Frustrated With Washington? Look to Local Government!

by Donald Gilpin 

All things Trump have increasingly dominated the media since the election campaign last year, and especially in the wild first months of the Trump Presidency. A casual observer from another planet might well assume that the White House and President Trump, with an occasional nod to Capitol Hill or the Supreme Court, is the true seat of power in the United States—that the lives of U.S. citizens are shaped and determined by policies and directives from Washington.

But that impression might be misleading. As the Trump Administration attempts to assert its authority, more and more individuals are becoming involved, speaking out about the issues that matter to them. People are also realizing that the true power center might not be the White House but city hall, with the key players not the president and congress but rather the local city council and mayor, as power develops democratically from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

Arguments over first and second amendment rights have marked much political discourse recently, but it may be in the ninth and tenth amendments to the Constitution where potential for change and the most dramatic shifts in power occur in this troubled era.

“The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” says the ninth amendment. And the tenth adds: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited to it by the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

“Power to the People,” the title of a John Lennon song and a slogan frequently heard in the 1960’s, is a notion seeing a comeback as Americans worry that Washington will not help them—on health care, the environment, immigration laws, civil rights, education.

With federal government so often either gridlocked, unresponsive to public pressure, or erratic, in taking action, many individuals are looking to local government, the mayor and the city council, to step up and take power where federal government has failed.

With a Republican Administration in Trenton, the Trump Administration installed in the White House and Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Princeton, with a Democratic mayor, Democrats dominant on City Council, will be looking more and more to its local officials for help and action on a variety of issues.

Councilman Lance Liverman

Princeton Councilman Lance Liverman insists that it is the Council’s duty to get involved. He contends that in the current political climate more and more citizens will be turning to local governments for support with more and more different concerns.

“People are feeling helpless, like they don’t have any leverage” he says. “Many feel distant from federal and state government and more hands-on with local government. If another entity isn’t stepping up, the council will, if the issue is affecting residents in our town. We need to speak up. That’s why people voted for us. They knew we would stand up.”

Liverman also emphasizes the efficiency of local government, in comparison to the federal bureaucracy. “You can get something done on the local level,” he added. ”It’s not a waste of time, as it so often is in Washington.”

Looking to the federal government for solutions to immigration, health, education, energy and environmental issues might no longer be a viable strategy for progressives. Citizens are increasingly calling on local officials to step into the breach, which means sometimes clashing with federal or state authorities, and stand up for the Constitutional right to protect the needs and safety of people and the environment, to provide sanctuary for immigrants, to make the crucial decisions about their children’s education.

Council member Heather Howard

Council member Heather Howard, a lecturer in the Woodrow Wilson School and director of the state health reform assistance network, embraces the new responsibilities and expanded role for the Council in the current political environment. She points out that local government can and should provide the transparency, the channel, the safety valve, the democratic forum that people are clamoring for.

“We have robust discussions and we have significant community input,” she says. “The meeting about the Charter School expansion, for example, was a response to the fact that there had been no public discussion and there hadn’t been the kind of transparency that people in Princeton expect. So we were the safety valve to let people air their views. They were frustrated that somebody in DC is going to be deciding their fate, but they felt they were heard by local public officials.”

She goes on to discuss a national phenomenon she refers to as “reverse federalism,” explaining, “federalism usually has meant the federal government devolving power to the states. Then in the era of civil rights it meant states opposing the federal government, opposing progress on civil rights, but what you’re seeing now is states and localities pushing back, on immigration for example. People want to be so much more engaged, and they want their representatives to be more engaged. In New Jersey it’s happening at the local level because it’s not happening at the state level, and it’s happening across the country.”

Referring to a January 31 statement from Princeton mayor and council affirming Princeton as a welcoming, immigrant-friendly community, in response to the White House executive orders on immigration, Howard notes, “We had heard from so many people who want to be engaged and so we’re reacting. We’re not just representing the values of our constituents, but we’re reacting to their desire for engagement. So something to watch is going to be the role of states and local governments having a stronger voice, and in the historic continuum, it’s a different kind of federalism, with localities standing up.”

