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The Mayors Fighting for a Progressive Vision of the South

Once upon a time, there was a regional dream of development. A new group looks to revive that tradition—but this time, with space for everyone.

Steve Benjamin (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Not so long ago, the South was functionally a one-party region. The Democratic Party’s midcentury tent stretched from Richmond all the way down to New Orleans, a 13-state ex-rebel collective containing segregationists, white supremacists, progressives, pseudo-communists, integrationists, conservatives, liberals—united into a single political mass by whiteness and the hope of prosperity in a post-Depression economy.

In the latter half of the century, the regional advocacy took the form of the Southern Governors Association, the Southern Growth Policies Board, and the Appalachian Regional Commission—all groups with the common goal of bringing the South’s citizenry out of the prior decades of financial instability. Under this cohort, the South molded its own form of economic progressivism: New Deal Democrats and their successors, pushing for government action in developing the American South. Within SGA, governors lobbied Congress for federal farming subsidies for family farmers and paved country roads that had long been matted grass and dirt. They poured resources into attracting businesses to their burgeoning urban locales and flooded their public school and university systems with funding brought on by tax raises on the wealthy and businesses.

Fiscal conservatives still raged on, frothing over any federal expenditure, especially those that would be diverted to minority communities. But bold progressives championing government investment made their mark, establishing a tradition that would stagger on to the 1990s, among them Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt in North Carolina; John West in South Carolina; Ray Mabus in Mississippi; and Ann Richards in Texas.

Today, the South is split, politically and culturally. Long-time North Carolina journalist and historian Rob Christensen has said that there are two defining moments in modern Southern political history: the Civil Rights movement, and the reaction to the Civil Rights movement. In the wake of the 1960s fight for political and cultural equality, President Richard Nixon and his cronies employed the infamous Southern strategy, preying on the racist fears of white voters. The first signs of success emerged with the 1972 election of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, a former staffer for segregationist campaigns.

In the decades that followed, the GOP chipped away at the Democratic stronghold, winning landslide elections in 1994 and 2008. Once blanketed in blue, the South is now a sea of red, with Southern cities and college towns dotting the landscape as Democratic islands. With the shift has come a decline in the idea of a common Southern interest. In 2013, with North Carolina Republican Governor Pat McCrory reigning as chairman, the Southern Growth Policies Board was abolished, concluding a 42-year run. Shortly after in 2016, the SGA died with a whimper—and the dream of a regional, Southern progressivism with it.

Or so it seemed until last week.

Last Friday, the mayors of four Southern cities published “A roadmap for winning the South,” a document that serves as both a directive for economic growth and a manifesto for the New South. More than merely a list of demands for the 2020 presidential candidates eyeing their crucial endorsements, it could herald the arrival of a new kind of coalition. Steve Benjamin, one of the co-authors is Columbia’s first black mayor. LaToya Cantrell, another, is the first black woman to ever preside over New Orleans. Randall Woodfin is the youngest mayor Birmingham has ever had. And Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, was dubbed the most radical mayor in America” by The Nation.

The SGA, for all the good and bad it produced, was a white man’s club from its inception. As the 1970s arrived and the nation was forced to mature, women and people of color slowly joined its ranks, but never in numbers matching the extent to which they populated and represented the South. The efforts of the SGA and its fellow regional groups routinely abandoned the concerns of women and the black, Native, Latino populations. This allowed their white male counterparts to continue to climb higher than was logistically possible for anyone who dared enter polite society with a uterus or a higher degree of melanin in their skin.

The Southern mayors behind last week’s manifesto banded together to publish their roadmap in hopes that the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates will turn their eye to the South—consider it as a potential future base, rather than a region only of use for its primaries. (That said, South Carolina’s primary is among the first on the docket, making Benjamin’s endorsement one of the most sought after in the entire 2020 race.) Accordingly, they have offered a list of policies that any candidate hoping to secure the Southern urban vote will have to adopt. Chief among them is increased federal investment in affordable housing. The mayors voiced the need for an increase in funding for Special Purpose Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers and the expansion of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. They also called for rent relief, as many Southern cities have undergone such rapid expansion in the past decade that rising home ownership and renting costs—driven by Wall Street firms snapping up real estate by the handful—have forced working class citizens from their home communities.

The group also prodded the 2020 candidates to support federal workforce development programs and expand the Small Business Administration’s investment programs for employee-owned, minority-owned, and women-owned businesses. Opportunity Zone funds (tax incentives meant to encourage businesses and home owners to open up shop in low-income neighborhoods), should actually go to the communities they’re supposed to help, the mayors argue, rather than allow outside investors to speed up gentrification.

While the specific needs of any given locale will always vary city to city, the policies detailed by the mayors underscore the need to return to a regional style of governing, but with an eye toward including the entire citizenry this time around. What the four mayors set out to accomplish with their roadmap, as they wrote, is to address “decades of underinvestment.” But a tantalizing promise for Southern progressives also haunts the document: to remove the partisan slights over who currently represents the “real” South and connect the dots between persistent inequality and the abandonment of federal responsibility.

Throughout the South, the urban-rural divide still exists as one of the most dominant talking points in the region’s political sphere, conservatives in particular often dividing the region into “real Southern” voters and elite city transplants. The political cleavage lines in fact graft as much onto race as culture, but with the slow exclusion of overtly racist rhetoric from public discourse, progressive urban local governments are still dismissed as liberal aberrations, as somehow not being representative of the South. Amidst the long conservative pastime of anti-urbanism, the numerous inequalities that permeate the South’s economy and culture, both rural and urban, have gone unaddressed. And it’s precisely these commonalities that Cantrell, Lumumba, Woodfin, and Benjamin are seeking to highlight: a progressive vision for the region, one that is unifying in both intention and effect by widening the national conversation around urban voters to, finally, include the people of the great Southern cities.