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Election Watch

Progressive Wins in Virginia are Limited as Long as “Dillon’s Rule” is on the Books



The Virginia State Capitol. Photo: WikiMedia commons.

This piece was originally published in Scalawag, which amplifies the voices of activists, artists and writers reckoning with the South. You can read the original article here.

Last week’s elections delivered an overwhelming victory for progressives in Virginia, where Democrats solidified a majority in the General Assembly and candidates in local races followed suit. In Charlottesville, where the deadly white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally took place two years ago, voters elected a slate of progressive candidates to the city council, including an activist, Michael Payne, who is endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America.

But the gap between electing progressive officials and enacting progressive policies is a wide one. An ongoing court battle over the Confederate statues at the center of the white nationalist rally shows how a little-known legal rule has been used to hamstring local democracy across the state.

On September 13, 2019, Charlottesville, Virginia Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore overruled the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove its public statues of the Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

The council had voted to remove the Lee statue in February 2017 and later voted to remove the Jackson statue. As the council voted to remove the monuments, the racist legacy of the Southern generals came into focus.

A national movement to remove Confederate monuments was gaining momentum after Dylann Roof’s 2015 Confederacy-inspired massacre at the African American Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Following the white supremacist killings, statutes of Lee were targeted for removal. Many of the monuments had been erected by reactionaries in the early 1900s, by a movement to justify the Confederacy and reframe the South’s defeat in the Civil War. However, the myth that Lee somehow “abhorred slavery” has by now been intensely challenged. A piece in the The Atlantic in 2017 effectively debunked the myth, by making clear he held white supremacist views and treated his slaves brutally.

Two months after the council’s decision to remove the Lee statute, a small group of local residents sued the city of Charlottesville, arguing the local government had overstepped its authority.

That August, white nationalists violently marched on the city at the “Unite the Right” rally to defend the statue. The rally would lead to the death of 32-year-old protester Heather Heyer, and two state officers who died in a helicopter crash while patrolling the rally.

In this context, Judge Moore’s ruling dealt an obvious blow to those seeking to challenge the rising tide of white supremacy. But there’s another, critical implication that has received less attention. This lawsuit reaffirms a rule that’s been thwarting progressive policy-making by cities and counties across the country.

A lesser-known element of the lawsuit against the city is its argument that the city resolutions violated a century-old legal doctrine referred to in Virginia, as the “Dillon Rule.” That rule, also referred to as “Dillon’s Rule,” is named after a corporate railroad attorney and eventual judge named John F. Dillon. To this day, he is credited with pioneering a judicial attack on municipalities at the peak of post-Civil War Reconstruction—a time of heightened African American electoral participation following the emancipation of slaves and expansion of suffrage to African American men.

Dillon became well-known for a legal treatise he wrote in 1873 called The Law of Municipal Corporations which raised alarms about local governments that were trying to redistribute wealth and expand democratic participation in local public services. Populations of urban immigrants were booming. At the time, there were numerous legal battles over local governments’ powers to tax property owners —who were overwhelmingly white—and set labor standards for city contractors. In a Yale University lecture, Dillon called laws that tax property “discrimination legislation” that infringes on property rights, and urged his audience to “fear and guard against… the despotism of the many,—of the majority.”

Similar arguments that upheld the “rightful enjoyment” of property, as he wrote, were at the time also being used to protect property owners’ “rights” to discriminate in private places, and shield them from taxation. His treatise argued—in reactionary fashion—that local governments only possess those powers which states explicitly grant them.

This idea has morphed into a legal doctrine that blankets the nation.

In 1891, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively applied Dillon’s Rule to all American communities by citing it in a ruling that said an Indiana town didn’t have the authority to sell bonds. The Court later reaffirmed and broadened Dillon’s Rule in 1907. Since then, it’s been used to undermine community democracy in many states.

Just as it was used in the late 1800s, Dillon’s Rule was a tool the State of Michigan used to successfully defend dissolving the power of half a dozen majority African American city governments after the financial crisis of 2008 (including Detroit and Flint). It has been used to defend the Alabama State Legislature’s restrictions on the governing powers of Birmingham, a majority-African American city, and other cities. Everywhere, it defines fundamental power dynamics. The rule is rigorously defended by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative corporate-led, state-level policy network.

