Blue City, Red State, Home Rule

In the wake of Amazon’s choice of location for headquarters #2 (and the announcement that it was breaking the choice into two, one to be located in Queens and one in Crystal City–essentially, Washington, D.C.), Robert Reich wrote a provocative essay for Newsweek.

What does Amazon’s decision have to do with America’s political tumult? Turns out, quite a lot.

Amazon’s main headquarters is in Seattle, one of the bluest cities in the bluest of states. New York and metropolitan Washington are true-blue, too.

Amazon could have decided to locate its second headquarters in, say,  Indianapolis, Indiana. Indianapolis vigorously courted the firm. It’s also a Republican city in a bright red state.

Actually, Indianapolis–like every other sizable city in the country–is unambiguously blue. But we are located in a very, very red state.

Reich’s main point was that technology is a process of “group learning,” and it advances best in geographical clusters. Those clusters are primarily found along the coasts, where the digital economy has been a real boon. But Reich says that economy has left behind much of the rest of the country, with the result that we are facing what he calls “the widening inequalities of place.”

As money pours into these hubs, so do service jobs that cater to the new wealth—pricey lawyers, wealth managers, and management consultants, as well as cooks, baristas, and pilates instructors.

Between 2010 and 2017, according to Brookings, nearly half of the America’s employment growth centered in just 20 large metro areas, now home to about a third of the U.S. population.

Relative to these booming hubs, America’s heartland is becoming older, less well-educated, and poorer.

I think the reality of “America’s heartland” is more complicated than Reich recognizes. And that takes me back to his mistaken assumption that Indianapolis is a Republican city.

Cities in even the brightest red states have been blue for some time. We form what has been dubbed an “urban archipelago.” Furthermore, the inhabitants of these cities are engaged in a multitude of creative place-making, job-creating and poverty-reducing efforts.

Here in Indianapolis, for example, Community Development Corporations partner with the City, the Chamber of Commerce and a variety of nonprofit organizations to improve transit, health, education and job training, and to remove barriers to self-sufficiency. People may disagree about the likely efficacy or unintended consequences of this or that initiative, but the range of activity–and the good will motivating it–is impressive.

Indianapolis’ problem (which is not shared by every blue island swimming in a rural sea of red) can be found in Reich’s second descriptor: our red state. It isn’t Republican control of Indiana that’s the problem; it’s the fact that we are a state in which there is no meaningful home rule. Public officials in Indiana cities must go hat-in-hand to the state legislature (currently governed by an unimaginative GOP super-majority) to pursue many of the policy initiatives that other cities have authority to pursue as a matter of course.

Want to charge extra for plastic bags? No can do, sayeth our legislative overlords. In just the last few years, the Indiana legislature has also prevented cities from setting local minimum wages, and  from regulating housing, agricultural operations and worker schedules, among other things.

Perhaps the most egregious example of legislative arrogance involved Indianapolis’ proposal to tax ourselves to upgrade our inadequate transit system. It took three years just to get the legislature’s permission to hold a vote on the matter, and even then, the enabling legislation prohibited us from considering light rail. Why? Who knows?

As a column in the Indianapolis Star noted,  

A move to preempt local rules for services like Airbnb failed to get out of the Indiana House, but it was a rare setback for the never-ending march to scale back home rule. This year legislators successfully banned local zoning rules for certain utility poles and undermined so-called “good neighbor ordinances.”

(“Good neighbor” ordinances hold tenants accountable when they repeatedly inflict crimes and nuisances on their neighbors.)

The attorney who authored the column shared a number of other examples, and made a compelling case for giving greater authority to the people elected to govern municipalities.

The lack of ability to make our own decisions, based on the needs of our own residents, isn’t just making us less competitive for Amazon-sized sweepstakes.It is preventing us from improving everything from education to infrastructure to the quality of life in our city. Legislators who mostly represent the Indiana hinterlands consistently prevent us from reaching our full potential as a thriving urban oasis in a rural state that isn’t doing so well.

Urban residents of Indianapolis suspect that’s intentional.


  1. I am a recent transplanted Hoosier now living in Jones County MS (Laurel and Ellisville). Forrest Co., South and adjacent to Jones County, is the location of the University of Southern MS. The county has nearly the same political makeup as Marion County. It contains a vibrant politically progressive community of activists. Pleasantly surprising is the presence of a small but hardy Metropolitan Community Church located within the city of Hattiesburg.

  2. ” It took three years just to get the legislature’s permission to hold a vote on the matter, and even then, the enabling legislation prohibited us from considering light rail. Why? Who knows?”