She describes the particular power that local governments can assert. “We can be a different voice,’ she said. “We can be a voice of compassion for our neighbors when we feel that’s not the voice that’s coming from the federal government It’s about being there for our neighbors and wanting to help them. It’s progressive federalism, and you’re going to see more of it—in places like New York City and all over. We’re hearing from our constituents, and we’re channeling them and trying to voice their concerns.”

Discussing progressive federalism on local public health issues, Howard mentions Princeton initiatives banning smoking in parks and raising the legal age for tobacco sales to 21, issues on which local residents made their voices heard.

Mayor Liz Lempert

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert agrees, claiming that local government is more important now than ever before. Citing local government as a potential model of functional democracy and of government as a deliberative body, she states, “In the next four years, local government is likely going to be the place where progressive policies are tried and implemented.”

Lempert is at no loss for evidence to support and justify her faith in Princeton and its local government. “We have a terrific group of people who are all dedicated to the town,” she says in describing the six-member council. “We have the benefit of being in a relatively small and very engaged community. All of us are accessible, and we try to grapple with the important issues.”

She emphasizes the high level of engagement and ability of the local community. “One of the great things about Princeton is that people are not shy in telling us what their concerns are. It’s a remarkable community in that there are so many smart, talented people who are willing to volunteer their time and get engaged in what’s happening locally. People are motivated by their love of the town, and even if we disagree, people’s passion is coming from a good place.”

Pointing out particular advantages of local government, Lempert continues, “We often don’t have the option of kicking the can down the road. We will feel the effects of inaction, and delaying often comes with a cost that we can see and feel. There’s a level of detachment at the state and federal level that allows for gridlock and dysfunction, and often problems fall into the lap of local government to figure out.”

She specifically mentions environmental policies, immigration issues and worker issues, and noted that a new source of power and influence was collective action on the part of towns working together. “You’ll see a proliferation of groups that are federations of towns that get together and work on policy collectively.” Princeton is a part of several of these groups, including Welcoming America, working on immigration services; Everytown for Gun Safety; and Sustainable Jersey. “It helps to know that we are part of a larger effort, developing policies in Princeton that are used as best practices that other communities adopt. We’re all working together and also doing our own work in our community.”

Pointing out that the first weeks under the Trump Administration have “already been unsettling and challenging, in part because of the uncertainty,” Lempert anticipates many challenges and opportunities ahead for local government.

Council President Jenny Crumiller

Council President Jenny Crumiller echoes the mayor’s sentiments, also highlighting the positive side of the fears, frustrations and often negative political environment. “A lot of people are feeling a duty to become more involved because of what’s happening nationally. Even though we’re only a local governing body, we’re the face of the government to our residents, so I’m anticipating we’ll get more requests to deal with national issues.”

She notes the January statement on recent immigration directives, as well as past Princeton Council resolutions against the Iraq war and the Patriot Act. “It’s not something entirely new,” she said, “but there are a lot more reasons for outrage in Trump World. The silver lining to this is the sense of community and the appreciation for living in this town when so many residents share the same political leanings. They’re stepping up, organizing and giving their time and energy out of deep concern for the world and doing what they feel is right.”

West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh

Across Route One in West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh, at the helm for the past 16 years, argues that his town has thrived with “a different approach.” He explains, “Slowly, quietly we have been moving in the right direction despite Donald Trump. There is power at the local level. Locally we can do a lot of things despite what the federal government tries to do. We do whatever we can at the local level.”

In particular he highlights West Windsor’s efforts to bring people of different religions together. He mentioned a Thanksgiving lunch tradition he initiated in the community to bring together all different groups, the sensitivity training of the police department and their success in understanding different cultures and respecting the differences, and he pointed out the construction of a mosque on Old Trenton Road. “This represents West Windsor’s diversity,” he said, “and all of the religions in the community are behind this idea. To me that’s what West Windsor is all about.”

The West Windsor mayor concludes, “We have been making progress quietly over the past ten years to make sure the whole community works together regardless of religion. Quietly we are doing what we need to do as human beings. It’s a different approach, but it’s working. In West Windsor Moslems, Christians, Hindus and Jews work together. It’s nothing new.”

Repercussions? Risks?