Some states, such as Michigan, identify as “Home Rule” states. There, local governments enjoy some assumed local self-governing authority. However, this authority is superficial compared to the deeper influence Dillon’s Rule wields, which allows state legislators to unilaterally redefine and restrict what those “Home Rule” powers are, at their whim. “Home Rule” did not protect the power of the Detroit and Flint city councils from being gutted.

That’s because, under Dillon’s Rule, there is no check on how far a state can go in usurping local democracy.

The impact of Dillon’s Rule in Charlottesville is not limited to the fight over statues. Following the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally there was an effort to ban assault weapons in public spaces. That too was prohibited by Dillon’s Rule.

A local movement also successfully lobbied the city to pursue racial justice reforms. This activism led the city to consider affordable housing reforms that were seen as a benefit to the African American community. It was a concrete response to the white nationalist rally.

But, according to Dillon’s Rule, the city had limited power to enact meaningful affordable housing measures. The Virginia General Assembly hadn’t granted the city authority to pass something as simple as an inclusionary zoning ordinance to require developers set aside a percentage of new developments as “affordable.” That reform—much less anything stronger—also never went forward.

Charlottesville community members also mobilized to establish a stronger civilian review panel to process complaints against local police officers. These efforts were also stymied by the legislature, which, thanks to Dillon’s Rule, does not allow subpoena powers for Charlottesville’s review board.

This form of repression is not unique to Virginia, Alabama, or Michigan. In communities across the nation, local movements are stymied from raising the minimum wage, governing the fossil fuel industry, heightening civil rights protections, and otherwise weighing in on key societal questions.

However, despite the racially-disproportionate impacts of Dillon’s Rule, demands for more local democracy are often misunderstood and confused with demands for racist libertarianism. That’s why communities that work with Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which I work for, challenges Dillon’s Rule in a way that maintains a commitment to state and federal protections for civil and human rights, while fighting for local communities’ rights to increase and expand those protections.

CELDF works with local governments and local grassroots groups that aim to make fundamental change to state constitutional law, including abolishing Dillon’s Rule. This means redefining state law as a “floor” that local governments have a right to build upon, in order to heighten protections for civil and human rights—just as federal law acts as a “floor” upon which states can increase protections. It means recognizing some constitutional democratic powers for local democracy, and moving away from the system we have today—where states remain unconstrained in their repression of local laws.

CELDF has worked with nearly 200 municipalities and Native nations across ten states that have adopted laws that embody this vision. Our partners are advancing state constitutional change and have passed and advanced local laws that challenge Dillon’s Rule.

Opposition to Dillon’s Rule is gaining some momentum in Virginia, where CELDF has organized with communities. The new Democratic majority has made some promises about allowing local governments more authority to take down racist statues. However, its support for structural change to reverse Dillon’s Rule is far from clear. And it will take more than a simple electoral majority to make such transformative change.

In Charlottesville, the battle over statues continues. Supporters of the Confederate monuments are pressing the city to spend money to protect the statues from vandalism. The city on the other hand is now appealing Judge Moore’s ruling, arguing the statues send a racist message. They will likely get some help from the new legislature.

One Charlottesville activist I spoke to told me, “I wish a thousand locals and [University of Virginia] students would put a chain over [the statutes] and pull them down.”

Simon Davis-Cohen writes and makes films about criminal justice, local democracy, and the law. He does research and communications for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. You can sign up for his nationwide “Ear to the Ground” newsletter — cataloguing state legislation, grassroots news, legal developments, and local media — at:

Election Watch

Analysis: Rural Voters Contributed to Kentucky Democrat’s Victory



Republican Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin speaks with reporters as he conceded the gubernatorial race to democrat Andy Beshear in Frankfort, Ky., Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. Photo: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Democrat Andy Beshear made gains in rural counties, compared to the 2015 gubernatorial race. While Republican Matt Bevin still won the rural vote, his margin was slimmer, contributing to Beshear’s 5,000-vote margin of victory.

