of the sponsors of an Open Streets event in Columbia in Howard County.

-- "Event to open Little Patuxent to bikes and pedestrians," Baltimore Sun
-- Horizons Foundation Open Streets program, Howard County
-- Open Streets Guidebook

5.  Is it possible to encourage the development of a cycle shop-cafe at a highly visible location on the trail, comparable to the Freewheel Bike Center on the Midtown Greenway Trail in Minneapolis?

Separately, I have proposed such shops as combination cycle shop-cafe-bike tourism-sustainable transportation/Commuter Store.

Or developed as a hybrid "recreation" facility that could serve as a primary delivery point for recreation programming promoting walking, biking, and fitness.

This building could also have a "comfort" station, as was suggested by some meeting attendees.

6.  Relatedly, bike co-ops and programming activities can be integrated systematically within the schools and recreational facilities already present in the corridor.  Mount Rainier has a volunteer bike co-op which could serve as a model for other support activities and programs for other county locations.  A similar operation, Phoenix Bikes in Arlington County, for a time had been based in a county park facility.

Given the number of schools and parks in the trail catchment area, such activities could begin now, in advance of the trail's construction.

7.  We can't forget running and walking.  Note too that running footwear shops also like being close to trails and can be logical partners for trail-related activities, races and running events, etc.  A fundraiser run on the North Central Trail (Baltimore County) is a regular activity.

8.  The WMATA Bike and Pedestrian Access Study findings for the four blue line stations should be updated in concert with the development of the trail.   Besides any changes arising from a review and update, at a minimum station bike parking facilities should be upgraded in association with the new trail. High quality air pumps and bike repair stands should be installed at each station.  It could be easier to install air compressor based pumps at the stations, because of access to electricity, as opposed to non-electric pumps.

9.  Trail width is likely inadequate as shown in the presentations.  The narrower the width, the more difficult it is to accommodate people of different skill levels, speeds, and volume.  Trail width guidance is inadequate in AASHTO publications.  Urban trail widths should be greater than 10 feet wide, based on predictable increases in use over time.

-- Shared Use Path Level of Service Calculator, FHWA

Minuteman Flickr photo by lefauxfrog of an trail entrance sign on the Minuteman Bikeway in Arlington, Massachusetts. 

The point I make is that planning is supposed to "design conflict out" rather than engineering it into our infrastructure.

Narrow paths (the Mount Vernon Trail is particularly notorious) in the region demonstrate the need to plan for higher volume use, especially given higher targets in master plans for trips by sustainable means.

10. Wayfinding signage. Generally, area trails have deficient signage. The Bethesda Trolley Trail is an exception.

But it is possible to develop a signage hierarchy, with gateway and in-trail signage, including maps and information, directional information (why not include bike shops and access to air on such signage) and intra-neighborhood signage directing people to and from trails.
Freewheel Bike/Midtown Bike Center, Minneapolis, bike center sign (resized)

Sign on the Midtown Greenway Trail providing information on the trail-based bike center. 

The Gwynn Falls and Jones Falls Trails in Baltimore have great gateway signage. The Minuteman Trail in Greater Boston does as well.

Well-designed signage should be developed with an eye towards branding and marketing and promotion of sustainable transportation.
Trailhead sign, Gwynn Falls TrailBethesda Trolley Trail wayfinding sign, map, regional plans and rules side
Bethesda Trolley Trail wayfinding sign: map side including trail rules.  This signage is unique in the region for showing the basis of a regional network of bikeways as an inset.  Austin, Texas also has map signs that are incorporated into their street bike signage system.

Map-wayfinding sign, Lakefront Trail, Chicago
Map-wayfinding sign, Lakefront Trail, Chicago

11.  Interpretational signage.  This was discussed in the presentation by Toole Design.  DC's Cultural Trails walking program, Silver Spring's history trail signage, interpretational signage for the Gwynn Falls Trail, the history signage for the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area, are all good examples.