    Answer: Those inner-city districts vote for Democrats.

    Not mentioned was the chronic “underclasses” in most large inner-cities. They were about 15% when I was a boy growing up in Cleveland in the 1950s, and it’s still 15%. The difference is the population doubled in that span.

    One of the things crushing the “fly-over” country is the lack of opportunity brought about by this shift of money to the top 20 cities. What would have happened to Nebraska, for example, if Amazon had picked Omaha? Would that have helped Nebraska rural people that their votes for Republicans was against their best interests? Probably not. Sadly, the very fine University of Nebraska keeps churning out very well educated people in a wide variety of professions, but the farm belt in the midwest provides few opportunities to absorb all those people into a work place.

    This may be just a circular argument with no measurable outcome in the short-term. Until Democrats figure out that a 50-state strategy actually works and that the folks in ruby-red states want to be asked for their votes, they will remain ruby-red.

  3. Many rural people cling to the idea of self-sufficiency as the organizing principle for life. Leave us alone and we will succeed or fail on our own merits. Urban people understand that they have to work together to make cities and suburbs livable. Until rural people discover collective action can improve their lives, we will have this divide and this battle.

  4. We love “free markets” because it’s the most efficient way to manage resources. Except all our evidence says it’s not.

    What is gearing up in New York over Amazon will once again elevate the national conversation on how we can better use our resources. It’s going to be interesting.

    Again, the market based economic system creates winners and losers. What keeps those with economic advantage from abusing their economic power to oppress others?

    We were given a free press and a government which represents the people. If anybody believes that our press is free to hold the powerful accountable in the USA needs to watch two people: Jim Acosta and Julian Assange.

    One represents entertainment media and the other represents the free press. One asks superficial questions while the other publishes documents the powerful wish would remain secret. One is treated like a beacon of the free press while the other is ignored by the “free press”.

    Yes, we must bow to the free market gods.

    I didn’t even assess the government who is nothing more than hired shills except for the new freshman class coming into Washington this January.

    As Sheila points out, the national #DNC gave up on Indiana a long time ago. Our state D party is a joke. They’ve symbolically said that Indiana isn’t worth our time. Maybe they’re right.

    Hoosiers keep voting for Koch shills who sell their coal to four super burning power plants which cause cancer and asthma for those within breathing distance – especially old and young Hoosiers.

    Talk to a doctor about it…most will only go so far because if they speak up, guess what gets yanked?

    On top of our air, every single water source in Indiana is now polluted with E Coli which causes algae blooms in the summer. Our government blames septic and fertilizer use but never mentions the thousands of corporate animal factories which confine thousands of animals in tight quarters and then spreads their waste over the land.

    All the while our “free press” stays quiet and our politicians collect checks from the polluters.

    What about the all-powerful voters? LOL

    The reason the Oligarchs think Hoosiers are expendable is that we are collectively, too stupid to vote for what’s in our best interest.

    Watch closely what happens in Washington when you have a freshman class of congressional reps fighting with the old blue dogs owned by Wall Street and Oligarchs.

    Maybe in 5-10 years, Hoosiers will catch on but it will be slow coming because we have Gannett owned newspapers with the USA Today inserts and Fox/Sinclair watching ‘informed voters’. The media will ensure the people don’t get any bright ideas…but we have our young people with Smartphones. 😉

  5. “Actually, Indianapolis–like every other sizable city in the country–is unambiguously blue. But we are located in a very, very red state.”

    Sheila recently posted the importance of local politics; they are at the lowest levels the foundation of our city government, the City-County Council here is an excellent example. The current president is Vop Osili, a Democrat; my Warren Township Councilor David Ray is also a Democrat…as is our Mayor Hogsett. Can anyone here point to positive actions and/or general improvement in conditions such as our infrastructure happening across Indianapolis which comprises all of Marion County? The City-County Council, a mixture of Democrats and Republicans, appears to have the responsibility for beginning progress on all issues but it varies from Township to Township…the individual building blocks of local government.

    “The lack of ability to make our own decisions, based on the needs of our own residents, isn’t just making us less competitive for Amazon-sized sweepstakes.It is preventing us from improving everything from education to infrastructure to the quality of life in our city. Legislators who mostly represent the Indiana hinterlands consistently prevent us from reaching our full potential as a thriving urban oasis in a rural state that isn’t doing so well.”