Kentucky’s Democratic Governor-elect Andy Beshear built big leads with voters in the state’s largest cities, but his improved performance with rural voters was an essential part of his 5,000-vote victory over incumbent Republican Governor Matt Bevin.

Turnout was up in all areas of the state. Thanks to energies unleashed by Trump’s 2016 election, almost 50 percent more people voted in the Beshear-Bevin race than the previous Governor’s race in 2015.

But contrary to the popular perception that remote rural areas are voting increasingly Republican, turnout for Beshear in rural areas of Kentucky grew 30 percent more relatively (or 15 percent absolutely, 55 percent to 40 percent) than it did for Bevin. 

The most striking example of this shift was in Eastern Kentucky, where Beshear won five counties that had voted 70 percent for Trump and four counties averaging in the high 60 percent range.

The results in Kentucky illuminate what Democratically aligned political strategists are calling “a remarkable amount of opportunities” to mobilize support for Democratic candidates among rural voters.

“We will 100 percent be focused on cutting into Trump’s support with rural working-class voters,” Shripal Shah, vice president for American Bridge PAC, told The Hill during their $50 million advertising campaign launch back in September.  “Over the course of this summer [we] found a remarkable amount of opportunities.”

To understand how Beshear’s support varied across the urban-rural spectrum, I use the USDA Rural Urban Continuum Codes (RUCs). These codes classify every U.S. county on a spectrum of 1 (most Metro) to 9 (most Rural).

To simplify this specific analysis, I broke these nine codes into four categories

  • Large Metros(RUCs 1-2) – Census designated metro counties of 250.000 population or more
  • Small Metros(RUC 3) – Census designated metro counties less than 250.000
  • Rural Adjacent(RUCs 4,6,8) Non-Metro counties adjacent to census designated metro counties
  • Rural Remote(RUCs 5,7,9) Non-Metro counties not adjacent to census designated metro counties

Here’s how the 2019 Kentucky electorate breaks down according to these four categories:

  • About 50 percent of Kentucky voters live in Large Metros.
  • About 25 percent live in Rural Remote areas
  • About 25 percent live in Small Metros OR Rural Adjacent areas

Using this county-level classification helps standardize definitions of “rural” and ensure consistent data analysis between different states and election cycles. And through this approach, we can draw more specific conclusions about the performance of rural voters during the 2019 Kentucky governor’s race.

As noted above, Beshear significantly improved Democratic performance in rural counties compared to the Democrat candidate running for governor in 2015. But a clearer picture of recent rural voter trends in Kentucky emerges when including the results of the 2016 presidential election in Kentucky.

This analysis clearly demonstrates how the Trump wave flooded the state in 2016. It also shows that Democrats maintained or improved Clinton’s 2016 turnout levels in 2019 with Beshear on the ballot while Republican turnout dropped dramatically from Trump in 2016 to Bevin in 2019.

In other words, Clinton’s base turned out for Beshear, but Trump’s base stayed home for Bevin.

Though Beshear picked up roughly 20,000 more voters in Kentucky’s Large Metro areas, he still would have lost to Bevin by nearly 30,000 votes if he had only matched Clinton’s 2016 turnout in Remote Non-metro Counties.

With numbers like this, it’s no wonder Democratically aligned political strategists are seeing “a remarkable amount of opportunities” among rural voters.

Matthew Hildreth is political strategist with the Rural Democracy Initiative and executive director of

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Election Watch

Where the Vote Shifted in Kentucky from 2015 to 2019



Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, right, with his wife Glenna, speaks to supporters gathered at the republican party celebration event in Louisville, Ky., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. Photo: Timothy D. Easley/AP Photo

Andy Beshear’s lead in the Kentucky gubernatorial race came largely from cities and suburbs. But a shift toward the Democratic candidate occurred across the state, compared to the 2015 governor’s election.

This time, it really was the cities and suburbs.