I would argue that a general interpretational program for transportation history is something that could be developed for this project and applied more generally throughout the county.  The Center City District in Philadelphia has such a program, with signage integrated into bus shelters.  The Toole presentation did mention this idea briefly.

Art topped wayfinding signage, Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

12.  Public art installations as an element of the trail program was not discussed in the presentations and could be an additional part of the program.  MBT has some public art including murals.  The S Line is another example.  Many trails incorporate murals.  The Indianapolis Cultural Trail has installed works by internationally prominent artists.

13.  Lighting.  The solar-powered lights on the Metropolitan Branch Trail and the walking trail on National Park Service land connecting the Fort Totten Metrorail station to Fort Totten Drive NE in DC have proven to be inadequate at night.  Besides adding "sidewalk" and "trail" lighting, might it be possible to light the off-road section on WMATA right of way from WMATA sources?

14.  Maintenance, especially in the Winter.  Besides the general maintenance points made by many, special attention should be given to snow removal.  Typically, snow removal policies preference roads at the expense of sidewalks and trails.  DC does do snow removal on some of its trails.  Montgomery County and Arlington County are beginning to do so.  The Mount Vernon Trail, on National Park Service land in Northern Virginia, perhaps the region's most heavily used trail, does not have snow removal, which significantly impinges upon winter commuting.

Minneapolis has particularly good guidance concerning snow removal.  Montreal has created a winter bike route system as a sub-set of the primary system, and they have committed to snow removal for the winter route.system.

To report an emergency sign, Northwest Branch Trail, Prince George's County (Hyattsville/Mount Rainier)15.  Security.  The failure by DC to adequately plan for security, signage, call boxes, etc., for the Metropolitan Branch Trail, which abuts an industrial area, likely has contributed to flare ups of crime on that trail.

PG Parks already has a protocol for signage and call boxes on at least some trails, judging by my experience with the NW Branch Trail.  Maybe this needs to be updated for a more transportationally-focused trail.  With use, problems are reduced.

But the off-road section of the trail along the WMATA right of way could experience increased problems, comparable to the MBT.

Advance planning, and engaging the police department in the design and engineering process, is key.

In DC, I've argued that for 911/GIS identification purposes, the MBT (and others) should be designated a "street" with blocks, so that the portion between R and S would be the "1700 block of "Metropolitan Branch Trail NE", with signage, so that if problems are reported, location is not an issue.

Many people mentioned pocket and dirt bikes as a potential problem.  This should be addressed.

16.  One way to enhance security and build community ownership in the trail is to create a volunteer ambassador program.  Some programs even have ambassadors trained in basic first aid.  PG Parks may already have a volunteer program which could be extended to include trails.

York County Parks including their Heritage Trail, which runs to and past York from the Maryland-PA border, continuing the NCR trail in Baltimore County, have ambassadors.  An ambassador program has been developed in Bozeman/Gallatin County to mitigate conflict and improve the experience of using the trails in the face of big increases in patronage ("Trail ambassadors tasked with mitigating conflict," Associated Press).

Bike Fixtation high security outdoor air pump in the Netherlands.

17.  Way stations, street furniture, etc.  This was mentioned by many.  One problem with the MBT is that no waste receptacles are placed along the trail, including at major entry points and in sitting areas.  But the sitting areas, although most lack shade, are nice.

18.  Air pumps and repair stands (and water), in addition to being placed at Metro Stations, should be placed at a couple locations on the trail, especially the off road part, and at key trailheads/gateways.

However, air pumps traditionally installed by Business Improvement Districts are inadequate to outdoor 24/7/365 use.  Companies like Bike Fixtation do make hardy public pumps, although it does not appear as if any are installed in the DC Metro.

Repair stand and air pump on the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda.

In the DC area, the Bethesda Urban Partnership has installed an air pump and repair stand on the Capital Crescent Trail and the NoMA Business Improvement District has installed a number of air pumps but not being hardy enough for outdoor use, they break very quickly.

Some people mentioned water fountains.

