Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 28, 2008
POLITICS: Mitt Romney vs. the Suburbs?
The Hartford Courant's endorsement of Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination starts off on an odd note:
The Republican governor led the fight to control sprawl and bring more affordable housing to the Bay State with groundbreaking laws and a dramatic reorganization of state agencies. In 2003, he combined transportation, housing, environmental and energy agencies into a super-agency, charged it with stopping runaway suburban growth, then appointed a Democrat environmentalist to run it. By comparison, Connecticut is still nibbling around the edges of smart growth.
There's a story behind this, and it's not one that should warm the hearts of suburban voters who play a crucial role in the GOP's coalition in November.
"Smart growth" is a euphemism for a social-engineering movement to stop suburban "sprawl," i.e., the traffic and other problems caused by having housing spread out far away from workplaces and mass transit hubs. As a candidate for Governor in 2002, Romney asserted that "Sprawl is the most important quality of life issue facing Massachusetts." On the surface, concerns about sprawl seem reasonable enough, and advocates of smart growth, Romney included, have argued that this is less about government vs the free market than about how to direct government decisionmaking, including local zoning, that affects housing and other infrastructure patterns. As Romney said in 2004:
To keep Massachusetts economically competitive and to improve our quality of life, it is important to coordinate state resources and implement new policies which encourage sustainable development, especially around town centers where existing infrastructure is already in place.
At the same time, it does not take too much time listening to opponents of sprawl to detect antagonism to the whole suburban way of life - detatched houses, big cars, middle- and upper-middle-class communities. Republicans should throw their lot in with such groups with great caution. The head of Romney's "smart growth" program and one of Romney's first appointments was Douglas Foy, as described by the Boston Globe:
For 25 years Foy was president of the Conservation Law Foundation, a powerful regional environmental group, and observers saw his appointment as Romney's attempt to ''green" his administration. Industry groups were fearful he would push an anti-automobile agenda. Environmental groups were happy to have influence.
As president of the Conservation Law Foundation for 25 years, Foy was the hardball lawyer-advocate who coaxed and threatened politicians into following or advancing environmental law, sometimes halting projects, such as oil drilling off Georges Bank, and sometimes even spurring massive projects, such as the cleanup of the Boston Harbor.
While the Globe notes that "Foy turned out to be a lot harder to predict" in office, he and Romney never seemed to have stopped seeing eye to eye on the "smart growth" initiative, and Deval Patrick's administration has carried on with a number of Romney's smart-growth initiatives.
There's no question that Romney made the "smart growth" initiative a major priority. In 2006 he announced a half billion dollar spending program of loans to localities who agreed to go along with the state program, stating that "I think this is going to be the most lasting, visual effect of this administration, perhaps, that we can imagine". A 2004 initiative involved $100 million for the construction of "mixed" (i.e., partially "affordable"/low income) housing. As one observer noted
"They did put it on the map," said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which works for smart growth. "This is really the first time in my recollection of working in politics in Massachusetts that an administration put smart growth front and center as an objective."
So what's the problem? Well, consider the objections from affected suburban localities, and you can see the threat Romney's initiative posed for the very nature of suburban communities:
Officials in about a dozen of the Commonwealth's 351 cities and towns say they are interested in the program, in which the state provides cash for zoning changes that allow dense development in town centers or near transit stations. At least 20 percent of housing built in such "smart growth districts" must be affordable.
Boston, Somerville, Chelsea, Quincy, Newton, Natick, Weymouth, Watertown, Lowell, Grafton, Charlton, Williamstown, and Pittsfield have shown interest in signing up for the program when it becomes available in February.
Many analysts have noted the crucial role suburbanites and exurbanites in fast-growing communities played for the GOP in 2004, and the losses Republicans suffered among those groups in 2006. Those voters may not see a lot to like in Romney's record on suburban issues.