Despite long advocating small government and local control, Republican governors and legislators across a significant swath of the country are increasingly overriding the actions of Democratic cities – removing elected district attorneys or threatening to strip them of power, taking over election offices and otherwise limiting local independence.

State lawmakers proposed nearly 700 bills this year to circumscribe what cities and counties can do, according to Katie Belanger, lead consultant for the Local Solutions Support Center, a national organization focused in part on ending the overreach it calls “abusive state preemption.”

The group’s tracking mostly found “conservative state legislatures responding to or anticipating actions of progressive cities,” she said, with many bills designed to bolster state restrictions on police defunding, abortion, and LGBTQ and voting rights. As of mid-October, at least 92 had passed.

In Florida, for instance, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed sweeping measures that empower the state attorney general to pursue election-related crimes and that require cities and counties to suspend a local ordinance if someone sues alleging it is preempted by state law. He has removed two elected Democratic prosecutors in as many years, including one who pledged not to charge people seeking abortions or transgender care.

Election 2023 Louisiana Governor

Louisiana Gov.-elect Jeff Landry has threatened to withhold state funding for New Orleans’ water infrastructure until the district attorney there agrees to prosecute women who violate the state’s abortion ban by seeking the procedure. Evan Vucci/Associated Press

More clashes are expected. Louisiana Gov.-elect Jeff Landry takes office in January and has promised to confront the state’s largest city, New Orleans. He already has created a committee led by a local Republican political donor and businessman to address public safety and other issues there. He has threatened to withhold state funding for the city’s water infrastructure until the DA agrees to prosecute women who violate the state’s abortion ban by seeking the procedure.

Given the presidential campaign that lies ahead in 2024, Belanger is concerned about states passing election-related laws that affect local authorities.


“Election administration has been a target for abusive preemption in the past,” she said, “and as we go into an election year, that is a trend that will grow.”

The antagonisms between red states and blue cities are all the more notable because the urban areas in the crosshairs are mostly majority-minority, with many mayors and district attorneys of color.

These actions go “squarely against the Republican philosophy of small government and more freedom,” said Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb, a Black Democrat who has struggled to pass local tobacco and gun control ordinances because of constraints enacted by Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature. “This is about common-sense democracy.”

Some of the fiercest standoffs have come in Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed the most expansive preemption law in the country in June, barring cities and counties from passing an array of ordinances. Opponents condemned it as the “Death Star,” saying it would imperil local residents and block worker protections like mandatory water breaks during heat waves. Abbott defended the law as crucial to reducing business regulation.

“Texas small businesses are the backbone of our economy. Burdensome regulations are an obstacle to their success,” Abbott posted on X, formerly Twitter, saying the law was meant “to cut red tape & help businesses thrive.”

Houston officials sued, and a judge found the law unconstitutional. The state appealed, which suspended the lower court ruling and allowed the law to take effect in September. The appeal remains pending before the Republican judges of the Texas Supreme Court.


“The governor’s and legislature’s ongoing war on such home-rule cities hurts the state and its economy, discourages new transplants from other states, and thwarts the will of Texas voters,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, another Black Democrat, said in a statement after the initial ruling. “This self-defeating war on cities needs to end.”

Abbott also signed two laws to prevent local officials from appointing the elections administrator in Harris County, the state’s most populous jurisdiction, and to permit the secretary of state to oversee elections there. On other fronts, he allowed the state to intervene if district attorneys refuse to prosecute abortion-related cases, sent state troopers to patrol liberal Austin and an overwhelmingly Hispanic community north of Houston, and backed his administration’s takeover of Houston’s school district because of poor academic ratings.

“It used to be you would try to disenfranchise people of color. Now the strategy is to delegitimize officials of color because they’re not able to win the hearts and minds of people in these jurisdictions,” said Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, whose lawsuit to thwart the state law concerning the election office is pending. “We are a growing, diverse populace that is becoming solidly Democratic and has leaders that look different than the leaders in Austin. And when they have clashes with us, it’s red meat for their base.”

Preemption has expanded with support from the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of state legislators and right-leaning advocacy groups that describes itself as “dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism.” It has a distinct take on why such effort is necessary.

“Over the past decade, activists have often targeted local governments to push big-government policies that would not survive in state capitols,” said Lee Schalk, the council’s vice president of policy. “As a result, state lawmakers have found themselves in the precarious position of passing preemption laws to get a handle on intrusive government at the local level.”