Misters, even temporary, like the ones DC Water installs at street festivals, could be a fun and appreciated gesture in the summer.

19.  Bike gutters and switchbacks.  The Toole presentation showed a switchback to accommodate the grade difference between the Potomac Yard Trail and the Four Mile Run Trail.  It's likely that was done to meet ADA requirements.  However switchbacks are disliked by bicyclists.

Capital Crescent Trail, Bethesda.

I would recommend installing both bike gutters and switchbacks.

Bike gutters are being installed here and there across the area, although for the most part, at least in DC at the Rhode Island Metrorail station and at the Carlos Rosario School abutting the Metropolitan Branch Trail, they have been done poorly.

The best installation I've seen is on the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda, such as at Bradley Boulevard, where the gutters are installed in the middle, allowing for free movement with no obstruction from side rails, etc.

20.  Ultra High Quality and Special Treatments for Street Crossings.  The best I've seen are for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail (pictured below), which mostly is located within the city's core, with many street-sidewalk crossings.  Such treatments make very clear to motor vehicle operators that they are to take special precautions while driving in these mixing zones.

Traffic signals should be installed where needed, etc.
Street crossing, Indianapolis Cultural Trail

21.  Zoning changes for bike facilities/upgrading complementary accommodations.  A program to support the upgrading of bicycle facilities for public facilities, apartment complexes, and shopping centers should be developed (e.g., bike parking at schools is typically inadequate, many shopping centers do not provide adequate bike parking, etc.) to complement the improvement of the trail.

22.  Phasing program.  From a logical use standpoint, it would make sense to include phases 1 and 5 together to increase the likelihood of use, connections to other jurisdictions and the creation of a wider ranging bikeways network.  Disconnecting phase 5 from phase 1 decreases the likelihood of use of the Capitol Heights Metrorail station by bicyclists.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The City at Stake: Secession, Reform, and the Battle for Los Angeles

Published by H-Urban@h-net.msu.edu (August 2007)

Raphael Sonenshein. The City at Stake: Secession, Reform, and the Battle for Los Angeles. Updated edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press,2006. xxi + 306 pp. Maps, tables, notes, bibliography, afterword, index. $57.50 (cloth), ISBN 0-691-11590-7; $23.95 (paper), ISBN 0-691-12603-8.

Reviewed for H-Urban by Laura Barraclough, Department of Liberal Studies, Antioch University

Los Angeles: The Next Chapter in Sonenshein's Tour de Force of Los Angeles Politics

Historically, in cities dominated by machine politics like Boston and New York, urban elites used reform to effectively disenfranchise immigrant and minority voters. Yet in this comprehensive, compelling, and meticulously researched study, Sonenshein argues that reform does not inherently belong to either conservatives or liberals, but "rather is a contested value of great importance" (p. 262). His primary goal in this masterful study of charter reform in Los Angeles is to recover a concern with institutional structure among political scientists and to re-conceptualize reform as a potentially powerful tool for progressive politics.

The author suggests that understandings of reform as an elitist tool are rooted in regional bias and limited scholarly attention to urban politics in the U.S. West and Southwest. In cities like Los Angeles, characterized by nonpartisan elections, low levels of political organization, and the dispersal of government authority, reform has been far more influential "not just as the province of the 'good government' crowd, but as the game itself"(p. 15). Under such conditions, the battle is not between reformers and party machines, but between competing visions of reform, such as the quest for business-like efficiency versus the struggle for minority representation. Western and southwestern cities thus provide excellent places in which to analyze how civic visions and coalitions are built and sustained in spite--or perhaps because of--these conditions.

The text is composed of nineteen short chapters, organized into six sections that trace the origins, process, and results of charter reform. Chapter 3 merits particular attention as one of the few chapters that could stand alone, perhaps for use in an undergraduate course. It shows how years ofcharter amendments created a confusing, contradictory institutional structure and built general consensus on the need for systematic and comprehensive reform--specifically, an enhanced role for the mayor, greater control of elected officials over departments and commissions, and increased democratic participation for ordinary citizens.