    The City-County Council is the governing body bearing the initial responsibility and the staring point for needed improvement sources. I am quite sure people from Amazon toured this city for an idea of the full scope of conditions and found it lacking. I mentioned months ago my impressions of drives from the east side to downtown Indianapolis as being trashy in areas with crumbling infrastructure. After my trip to the City County Building to give my Victim Impact Statement in court I also commented on the sad, dirty conditions surrounding the City County Building – the seat of our local government. I just fired off an E-mail to Vop Osili seeking answers my Democratic City Councilor, David Ray, for Warren Township has neglected to answer for months. His promise of his voting records still unmet; I have serious concerns regarding the vast difference in conditions of Warren Township vs. Franklin Township on our southern edge. Conditions in Center Township have been declining for decades with a few pockets of improvement. Being a Blue city in a Red state is meaningless here; I know from working for the City years ago that there are zoning regulations throughout this county but reported violations are ignored so they worsen. The property tax structure differs from Township to Township resulting in improvement in some but worsening conditions in others. So; the Democrats within this Blue city in this Red state cannot even work together in one city to meet the needs of its residents.

  6. It always amazes me how the Republicans rant about less government and local control until they are in power. Then they want to control everything from who can marry whom to the governing of cities and towns. Hypocrites.

  7. As a former Hoosier who lived three blocks from the statehouse, all I can say is Sheila hit the whole thing right on the head with this piece. It is also one reason why, after 25+ years, my partner and I packed up and left Indiana for Portland, Maine in 2015. This is a rural, and aging state (usually oldest or 2nd oldest population in the nation) but we have very informed voters out here and they quickly let politicians know that votes have consequences. That’s why a couple weeks back we flipped everything what was still red to blue and now have a woman governor replacing the idiot (think Trump Junior!) racist Republican we had, both houses of the state legislature are Democratic, and as of yesterday, aside from that turncoat Susan Collins (who was not up for election this year) every one of our state’s officials and representatives are Democrats. So my point here is a rural state with no real big cities (our Portland has under 75,000 people!) can be progressive, can have local control over what happens and can, indeed, more forward with everything from Ranked Choice Voting (which this election tossed out the last Republican mis-representing us in the US House) to bag ordinances, local regulations which make sense and yes, even legal recreational marijuana. Keep in mind, too, that Maine was the first state to legalise gay marriage NOT by a court order or a legislative demand, but by a majority of the voters voting in favour of it. So I invite all my Hoosier friends to read about life in Maine (Our motto is “Maine: The Way Life Should Be!”) then come out and see how it’s done. I’ll buy you the first lobster and show you some awesome scenery, too.

  8. Moving from local authority to the (groan) top level in the Oval Office; Trump just announced his nomination of a handbag designer at Mar-A-Lago for Ambassador to South Africa.

    Just don’t want to lose sight of what is going on outside our Blue city/Red state existence.

  9. My I point to some progressive improvements here in Indianapolis since Hogsett has been Mayor.
    Construction is under way for the new Justice Center complex. This is going to allow for better use of the City County Building, which has finally gotten the much needed landscape improvements to the south side of the building. And then there are the street lights. I don’t know who came up with the idea of how to pay for this overdue improvement, but I would give him/her a medal if it were left to me.
    Peterson took on the Republican State Legislature trying to end the antiquated township system. It is a relic of the horse and buggy era which allows for the party in power to use it as a source of patronage jobs. Being Indiana that is not going to change any time soon.
    The bottom line is that the state government controls way too much power over the cities and towns, hampering innovation and progress that would have attracted Amazon to move here.

  10. With the exception of the Left Wing press (Internet Sites), the Amazon Deal is not questioned at all by the McMega Media Press. Amazon’s deal is a grossly huge example of Corporate Welfare. Both of our political parties morph into a Republicrat Party when Corporate Welfare is needed.

    Both the Republican and Democratic Parties are now committed to the idea, at least for mega corporations = Socialize the Costs and Privatize the Profits.

    As Pete Dolack wrote, “Gentrification doesn’t just happen — it is a process assisted by a local government under the sway of local corporate elites, and is centered on dramatic increases in commercial and residential rents such that the people and culture who are being removed find it increasingly difficult to remain.”

    The Star had an article on the “loss” of Amazon to Indianapolis in summary: “But city and state officials in Indiana kept those details confidential, funneling a regional bid through the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, which is not subject to open records law.”

    Indiana’s Secret Bid via the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. Typical Indiana cover it up, stonewall it behind a wall of legal subterfuge to avoid the “public” having any knowledge, then they hand us a bill.