The pandemic was a particular inflection point. The longer it continued, the more some governors and mayors were at odds over public health policies, including shutdowns, masking requirements and vaccine mandates. The sharpest disagreements arose between Republican governors and local Democratic officials.


As the country has become more polarized, these fights have become more intense. Columbia University law professor Richard Briffault faults states for hypocrisy: “They’re in favor of home rule when it’s the feds, but not when it’s states versus locals.”

The U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution at its annual gathering this summer “to undertake an all-out campaign” against state preemption, which it identified as racist and punitive. In a report he wrote for the group, Briffault underscored that point.

“Increasingly, preemption is punitive – it not only displaces local efforts but calls for punishing local officials or cities when they try to disagree,” he wrote. In 2023, he added, “preemption moves have become even more aggressive, directly challenging local self-government.”

Mississippi’s majority-White, GOP-controlled legislature created a separate state-run criminal justice system this spring solely for Jackson, which is more than 80 percent Black and led by Democrats. Proponents contended that the system, with judges appointed by the state’s chief justice, would make the capital city safer. People convicted of a misdemeanor like disturbing the peace could be sentenced to prison instead of county jail.

“Jackson has to be better,” Gov. Tate Reeves (R) said in signing the law. “I refuse to accept the status quo. As long as I’m governor, the state will keep fighting for safer streets for every Mississippian.”

But residents sued to block the law, alleging it was unconstitutional. Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi law school, represented them in hopes of stopping other Southern states from following suit.


“We were deeply concerned that this would become the blueprint for places like Memphis, Birmingham, New Orleans and Little Rock,” inspiring lawmakers in the respective states to craft similar legislation undermining Democratic control in urban areas, Johnson said in an interview.

The plaintiffs won a narrow victory at the state Supreme Court in September. The outcome will allow someone prosecuted in the new system once it launches early next year to appeal a conviction in county court, where judges are locally elected. A separate federal lawsuit is ongoing.

“There’s nothing about our success in Mississippi that provides protection to those in Memphis or Birmingham,” Johnson said.

In Tennessee, Republican lawmakers went after the Democratic-led city of Nashville after its metropolitan council voted against hosting the 2024 GOP national convention. They cut the council by half, granted the state control over the city’s airport and sports authority and defunded its convention center.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R) offered a blunt explanation for those actions. “Over the last year, Metro has made it clear they are no longer interested in aggressively recruiting top-tier conventions,” he said. “If Nashville wants to prioritize political posturing over prosperity for its people, that’s their prerogative. But the state does not have to participate.”

City leaders are still fighting the changes in court, though they got a boost in late October when a judicial panel ruled that the airport takeover was unconstitutional. They’ve used different strategies to respond to other measures. After a state law abolished local police oversight boards, Nashville reconstituted its board – created by referendum with overwhelming popular support – as a civilian review board with limited scope.


“We spend an incredible amount of energy embracing constraint under a Republican supermajority’s preemption,” said Mayor Freddie O’Connell, who’s officially nonpartisan but affiliated with Democrats. “It contributes to an atmosphere of chaos in governance.”

Democratic Mayor Quinton Lucas of Kansas City, Mo., is locked in his own legal battle against a state mandate that the city spend 25% of its budget on police. He views such intervention as “the preeminent policy challenge of my four years, and I have dealt with COVID, protests, homelessness, fentanyl. … All of us are finding our ability to govern frustrated.”

Yet for Lucas, who is Black, preemption is also a civil rights issue, one he’s discussed with the NAACP and African American Mayors Association.

“This is a way to make sure our communities are controlled, denying the power of Black voters to have self-determination, especially in the South and industrial Midwest,” he said. “It’s hurting us now and actively harming quality of life in our communities for those who can afford it the least.”

He and Bibb have formed a working group with half a dozen blue-city mayors from West Virginia to Arizona to strategize responses to state preemption. In addition, Cleveland’s mayor has appealed to the Biden administration for more direct federal funding to cities, bypassing red-state gatekeepers who have used the money as leverage.

“If they want to see a real change,” Bibb said, “send that money directly to the mayors … to make sure as mayors we can control our destiny and preserve home rule in our cities.”

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