The convergence of two forces--the election of Mayor Richard Riordan and the threat of San Fernando Valley secession--made charter reform viable for the first time in decades. In 1997, the Los Angeles City Council agreed to appoint a commission to draft a new city charter, but insisted that the council have right of review before the charter went before the voters. Incensed, Mayor Riordan financed a proposition to create an elected commission that could take its charter straight to the voters, which voters passed that same year. For two years, the commissions worked separately towards the same goal, and each was subject to powerful influences--the appointed commission to the city council, and the elected commission to the mayor and to organized labor. According to Sonenshein: "From the start, the two commissions were like competing siblings. Both had a mission that would have made more sense with only one commission, and each operated with an eye on the other" (pp. 105-106).

The author demonstrates that the leadership exhibited by the chairs of the two commissions was a major factor contributing to the ultimate success ofcharter reform. From the beginning, both chairs believed there had to be a single charter, and eventually decided to work together with the support of a joint conference committee to identify and make recommendations on all disagreements between the two commissions. Once united, the two commissions occupied the high ground of the charter reform debate, and the mayor and the city council were faced with the decision to either support the unified charter or appear opposed to popular reforms.

Voters approved the unified charter in June 1999 by a margin of 60 percent. The new charter expanded mayoral authority significantly, created a system of advisory neighborhood councils, and instituted area planning commissions. Two reforms that had once been on the table--a larger city council and administrative decentralization, such as a borough system--did not succeed. The new charter dissolved support for San Fernando Valley secession, which voters resoundingly rejected in 2002, and facilitated the resolution of the scandal involving the Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department and the statewide recall of Governor Gray Davis in 2003.

The study raises a number of important questions for the study of coalition-building in diverse cities. Few are better equipped to venturea nswers to these questions than Sonenshein, whose earlier study of Mayor Tom Bradley's coalition of African American and white Jewish voters is canonical in the scholarly field of Los Angeles and urban politics. [1] Sonenshein shows that charter reform ultimately succeeded in Los Angeles despite the city's diversity, fragmentation, and low social capital. To explain this outcome, he develops a model of interracial coalitions that takes into account the importance of interests, ideology, and leadership.

Sonenshein posits that "reform constituencies" support reform coalitions because of their beliefs about government and civic life, and that this ideology, rather than narrowly defined self-interest, is crucial to institutional change. He argues that "[i]n reducing all political action to self-interest we risk missing something important about civic capacity and civic participation. To many ordinary people who are not political actors except as voters and observers, what is right and wrong in government is quite important" (p. 264). Jewish voters on the west side of Los Angeles overwhelmingly supported the new charter, even though they generally felt well served by city government. He suggests that Latino immigrants may similarly provide the ideological as well as practical impetus for reform, which was partly confirmed by the 2005 election of Antonio Villaraigosa, the city's first Latino mayor in over 150 years, which Sonenshein considers in the afterword of the 2006 edition.

The City at Stake is full of useful charts, tables, and maps, as well as an exceptional appendix that summarizes the new charter's provisions. Sonenshein's bibliography is likewise a valuable reference. The book is appropriate for graduate-level courses in urban politics or public policy and would be of interest to a popular audience with specialized interests in urban and public affairs. Because of its exhaustive and sometimes overwhelming level of detail, the book would not be a good choice for most undergraduates or non-specialists. The book's discussion of the San Fernando Valley secession movement, though adequate, is presented here primarily as an impetus for charter reform; researchers interested in an in-depth study may be disappointed. Similarly, though Sonenshein raises interesting questions about civic participation among Latino immigrants, he ventures only superficial answers that are best supplemented by other recent studies.[2]

By far the most interesting and unique aspect of this book derives from Sonenshein's role as executive director of the appointed charter commission. He had access to the key players in Los Angeles politics, whose interviews form the backbone to this book. The study is peppered with Sonenshein's candid interpretations of the people and events that influenced the outcomes of charter reform, secession, and municipal elections. The following excerpt is typical: "I have often thought since then that finding the high ground was the key to making charter reform succeed, but I had never really felt the high ground until that nineteen to zero vote. We had done the right thing, and in so doing had restored the faith of the people in the room, and also outside it, that Los Angeles government could be reformed" (p. 166). Sonenshein's observations enable the reader to enter the often inaccessible world of city politics through a privileged and trusted insider's eye.