As mayors and city councils prepare to take on more responsibilities and more power in response to their constituents’ requests for empowerment, representation, voice, action or protection, these local officials may be entering new, uncharted territories—and there may be consequences.

“It’s a scary time,” Liverman says. “I don’t hate Trump, but I think he’s misguided. He has a mean streak, an impulse to get back at you.” But ultimately, Liverman points out, local officials have to represent the best interests of the public. “I’m not looking for a fight,” he added, “but we have to protect our citizens.”

“President Trump has threatened to pull funding for sanctuary cities,” Lempert adds. [Princeton has officially declared itself a ‘welcoming community rather than a sanctuary city.] It’s not clear if he would try to do that with other local policies, but every elected official takes an oath to uphold the Constitution, and I’m very mindful of that, and I believe we need to follow the laws even when we don’t agree with them.”

Roger Martindell, former borough councilman and local lawyer, points out that Princeton does not depend heavily on funding from the federal government but that friction between Washington and Princeton could revolve around other issues.

“What’s going on in Washington is going to affect our values more than our budgets—how we treat each other, how we work with governmental entities, how we approach the larger issues of the day,” Martindell says. He cites immigration laws and policies as a potential flashpoint.

“The Trumpian effort to alienate, isolate, discriminate against and otherwise hassle immigrants could affect our community, because we have so many immigrants. There are immigrants at the University, and we have a large Latino population, a significant proportion of which is undocumented. They’ve lived in town, in some cases for decades, and their children are our citizens.

“There are opportunities for the town to fight the good fight for the immigrants, and the question is, will we step up and do that. That remains to be seen. If we have immigration raids—we have had some over the years—but if they become more prevalent, what are we going to do about it? We can sit on our hands and cry, or mobilize and join a larger movement to make a public expression against the policies in Washington. Whether we will rise to that occasion remains to be seen.”

Martindell emphasizes the risks of countering federal authorities. “If you poke Donald Trump in the eye, he can by all accounts be vindictive and nasty, and he could poke us back in the eye. He can’t really do it fiscally, but he could tell immigration authorities to pick on Princeton particularly. For example he could put pressure on the state government to put pressure through the Department of Law and Public Safety on municipal police to be more cooperative with the immigration authorities. That could have a serious effect on our community. Our police are trained to follow the orders of the attorney general’s office in Trenton. If it got to that it could be a serious problem.”

Princeton professor of sociology and public affairs Doug Massey predicts “a lot of opposition from states and localities that are opposed to the kinds of policies that the president Is issuing.” Massey says groups, on campus and off, are organizing to prepare for actions Trump may take, the most serious of which might be the rescinding of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) executive order that protects about one million people who otherwise would be deportable, including many students at Princeton University and other schools and colleges in Mercer County.

“At one point Trump said ‘I’m not interested in hurting kids,’ but he’s a very volatile guy.” Massey says. “If he rescinds the DACA order, these people are instantly deportable. Their addresses and contact information are all in the Homeland Security computers. They are certainly vulnerable to immigration authorities. To the extent that there’s protest and opposition, he could target Princeton as an elite institution that he doesn’t like.” But Massey declines to offer predictions or advice, adding, “I’m just an academic, not a politician.”

From her office in the Municipal Building on Witherspoon Street, the Princeton Mayor remains mindful of the needs and growing worries of the more than 30,000 individuals she represents. She is realistic about the challenges of responding to those concerns as she reads the daily news feed from Washington, Trenton and elsewhere, but Lempert’s optimism prevails. “On the positive side, I have been completely inspired by the number of people who have gotten involved over the past months,” she says. “I keep meeting people and sharing the story over and over again of people who’ve never been to a rally or a political meeting who never felt the need to get politically engaged who now are fully engaged. They want to know how to help and many of them are looking to get involved here in Princeton.”

Amidst worries on the national level about the dysfunction and decline of democracy and democratic institutions, Lempert sees encouraging trends. “A lot of young people are showing up, and it feels like real democracy in those meetings where you see people turn out who want to help shape what their government looks like and what their community is going to look like,” she concludes. “And the more people who can be involved, it can only be better.”