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Under Trump, local governments become activists

With Democrats hamstrung by Republican majorities in Congress and in most state legislatures - and with a national party searching for a cohesive message, big cities are becoming central to liberal opposition to President Trump.

Councilwoman-at-large Helen Gym speaks at a rally called "No Going Back: Emergency Action For Climate" at Philadelphia City Hall on June 5, 2017.
Councilwoman-at-large Helen Gym speaks at a rally called "No Going Back: Emergency Action For Climate" at Philadelphia City Hall on June 5, 2017.Read moreCAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer.

Christine Knapp had been on maternity leave for nearly three months, but on Wednesday the director of the mayor's Office of Sustainability hoisted a diaper bag on her shoulder, packed her 11-week-old daughter, Sabine, into a stroller, maneuvered into a creaky elevator in City Hall, and rode up to the mayor's reception room. This was just too important to miss.

She took the podium at a news conference to announce an initiative that, in an alternate timeline, might have registered simply as an expected step for a progressive city: Philadelphia was joining a coalition of mayors pledging to work toward powering their cities with entirely clean energy.

But in this timeline, President Trump had just pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accords, and the announcement took a rebellious tone. "Since the Trump administration's decision to effectively abdicate on this critical issue," Knapp told the room, "we're stepping up and pledging to keep pushing."

Mayor Kenney, following her, was even more combative.

"Cities are going to save this country," he said. "No matter what havoc that guy wreaks over the next hopefully less than four years, we will move on."

The room burst into applause.

It's a sentiment Kenney has expressed before: the idea that in the age of Trump, local governments are the last line of defense for progressives.

And with Democrats hamstrung by Republican majorities in Congress and in most state legislatures — and with a national party in the middle of a dark night of the soul, searching for a cohesive message — big cities, with progressive voting bases, find themselves putting up the kind of fight their national counterparts often can't.

In Philadelphia, Councilwoman Helen Gym helmed community meetings for the newly politically active and used social media to draw thousands to protests at the airport over Trump's travel ban. Kenney and city officials have so far refused to budge on their "sanctuary city" policies. Last month, defense attorney Larry Krasner won the city's Democratic nomination for district attorney, running on a staunchly progressive, explicitly anti-Trump platform.

In California, supervisors in Santa Clara County filed a lawsuit against Trump's executive order to defund sanctuary cities — and got the order temporarily blocked by a federal judge. In Pittsburgh earlier this month, Mayor Bill Peduto swiftly responded to a Trump quip about the Paris accords — "I was elected by the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris" — with a pledge to follow the guidelines of the agreement. He made international news.

Less flashy was Kenney's decision to host climate-change information deleted from the Environmental Protection Agency's website on the city's own site, a cheeky trolling of the Trump administration.

"Everybody has a right to protest. But there has to be cooperation in some way," said Michael Meehan, chairman of the Philadelphia GOP. "Government is a two-way street — if you're expecting Republicans in Congress and Harrisburg to help the city, then everything they do cannot be seen as obstructionism."

Meehan said most of the municipal resistance is looking for "immediate gratification" on complex issues. Progressives see their opposition to the Trump administration as a more intense phase of a fight they've been waging for years.

"When they go low, we go local!" Gym said Friday morning, encouraging a crowd protesting the GOP's health-care legislation at the Philadelphia office of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. "The fight can't be [in Washington]. The fight comes home, to us, back to our communities, where we build our bases of power."

And cities across the country are increasingly sharing ideas and tactics. Knapp and her office belong to several national climate-change coalitions. Gym is the vice chair of Local Progress, a group of liberal elected officials from around the country.

"What's clear is that people are not going to turn over and go quietly into the night anywhere," said Jennifer Epps-Addison, the co-executive director of the advocacy group Center for Popular Democracy. "The organizations affiliated with our network now understand that they have to continue to push local government to be progressive, to present the country with a progressive alternative to this administration. They see their fight as aligned and connected."

In Santa Clara County, where the lawsuit against Trump's sanctuary cities order was filed, local officials said they'd been reaching out to other city and county governments on immigration issues since the Obama administration.

"It's a healthy pattern in this country of almost a fourth branch of government rising up: the cities and counties," said Dave Cortese, president of the county's Board of Supervisors. One hundred cities and counties filed amicus briefs in support of Santa Clara's lawsuit, he said — an instant list of allies on immigration.

The county is compiling a similar list for action on climate change, one of the few issues in the Trump era that garners some bipartisan support.

Knapp agreed: "Even though [Trump's] a Republican and our mayor's a Democrat, this doesn't come down to that kind of partisanship — there are Republican mayors signing on" to the clean-energy pledge, she said. "We're not doing this because we don't like Republicans. This is sort of a personality-specific administration."

Still, Cortese said, despite his county's $6.5 billion budget and "very robust" legal team — which he acknowledges has given Santa Clara the confidence to do things like sue the president of the United States — there's still a Republican Congress to contend with.

And in states like Pennsylvania, where the legislature is dominated by Republicans, sometimes cities can't simply do their own thing. Conservatives have worked over the last decade to swell majorities in state legislatures, City Councilman Derek Green said, while cities swung left.

"And that creates a tension," he said.

Nationwide, the Philly-based Pew Charitable Trust reported earlier this year that preemption bills — where state governments pass legislation designed to ban local governments from enacting their own — were on the rise.

Closer to home, Martina White, a Republican state representative from Northeast Philadelphia, is pushing a bill that would pull all state funding that's not "constitutionally mandated" from sanctuary cities like Philadelphia unless they drop the policies.

"In state politics, we are facing all the same issues in Washington. It just gets much less attention up here," said State Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky (D., Delaware), who won her second term by 567 votes in November. "I believe that local government, and the efforts of folks like Mayor Kenney, matter now more than ever, and especially when things like the sanctuary cities bill are moving in the state House again."

Back at City Hall on Wednesday, Knapp collected Sabine and headed back to her office, a sunny corner spot in the Municipal Services Building. She's been in the Office of Sustainability for a year, and had finished up the city's new sustainability plan — goals for improving air quality and water access, and for cleaner public transportation — a week before the election.

"I don't think any of us were prepared for [Trump winning the presidency]," said Sarah Wu, the office's deputy director. They had been used to working with the feds on climate change, she said.  But on Election Day, Wu said, it felt as if she'd left work with one job, and showed up the next day with an entirely different one.

Knapp bounced Sabine on her lap. She's aware the city can do only so much, she said — even if it sticks to the Paris agreement, even if it hits its emissions goals, and makes city buildings more efficient and persuades local businesses to adopt greener practices. Without state support, Pew reported earlier this year, cities can achieve only a fraction of the emissions reductions that the country would have under the Paris agreement.

Still, Knapp said, it's better than nothing.

"And there's the psychological impact," she said. "Our residents knowing we're doing what we can, and this isn't all hopeless. That we're moving ahead, and you can be a part of it."

Everything is happening so fast — or at least that's how it feels trying to follow politics these days. You've seen the headlines about President Trump and his policies — but what do they mean for Philadelphia? What does that mean for you? We've launched a newsletter to explore just that. You can sign up to get the weekly Trumpadelphia newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.