Written in an accessible, engaging style, the study feels more like a memoir or political autobiography than a scholarly monograph. Together with his earlier study, The City at Stake is the definitive study of urban politics in LosAngeles.

Notes[1]. Raphael Sonenshein, Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1993).

[2]. Robert Gottlieb, Mark Vallianatos, Regina M. Freer, and Peter Dreier, The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City (Berkeley, Calif.:University of California Press, 2005).

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

DCGuide to Accessing Elected and Appointed Officials

From Susie Cambria of DC Action for Children via e-mail:

DC Action for Children recently updated its “Guide to Accessing Elected and Appointed Officials” and it is available on-line. This is a great tool – it has all the information about elected officials and executive branch agencies all in one place. If you would like a hard copy, call 234-9404 or e-mail dcaction@dckids. org with your name and address.

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Capacity building training in Maryland

From an e-list:

Democracy for Maryland, a statewide progressive political non-profit, is sponsoring a training workshop and social mixer on Saturday, June 16th. For those inerested in gaining a voice in local and state political affairs, give some serious thought to attending, as the speakers, program and networking opportunities are excellent.

Event: Progressive Training Workshop and Networking Mixer
Date/Time: Saturday, June 16, 2:00 - 6:00 p.m.
Rockville Crowne Plaza Hotel

Purpose: Hands-on training for those interested in working on legislative initiatives in the MD General Assembly, or other projects that involve message framing and development, citizen lobbying and volunteer organizing. Produced by: Democracy for Maryland


Module 1: Cindy Boersma, Legislative Director, MD-ACLU, Interactive session focused on strategies and techniques for successful citizen lobbying in Annapolis.

Module 2: State Senator Jamie Raskin, Citizen-lobbying from a legislator's perspective.

In addition, Sen. Raskin, also a professor of Constitutional Law, will discuss specific initiatives to expand meaningful citizen participation in our democratic institutions.

Module 3: Dr. Jeffrey Feldman, Author. Discussion on the use of 'framing' in message development.

Dr. Feldman will also conduct a book-signing for his latest work, Framing the Debate: Famous Presidential Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation (And Win Elections).

Networking Mixer: 5:00 - 6:00 pm
Enjoy selected beers and wine from our hosted bar while you 'talk shop' with fellow activists and speakers. To obtain tickets for this event in advance,
go to the event website. Seating is limited and expected to sell out.
This is the kind of stuff progressives need to be doing in DC. I think people have the bar thing down, but not the efforts for focused capacity building advocacy and building a progressive urban political agenda within the city.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Proportional voting suggestions in a column by Neal Peirce

Peirce suggests:

1. Proportional voting for representatives.
2. "Three seat" legislative districts.
3. Direct election of the president (dumping the Electoral College).
4. A single six-year term for the President.

By Neal Peirce
Washington Post Writers Syndicate

Can we make it last -- the wave of good feeling, bipartisanship, shared patriotism -- that infused President Ford’s funeral?

For a while, perhaps. One may hope that the ascendant Capitol Hill Democrats will grant the vanquished Republicans some of the minority party rights that dimmed in recent years. Partisans of every stripe may remember, at least for a while, Gerald Ford’s good-humored steadiness, his pragmatic and moderate voice.

But is there any way to diminish the forces that so easily demean our public dialogue -- bitter special interest politics, the corrupting influence of campaign cash, the demonizing of opponents, the lure of attack ads?

Across grassroots America, there are some hints of hope. In Minneapolis, Minn., and Oakland, Calif., in Davis, Calif., and Pierce County, Wash., voters last November approved “instant runoff” or “proportional representation” election measures.