  11. Muddled thinking. Amazon was exploitive “rent seeking”. Public transport competes with the private sector autos and oil. Concentrating power in State capitals makes everything easier to control. All of this is perfectly consistent and there is no mystery to it at all. Such is the state of capitalism in America. Doubt it? Go to Americans for Prosperity ie Koch web site.

  12. from a truckers view,and the hardest comments we make to any city to drive in,or near,NYC. heres a fact,alot of drivers will never,work for anyone who takes loads into the ny,nj metro area. (theres also the fact,drivers and people in NYC are outright rude to us)even in hiring ads directed at drivers,no NYC, is actully a hiring point. now, amazon must be thinking,local cartage,and whatever the local grub hub style of delivery. they couldnt have picked better, as being,local…if the needs are from sea,container ports,check, air freight,check, hauling good from across country,you lose. so dont expect much from us,we may not agree on who the trucker supports,(84% red) (yes 84% according to OOIDA) we dont do NYC…now, if most truckers wont drive NYC, why would they vote for someone whos the epitimy of NYC? ya gotta wonder,,,,p.s. last time i checked, one way bridge toll into nyc for a semi,was $75,, now do we really need another toll road?

  13. Todd @ 9:01 am, “Watch closely what happens in Washington when you have a freshman class of congressional reps fighting with the old blue dogs owned by Wall Street and Oligarchs.”

    Even though Medicare for All is favored a sizable majority in the USA : “The vast majority of Americans, 70 percent, now support Medicare-for-all, otherwise known as single-payer health care, according to a new Reuters survey. That includes 85 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans. Only 20 percent of Americans say they outright oppose the idea.”

    Among the 20% that oppose Medicare for All, are Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer “leaders” in the Democratic House.

  14. Perhaps there are two huge differences between blue cities and the rural red as well as many smaller ones. One is education which is more and more an essential ingredient in living in our complex world. Related to that is expertise. Those more connected to the rest of the world by place know that the knowledge explosion absolutely requires specialization. There is simply no way to accomplish anything that doesn’t require groups of people who each own part of the knowledge required collaborating to solve whole problems.

    Another is (and I realize that this is a very common theme for me) entertainment, what can be called culture, which can also be our exposure to liberal arts. People who live by choice in cities often are influenced in that decision by cultural opportunities. Entertainment that elevates and wakes up brain cells that can otherwise be atrophied by lack of exercise.
    What I’m afraid of is that in the country more often than not entertainment comes from TV and, not by accident, TV is designed to atrophy many brain cells so audiences became hypnotized and therefore stationary and therefore loyal to particular flashing lights and voices.

    Cities make life, at least to those who can afford it, that is vibrant and connected and respectful of knowledge. Country life can be stagnating and boring and isolating and uninspiring.

    The blue city and the rural red – those connected to what’s inevitably coming in the evolving world vs those connected to the receding past. The cultured vs the coarse.

  15. as for corp welfare,in seattle,theres hundreds of people living in thier cars,working for amazon. being you dont have a perminate address,no food stamps…as with other needs, when seattle went for a corp head tax for building some real rent housing,for those gentrified from society demanding work from the well to do. most of seattles apts are the work of banks and investors holding the property after 2008 fallouts. as few as 5 management co.hold 20-30.000 units,with rents from 14-2400 for a one bedroom. first,last,security,$40 per head background,figure $5000 to move in. any travel,is a traffic jam of monumental proportions. being seattle hugs a large ridge know as the west coast mountians. the ferry is a joke,if it ran earlier,it would move alot of traffic to the penisula,increase housing and make for some economic development there. nope,cant do that…it will interfere with a.m. traffic in seattle,or whatever excuse is easiest. the city council has the backbone of jelly,when bezos threaten to leave seattle when he was asked to chip into a corp head tax,from only the biggest corps in seattle,tye mayor folded as did city council..heres a creep who clears 260 million a day,and hes worried about helping the locals actully get above water who work,for him…langour is spot on in his assessment. i was in seattle working last nov,dec,made 26 and hour,and shared a place with a carpenter.. but,the ugly,its to f,,,,,,, crowded..and is gaining a attitude i never seen before..

  16. Sheila apparently believes that there are Community Development Corporations ” that partner with government to do “impressive things” for altruistic reasons. I hate to burst your bubble, but these “community development ” groups are set up mainly to steer government grants, tax abatement and TIF funds to certain well-connected developers, contractors and companies who want sweet deals. Take Red Line, for instance. IndyGo has purchased multiple electric over-capacity buses from BYD, a Chinese company, to run on dedicated lanes on College and Meridian Steeet, then Downtown. IndyGo never considered any improvement in bus transportation without the dedicated lane, and didn’t start with parts of the City where people depend on bus transportation. This was to qualify certain politically well-connected developers who own property on College Avenue for “transit oriented development” government grants.

