It’s impossible to spend any time at the state legislature this year without hearing phrases like “local control” and “home rule” discussed in concert with any number of progressive questions. At yesterday’s public hearing on a statewide preemption bill, many people based their opposition on these same ideas, specifically, that a local government “knows best for its residents,” and that city councils are where big decisions should be made.
The Iowa Constitution, and state law, both support this idea – within some clearly defined boundaries. Home rule is simple; it generally means local governments are in charge when there’s no contrasting state law, or when they are acting to execute an identified city power.
These rights exist for a reason; there are more than 900 cities in Iowa, each with their own local issues. The boundaries exist for that same reason, but on the other side of the ledger – a person’s rights can never be diminished because of a local decision. Home rule and local control work when both of those parts are understood.
An example of local control and home rule falling apart came to my attention in 2014, when activists began a multi-year response to abusive local ordinances in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines which hurt survivors of domestic violence, and set them up for eviction upon calling the police when they needed to. It was a full-blown battle. Those cities spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to defend their corrupt ordinances, all in the name of “home rule” and local control. They nearly won.
The problem throughout all of this was not Republican vs. Democrat. This was a problem strictly on the Democratic side. There was simply no reason why good Democrats in the Iowa legislature had to fight with their own leadership on behalf of survivors of domestic violence in order to get a simple vote on a life or death issue. But it happened, because a small group of people decided that home rule and local control outweighed anything else – even the rights of crime victims who needed help. I want to be explicit here; the position – held by key Democrats – was that cities had more rights than survivors of violent crime. It was a wrong position, and it was necessarily defeated.
Now, other cities – specifically Ames and Iowa City – are presently making the very same ideological argument for home rule and local control over housing. These cities’ ordinances are also abusing people. They define what a ‘family’ is for the purposes of whether someone can rent a home. In one city, a person isn’t ‘family’ if they are addicted to a controlled substance. In another, a ‘family’ doesn’t include unmarried people, even if they have children together. This means people don’t get a place to live, because government officials decided their family isn’t good enough. That is a vulgar display of power against people who governments are supposed to protect.
As in the case with the domestic violence survivors, these are horribly intrusive practices, and they are the opposite of “progressive.” Things like these awful, real world, examples are why I urge caution for any progressive to embrace local control without a corresponding and clear understanding as to why the boundaries are necessary – and the role the state must play in protecting peoples’ rights by insisting on those boundaries.
Cities will never and must never have more rights than people. With 900 cities in the state, even if only a small number of local decisions are wrong, the effect is significant. Any defense of home rule simply must take that into account. Progressives should take particular interest in this, and approach the issue with great care. I urge progressives to argue policy here, and not ideology. Progressives have good, sound arguments on policy. Arguing for home rule and local control just as part of a general default agenda is not progressive – it’s cynical. It leaves far too many people at risk, and is a significant departure from the historic progressive viewpoint. That is literally the Ron Corbett position. People get hurt when that takes root. It should have no home among Iowa progressives.
If we argue just because of an ideology, people will be hurt. If we argue our ideas, people can win. It’s not proper to leave people behind just because a home rule argument fits the moment. That is not worthy of being a progressive. It’s not enough to argue for peoples’ rights generally but then approve of any local rule that hurts people – and that is happening in cities across Iowa.
Progressives are obliged to press for peoples’ rights – everywhere. Our history of home rule and local control can be a part of that. If that is to happen, it won’t be because we let bad decisions by abusive local governments get a pass so long as the narrative fits our immediate political needs. It will be because we win on the merits.
January 2016 letter to Iowa senators from Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, opposing House File 493 on behalf of the Metro Coalition:
Pete McRoberts is a policy attorney in Des Moines. He is a longtime political observer, and has worked in legislative, Congressional, and statewide offices.