Under instant runoff, voters make their first, second and third choice among candidates for an office. As opposed to “winner take all,” where the leading candidate, even with less than a majority, gets elected, instant runoff allows immediate recounts of voters’ second (or third) choices until there’s a majority count. Because voters’ backup choices are potentially important, narrowly partisan campaigns become bad politics.

Closely allied is the system of proportional voting where several officials get selected from a field in a single district or city. Steven Hill of “FairVote” and others are now recommending three-seat legislative districts both for legislatures and congressional seats.
Maryland does this now. I'm not sure if the way that politics works there is any different.
Illinois used the proportional system to pull a heavily divided state together after the Civil War and until 1980. Voters could cast all their three votes for one candidate, or distribute them as they chose. Result: any candidate who got over 25 percent was likely to win. Republican areas usually had a few Democratic legislators, and vice-versa, making legislative partisanship less acute, bipartisan coalitions commonplace.

In the spirit of Gerald Ford, couldn’t we experiment much more broadly with such alternative systems -- American democracy updated to represent our many voices, races, economic groups, in a 21st century world? The opportunities should be rich, the time ripe, for our 50 state legislatures and local governments to experiment freely and broadly in this field.

Ford, it’s worth noting, was a vigorous, life-long supporter of electoral reform. As minority leader of the U.S. House, he voted for the historic Voting Rights Act in 1965. After the ill-starred 2000 election, he joined with former President Jimmy Carter to co-chair a national commission on electoral reform, laying the groundwork for the 2002 Help America Vote Act. Ford and Carter also recommended making Election Day a national holiday and restoring full voting rights to ex-felons.

For decades, Ford supported abolishing the electoral college and giving the people the right to vote directly for president. Both the American Bar Association and Gallup Polls, he noted on the House floor in 1969, supported a direct vote. “If we do not” adopt a direct vote amendment, said Ford, “it is my honest opinion that the people will be let down.”

As indeed the people were let down in 2000, when the archaic electoral college vote system awarded the presidency to the presidential candidate who trailed his opponent by 539,893 votes in the nationwide count.

There’s another reform we might consider in these times: a single six-year term for president. President Lyndon Johnson’s former press secretary, George Reedy, put me onto the idea some years ago. And while I can’t find any evidence that Gerald Ford supported it, proponents over the years have included the first and greatest Chief Justice, John Marshall, not to mention President Andrew Jackson and statesmen ranging from Henry Clay and Thomas Hart Benton to Everett Dirksen, Mike Mansfield and George Aiken.

Why a six-year term? The incredible challenges of today’s presidency are so great that a Chief Executive should be running for the history books -- not another term.

Nothing can or should take politics out of the presidency: political persuasion is key to gaining national consensus, compelling congressional action, forging global alliances.

But a six-year term should be sufficient to each president to make his (or her) singular contributions. And limiting that person to one term would relieve us of the unseemly spectacle of presidents using and misusing their immense powers to muscle obscene amounts of campaign dollars out of self-interested contributors, or even descending into the depths of Watergate-style abuse.

Think of it this way. With a direct vote for president in 2000, we’d almost surely not be bogged down in the disastrously ill-advised Iraq war. And with a single six-year presidential term, we’d be preparing for the inauguration of a brand new president two weeks from now.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Conservatives' Vision of an America without Cities

is an article from Public Eye, based on a review of the book Welcome to the Homeland: A Journey to the Heart of America's Conservative Rural Rebellion by Brian Mann.

Ironically, this is the same argument that fueled the Garden Cities and other suburban development movements--the view of the city (somewhat justifiably) as a cesspool, teeming with immigrants (read: people different from me), loose morals, crime, dirty, noisy, and dangerous.

It's a bit more complicated than that. And the story captures the nuances.