    IndyGo copied a system set up by Albuquerque. Late last month, Albuquerque’s mayor took all of the BYD buses out of service because they are nothing but junk: won’t go anywhere near the required number of miles on a single charge; doors open during operation without being activated, multiple manufacturing flaws, multiple safety issues, the list goes on. The dedicated traffic lanes are no longer dedicated, and regular traffic may drive on them. Now, you’d think the City would slow it’s roll on making the same mistakes as Albuquerque, given that these buses failed their first real-world test–right? You’d think that the City would at least delay tearing up College Avenue while it looks into what happened in Albuquerque –right? I mean why construct dedicated lanes on a busy street when the buses IndyGo ordered might never go into service and the dedicated lanes may never be implemented?

    The street-closure signs went up yesterday. As to the question about light rail, Sheila, this was extensively studied. Indianapolis is too far spread out and existing railroad rights of way cross too many streets to make light rail practical. In fact, the same is true for a bus rapid transit system. A bus could never go fast enough through residential neighborhoods to be of practical utility, and all streets from the suburbs to Downtown go through residential neighborhoods. Since Indianapolis generates electricity via burning coal, the net effect is more, rather than less, pollution. The Red Line system was started to benefit developers, not to improve public transportation.

  17. Sharing a Charleston, SC Post and Courier feature article from my older son who’s into his 23rd year of teaching high school Government/Economics in several public school districts in South Carolina including Charleston, James Island, Greenville, and now Spartanburg. He’s never been under contract in a rural public school district; however, he’s totally aware of past and current situations.

  18. NEW PLEDGE – draft – feel free to add and change

    We pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America
    and to the republic for which it stands
    one nation with God
    seeking strength through our diversity,
    with liberty and justice for all

  19. Charlie; is pledging allegiance to the flag the same as pledging allegiance to the government when the republic for which the flag currently stands is “deconstructing” liberty and justice for all? Those who “take a knee” are calling attention to the last words of the National Anthem, “…and that flag yet waves o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” are meaningless under the current government.

    Maybe the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and the National Anthem should be packed away until they once again have meaning.

  20. Lots of ideas yesterday. For me, outstanding are comments such as this by PETE:
    “What I’m afraid of is that in the country more often than not entertainment comes from TV and, not by accident, TV is designed to atrophy many brain cells so audiences became hypnotized and therefore stationary and therefore loyal to particular flashing lights and voices.”
    True of some TV, Pete, but not all. True of carefully composed commercials designed to numb down brains. What would I do without TV selected for my taste filtered to reduce assault on gray matter? True of those channels offering only evangelism or only sports or only politics and I have no idea why some folks are able to get along only with local channels, “news” and weather.
    To use this miraculous medium creatively, try using a DVR to record programs of YOUR choice to enable playback when you can choose to filter by using your FF or DELETE buttons.
    Don’t know what I would do without YouTube and the vast collection of video and audio discs at my public library.

  21. They would not approve light rail? That does not surprise. I now have to pay 50 dollars on my excise tax for my car just because I bought a hybrid car in 2005. This will not motivate people to conserve gasoline. Evidently, as I am sure some of the others who have posted will agree, our state government does not take global warming seriously.

  22. Responding to Natacha,

    I have no interest in defending community development corporations (CDCs) in general or in particular, but I lead a local, community-based CDC and what you have described in your comment does not at all express the activity or ethos of our CDC.

    Perhaps that’s in part because our Board of Directors is resident driven and has a majority of minorities and women governing it. Or, in part, because we root our activity in the community’s collectively developed and updated quality of life plan. Or, in part, because we actually listen to our neighbors and consider collective neighborhood input essential for great outcomes. Or, in part, because we lead from a deeper place than political expediency and financial opportunism.

    I invite you, and anyone else, to coffee and a walking tour of the neighborhood revitalization work in which we are engaged. We need your energy and capacities to make our community better.

  23. Actually, (I hate using that word) Indiana does have STATUTORY home rule . I used it twice during my first term as mayor of my city in the early 1980’s. One for a complicated government, private sector economic development project. The other involved bonding through a holding company to acquire an existing building for City Hall for which there was no existing statute. In conjunction with building a new fire station for which there was existing statutory provisions . The next session of the General Assembly enacted our ordinances substantially as state statutes.Thus removing home rule in those matters. This is what almost always happens. Which is why Sheila is correct. in reality we do not have home rule.

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