Atlantic Cities

The Congressional Races Urbanists Should Be Watching

The Congressional Races Urbanists Should Be Watching
Frontpage / Shutterstock.com

It's sad that the only reminder in presidential politics that more than four-fifths of Americans live in urban areas comes from the news that early voting lines in Cleveland and Miami were so long a voter could watch the entire Star Wars trilogy before casting his or her vote.

Why has the question of American cities -- which were not so long ago the site of massive federal government intervention, nearly to a fault -- been entirely absent from political discourse this fall? Largely because urbanites vote so reliably for Democrats that they tend to be ignored by both parties, spurned in campaigns and under-served in policy. We've scarcely heard the candidates, one of whom lives in Chicago, the other in Boston, even use the word "city."

In the Congressional races, urban affairs are similarly neglected. Consider this: Florida congressman John Mica, the chairman of the powerful House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (out of favor among ultra-conservatives for doing big-Government things like signing a $105 billion transportation bill), is essentially framing himself as the candidate of no spending.

But before getting too down on urban affairs as a political issue, let's have a look at some races where cities are playing a roll. Congressional races with a bearing on urban policy can be split into three categories -- safe races for urban advocates (all Democrats), vulnerable GOP freshmen who have sought to make a name for themselves by cutting funding wherever they see it, and one rather important toss-up between two long-serving legislators.

The Toss-Up: the closest, most important House race for people who like cities, and enjoy government-sponsored infrastructure projects.

  • IA-3. Rep. Tom Latham (R) vs. Rep. Leonard Boswell (D).

It's an internal affair for the Iowa 3rd district, where redistricting pits two veteran Iowa congressmen against each other.

Transportation advocates will wonder what sort of theory of checks and balances was at work in making Latham, a nine-term Republican who ran a seed company and spent his first 13 years in Congress living in Alexander, IA, pop. 175, Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.

But Chairman he is, and as such, one of the most powerful voices on urban development funding in this country. Two years ago, Latham got in a bit of hot water with the Smart Growth crowd for mocking Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's call for more bike lanes, claiming real transit needs were being "swept aside." Streetsblog has called him a "livability denier."

(Side note: at that same hearing, after another Republican, Ohio Rep. Steven LaTourette, made similar comments, the level of backlash from his constituents was so high that he wound up co-sponsoring, along with California Democrat Doris Matsui, the Safe and Complete Streets Act, which was later nixed by his fellow House Republicans. LaTourette is not running for office this year.)

StreetsBlog's Tanya Snider wrote of Latham,

He’s made it clear that his priority in the subcommittee is "the efficient movement of agricultural products" on rural roads and "the importance of maintaining the vast road structures that we have today in rural America."

The fears of Latham's power of the purse over U.S. transportation funding proved to be justified. He proposed to slash transit and highway spending by 34 percent last September. His version of the transportation budget also ended TIGER grants, cut all High Speed Rail funding, and cut Amtrak's operating budget in half. It was part of the famous Paul Ryan Budget, which cut in total $47 billion from transportation funding.

His opponent, Leonard Boswell, is an eight-term Democratic congressman, and the fourth-ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

Boswell's been a rank-and-file Democrat on issues of infrastructure spending, bringing home stimulus money to fund mass transit improvements in Des Moines.

Real Clear Politics considers the race a toss-up.

Politicos with good records on urban affairs who look set to win reelection:

  • Ben Cardin, Maryland Senate. Along with Mississippi Senator Thad Cochrin, Cardin sponsored an amendment to the House Transportation Bill to send more federal funding to local governments, increasing the likelihood of municipal improvements like complete streets and mass transit.
  • Nick Rahall, WV-3. Rahall is somewhat more at-risk than the others on this list, since he represents a West Virginia district that voted for Bush and then in even greater numbers for McCain. Nevertheless he has a lead in the polls. He's currently the ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
  • Doris Matsui, CA-5.  Matsui's district includes Sacramento, and she seems to be a shoo-in for reelection, which is good news for urban policy advocates. She sponsored the star-crossed Safe and Complete Streets Act, and is a big voice for mass transit.
  • Earl Blumenauer, OR-3. Blumenauer is the founder of the 180-member Congressional Bicycle Caucus. In 2009, he got Congress to adopt his proposal extending a tax break for employers who encourage biking. His district includes Portland, so it's safe to say he's not going anywhere.

The young guns trying to keep the 2010 magic alive:

  • Jeff Denham, CA-10. Denham and his opponent, Jose Hernandez, are neck-and-neck in California's 10th district. Denham made waves in Congress when his proposal to strip the California High Speed Rail project of federal funding passed the house. Presumably this didn't do him any electoral favors at home, and his Democratic opponent is pro-HSR. Check out Denham's anti-Hernandez ad, complete with frenetic circus music:

  • Chip Cravaack, MN-8. Another first-term GOP/Tea Party representative who vilifies federal spending on everything except the military, and whose vote for the Ryan Budget's giant transportation cuts has provided his opponent, former Minnesota representative Rick Nolan, with some ammunition. Also a toss-up.
  • Daniel Webster, FL-8. Webster's cause celebre in his first two years in the House was to strip the funding of the American Community Survey, an annual mini-census that extrapolates its findings from a relatively small sample size of 3 million houses a year, and helps determine which places receive federal money and for what. Matt Yglesias wrote that Webster was "badly, badly failing" the test of being well-informed on his issues, and the Super PAC of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg has contributed money to his opponent, former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings. Webster is considered likely to prevail.

This year, the most important urban affairs decisions of this election will be made in referendums by the voters themselves.

Top image: Frontpage / Shutterstock.com

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

Join the Discussion