The story references a story from the Stranger, which I reprinted in the Urban Agenda blog, "THE URBAN ARCHIPELAGO by The Editors of The Stranger."
It is a screed written after the November 2004 election. But look what happened in November 2006. I wouldn't claim that a Democratic or more humane mandate was set--after all, if George Allen wasn't a doofus during the campaign, there's a good chance he would have won and the Senate wouldn't have a Democratic majority (maybe Lieberman would have jumped to the Republicans besides).

But despite this blog entry that discusses the suburban majority in Congress, "The suburbs are now the majority in the House of Representatives" also from Urban Agenda, the November election results have demonstrated to urban dwellers that we can't be so smug and dismissive of the suburbs, that in many respects, we are comrades in arms.

Like trying to make the connection between historic preservation and the demonstrated interest in the home (even though many people, particularly those of the property rights persuasion, see preservation rules as a hindrance), we cityfolk need to make better links with our rediscovered friends in the suburb.

(As I mentioned in a long meeting on Sunday, the suburbs are populated with many people that still have strong ties to the city, maybe one or two generations back, but they are still around--though dying off--and reachable. See this blog entry from 2005, "Interesting City attitude-Suburban attitude survey in Metro Detroit," which discusses a Detroit News survey with the same finding.)

I mean, who would have guessed Charles County Maryland would have gone Democrat? (See "Elections Sharpen Region's Profile," subtitled "Democrats Look to Annapolis, Washington," and "Breaking Away from Neighbors," both from the Washington Post.)

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

How ordinary, organized citizens can seize political power

(reprinted from Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space)
Today's Chicago Sun-Times has an op-ed by Mike Gecan, of the national staff of the Industrial Areas Foundation,* the community organizing entity created by Saul Alinsky, about how:

...[D]irect citizen organizing and dramatic public action is steadily losing ground to other political approaches. What authors Ben Ginsberg and Martin Shefter called Politics by Other Means rules the roost these days. That politics includes legislative investigations, judicial proceedings and media revelations. We would add a fourth form -- celebrities adopting causes -- to the list. ...

The problem is that the general public has only one real role in each of these events: the role of spectator. We watch the U.S. attorney. We follow the trials. We line up to get a glimpse of a star. The message to citizens is that the action is somewhere else: in the smoke-filled room; in the whispered phone call of a fixer; in the cubicles of the federal prosecutor; in the studios of the stars. Not on your block. Not in your neighborhood or subdivision. Not in your workplace.

So, the more traditional politics falls short, the more ''politics by other means'' will fill the vacuum. The more ''politics by other means'' fills the vacuum, the more disconnected and passive the public becomes. How to get out of this cycle? The first way is for organized citizens to continue to analyze the issues that affect their lives and to make that analysis public. ...

The second way is to keep doing what the 1,500 leaders of United Power will be doing today: gathering in a public setting, doing public business, pressing candidates for public commitments. No winks. No nods. No back-room anything. And the third way is to continue to exercise the democratic muscle of voting. Without these three habits -- analysis, public engagement and electoral participation -- it won't matter what the prosecutors and movie stars do. The center of our democratic life will continue to shrink. And the politics of the future will bear little resemblance to the world invented by our Founding Fathers and protected from extinction by the greatest president of all, Abraham Lincoln.

He's a man who modeled the kind of politics you'll find in the auditorium at Trinity High School in River Forest Sunday afternoon. And he's the person who knew what the goal of political life could be and should be: ''to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.''

What Gecan calls the three habits of "analysis, public engagement, and electoral participation" are foundational principles of the approach espoused by this blog.

See "Study: Housing costs force moves" from the Chicago Tribune about the study mentioned above.

(Note that the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has been pretty successful garnering similar ink in the Washington Post, see "Separation Between Rich, Poor Widening in D.C., Study Finds," although I would aver that it appears as if the Washington Post and other area newspapers report less on press conferences and similar activities, by either national advocacy groups or local advocacy groups. When I first came to the city, and worked for a consumer advocacy group, we could count on newspapers and local television coverage of our various press conferences. This is less the case today.)

* In DC, the very effective Washington Interfaith Network is an IAF affiliate.

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