Activists in City Hall makes the case that progressive cities delivered a product in the 1980s. Chicago and Boston were progressive when they tackled inequality head-on. Boston established “linkage” – channeling developer contributions into an affordable housing trust fund. Chicago instituted a group of industrial retention initiatives, saving high-paying manufacturing jobs around the theme that economic development meant “jobs not real estate.” Smaller cities were also on a similar track. Burlington, VT created neighborhood councils and eventually a nonprofit infrastructure that kept 17-20  percent of the city’s housing permanently affordable; and Santa Monica’s strong rent control transferred millions of dollars from landlord profits into tenant pockets. There are many other cases.

But readers asked: can we use any of this today? Well — the 1980s are history. Some of it is usable, some of it may not fit. But the deeper lesson is not simply product, but process — the sequence of steps by which progressive activists and mayors got the capacity to enact the policies they made. Progressives need to know that, and move ahead step by step. Cases varied, but the following happened in most:

  1. A long gestation, in which activists gained experience outside of city hall: managing organizations, organizing around various causes, and pressing the city – sometimes successfully, often not – to enact ordinances or create institutions.
  2. The decision to run candidates and contest seats. This could be a difficult decision among activist groups, whose own solidarity depended in part on their sense of opposition to city hall – it could seem like a change, not just in tactics, but in their own identities, to offer themselves as candidates or to support them.
  3. Operating from minority positions on city councils. Progressive electoral coalitions often won minority positions on city councils, as a precursor to winning control later: this was not a prominent feature in Boston or Chicago; but it was in some of the smaller cities.
  4. Operating from within the city bureaucracy. Cleveland’s Norman Krumholz is the most prominent and successful example, and arguably created favorable conditions for Dennis Kucinich’s mayoralty in 1977-79 and for continuation of many city opolicies after Kucinich’s defeat. Progressive administrators were identifiable in a number of other cities in the 1980s and 1990s — leading to moderately progressive city policies, if not spectacular successes later.
  5. Progressive governments developed the capacity to relate positively to neighborhood groups. This could be an uneven process over a long period of time and was fraught with doubts and setbacks, including the perception that city hall, hiring neighborhood activists, was stripping community based groups of leadership while co-opting their potential value as an independent force. But community organizations could be a vital support group and constituency. Boston administrators pointed with pride at the development of capacity to produce affordable housing in over a dozen community organizations. Chicago’s Local Industrial Retention Initiative (LIRI) and Burlington’s Center for Neighborhoods were exemplary cases.
  6. In many cases, progressives, upon election to office, gained acceptance simply doing good government reforms – benefiting from the failings of their predecessors in city hall. Harold Washington took advantage of a court decision that abolished patronage jobs by his public statements that “the machine as we knew it, is dead.”  Sanders’ treasurer discovered funds that had been hidden in obscure accounts. Flynn’s director of administrative services fouind ways to reduce the city’s budget problems by going to national finance, breaking the custom of dealing eexclusively with Boston banks.
  7. Deposed political factions and parties could go to extremes in outright public resistance; but when progressive incumbents finally prevailed, they cemented their policies. Harold Washington faced intransigent opposition from Chciago’s city council majority for two and one-half years of his first term. Bernie Sanders was unable to get council approval for major appointments for at least a year after winning Burlington VT’s mayoral election in 1981. Both mayors received public support later.
  8. There were tipping points in city hall administrative and political momentum – identifiable in hindsight, if not at the time. Washington gained credit for initiating an infrastructure bond issue two years into his term, slightly favoring opposition wards. Several council seats turned over to support afterwards, and other programs – particularly a neighborhood oriented economic development policy, gained public support. Sanders forced support for a Community and Economic Development Office after a year, convincing the business leadership that his policies were in their interest. Ray Flynn’s leadership in Boston coalesced when he was able to press a linkage program on downtown developers, thus creating a climate of acceptance for city intervention on affordable housing issues.
  9. Progressives, after such points of change, often put in place a concatenation of policies – as if a dam had broken. In Boston, Flynn’s linkage policies were at least as important for the initiatives in inclusionbary zoning, tenant protections and changes in bank lending practices, as for the relatively modest affordable housing funds derived from the ordinance itself. Similarly, Chicago’s iondustrial retention initiatives were many-faceted; and there were many such groupings of related policies in other places.
  10. “Progressive” does not mean “radical.” In few or no cases did progressive governments fail to compromise with other interests that would otherwise – and would later – oppose them. In office, mayors needed to respond to most of the major political forces in the city. Most typically this meant real estate developers. Flynn supported downtown real estate development while extracting linkage payments. Sanders convinced downtown businesses that he favored at least some of their development goals, while insisting that waterfront development would ensure public access and low income peoples’ housing cosdts be protected. In general, progressives sought balance, not a clean slate.
  11. Progressive coalitions, having secured majorities and mayoral offices, occasionally faced succession issues when mayors left office voluntarily or were defeated buot the coalition remained viable and sought to reassert control at a subsequent election. In these cases the successor mayors, having won election, were able to impose a more relaxed leadership style: on could see this in Burlington, Berkeley, and Santa Monica; in some ways in Boston in the case of Tom Menino.
  12. Progressive control ended, but there were aftermaths. In Chicago, progressive government ground to a halt after Washington died at his desk in 1987, but it took several years. Eugene Sawyer, interim mayor for 18 months, kept most of Washington’s appointees in place. Richard M. Daley, who won a special election in 1989 after vowing to end most of Washington’s approach to governance, continued certain key policies like the Planned Manufacturing Districts until the mid-1990s when he turned toward a real estate development focus financed by tax increment financing – even then, his emphases were more widely distributed around the city than had been the case prior to the 1980s.[i]
  13. Also interesting is the case of long-term persistence of progressive government – especially in Burlington, VT; also the California smaller cities: Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica. Some of these have gotten attention, others deserve more.


[i] In Burlington, VT a relatively seamless transition occurred, as three progressive mayors held office with the exception of a two-year period in the 1990s. I have less certain information about other California cities: Santa Cruz maintained progressive control more or less uniformly; something close to that happened in Berkeley and Santa Monica, CA where there were interruptions, but the progressive majorities and mayors tended to maintain a strong presence and were in power more often than not. In Boston and Chicago Flynn’s resignation (1993) and Washington’s death in office (1987) resulted in the essential ending of those administrations – Tom Menino retained control and put his personal stamp on a mayoralty that adapted to progressive forces in Boston, while not taking the lead Flynn had. Chicago experienced a more gradual fall-off in progressiveness – Interim mayor Eugene Sawyer continued Washington appointees for 18 months; Richard M. Daley maintained important initiatives in planning and economic policy for several years before moving toward a real estate development orientation in the mid-1990s. In Cleveland and Hartford, progressivism seemed to end badly: Kucinich defeated after two years in Cleveland, Carbone after ten in Hartford followed by a very uneven sequence – including four years of progressive but largely unsuccessful city council control in the 1980s.