The television maps of Kentucky’s vote Tuesday night appeared to show that a shift in rural areas was a decisive factor in Democrat Steve Beshear’s apparent victory in the governor’s race. And there was a movement in that direction, especially in parts of Eastern Kentucky.

But the areas that gave the Democrat a lead over incumbent Governor Matt Bevin were in the state’s major cities and close-in suburbs.

The map above shows the shift in the percent of people voting for Democrats from the 2015 governor’s race (won by Republican Bevin) to this week’s contest. Only 39 of Kentucky’s 120 counties were more Republican this week than four years earlier. Almost all counties were rural or exurban (the remotest suburbs) and they are concentrated in the western portion of the state.

The counties that moved most strongly toward the Democrats were central city counties of the major metro regions of the state and their suburbs (including those neighboring Cincinnati, Ohio). Of the seven counties where Democrats increased their share by 10 percentage points from 2015, five were attached to major metro areas.

There was a strong Democratic trend in a number of Eastern Kentucky counties. Magoffin, Knott and Perry counties (all once dependent on the coal industry) had some of the strongest Democratic shifts in the state.

But since the urban and suburban counties have much larger populations than rural counties, most of the surge in Democratic votes was tied to the cities. Democrats increased their total vote by 283,000 from 2015 to 2019. Nearly two-thirds of that increase (177,000 votes) came from the state’s major cities or suburbs.

In fact, nearly 40 percent of that increase came from just two counties, the central parts of Louisville (Jefferson County) and Lexington (Fayette County).

Explore an interactive map of Kentucky’s election results here.

The increase in voter turnout was massive in Kentucky, compared to 2015. The Democratic vote increased by 66 percent from 2015 to 2019. The Republican turnout increased by 37.7 percent – a huge gain but not enough to offset the Democratic surge.

The Democratic vote in downtown Lexington nearly doubled.

The Washington Post has a sophisticated analysis of the urban, suburban and rural shifts in Kentucky’s elections. It finds that the split between central cities and counties farther from city centers has widened since 2015.

The Yonder finds the same widening gap. For example, there was a 22.5 percentage point difference in the Democratic vote between Louisville (Jefferson County) and the state’s most rural counties in 2015. This week, the gap was 29.6 points.

Bill Bishop is a contributing editor and co-founder of the Daily Yonder.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Election Watch

Election Results: Off-year Democratic Wins See Seed Change in KY, VA



Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, along with lieutenant governor candidate Jacqueline Coleman, acknowledge supporters at the Kentucky Democratic Party election night watch event, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, in Louisville, Ky. Photo: Bryan Woolston/AP Photo

Heading into Tuesday’s off-year elections in a handful of Appalachian states– Virginia, Kentucky and Mississippi notably among them– important races for governor and state legislative seats were being posited as an early referendum on the White House. 

President Trump spent the days leading up to the race rallying in Kentucky and Mississippi for Republican gubernatorial candidates in tight races, but avoided purple Virginia. But in the end, his support, or lack thereof, resulted in a mixed bag of results. 

In Kentucky, voters elected a new governor in a close race between the Republican incumbent Matt Bevin and Democrat Andy Beshear, the state’s attorney general. Beshear took the win with 49.2 percent of the votes. 

Mississippi picked a new governor as well. With the Republican Governor Phil Bryant out of the race due to term limits in his state, the current Republican lieutenant governor of Mississippi Tate Reeves run against the Democrat Jim Hood, a current attorney general of the state.

Reeves won decisively with 52.3 percent of the votes against Hood’s 46.5 percent. 

All of the seats in Virginia’s bi-camerral legislature were on the ballot Tuesday and for the first time in 20 years, the governing body will be led by Democrats. Democrats are projected to have 54 delegates out of 100 in the House and 21 senators out of 40. 

With the executive branch already in their hands, the results leave Democrats in complete control of the state.

The visible absence of the presidential support on the ground in Virginia could be a sign of the national Republican Party noticing a decline in suburban support for the current administration. 

It is a widely held Democratic belief that it’s in the suburbs of traditionally red or purple states where the Democrats have the best chance of stealing votes away from Republican candidates in 2020, including President Trump himself. 

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