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Could Smart Growth Tip the Next Presidential Election?

Strategists take note as Virginia’s new governor tackles sprawl

January 21, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Governor Timothy M. Kaine aims to cut traffic by empowering local governments to direct development to existing cities and towns.

WASHINGTON — Talk about stirring a state, and perhaps a nation, to rein in sprawl and ease congestion. Last Monday, the newly-elected centrist Democrat Timothy M. Kaine marched into the General Assembly and told lawmakers that his first priority as Virginia’s governor is giving local leaders the authority to block new housing and business construction if roads cannot handle the increased traffic. 

What’s most important is not just what Mr. Kaine proposed, but where these Smart Growth ideas could take effect.

Virginia lies right next to Washington. From one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, politicians in search of fresh ideas about the economy, jobs, health, and community are listening to Mr. Kaine’s call to link land use and transportation decisions.

That idea echoes in neighboring state capitols, too: Hours before Mr. Kaine made his Smart Growth intentions plain, Maryland’s conservative Republican Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a man who once mocked any effort to manage growth, announced that he intended to spend $373 million this fiscal year to buy ecologically sensitive wild lands.

The reason elected leaders are taking note is that Smart Growth emerged as an important swing issue in the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial election, swaying conservatives and liberals alike in fast-growing exurban counties. Mr. Kaine staked his election on a strategy of directly confronting the causes and consequences of rampant development, and his victory has prompted strategists in both parties to conclude that the politics of growth could be a crucial factor in a presidential election, perhaps as early as 2008.

Swing Issue in Fast-Growing, Election-Deciding Counties
The basic electoral math is simple. The last two presidential elections were decided in the fastest growing counties of a select group of states, including Virginia, Florida, Colorado, North Carolina, and Ohio. In 2004, half of President Bush's 3.5 million vote electoral margin came from the 100 fastest-growing counties, 97 of which voted heavily Republican.

Yet growth is one of the top three voter priorities in all of these fast-developing counties, making them crucibles for new local programs to establish growth boundaries, conserve farmland and open space, build rapid transit lines, and promote new downtown neighborhoods that are in closer proximity to jobs, recreation, shopping, and schools.

That’s not surprising given circumstances. Gasoline prices are rising fast. Roads are jammed. Construction costs are out of sight. Incomes of working people have fallen for five straight years. Government deficits drain public spending on infrastructure. America’s population is climbing at the fastest rate in our history, and so are obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other indicators of our behind-the-wheel way of life.

The old foundations of the economic development strategy that produced thriving suburban communities and successful American lives are crumbling. The fortunate circumstance of cheap energy, inexpensive land, rising incomes, moderate population increases, and massive government spending for roads and water systems yielded a prosperous way of life in the 20th century. But in the 21st every one of these trends has been transformed.

The urgent issue facing everybody in America now is not whether these changes are temporary — they’re not — but what we’re going to do about them.

Virginians Ditch Sprawl, Demand Smart Growth
Mr. Kaine recognized the moment in Virginia when enough people realized that old ways of living, working, and commuting aren't satisfactory and that new ones are needed. That is why his direct appeal to quality of life issues succeeded in the fast-growing, conservative counties of northern Virginia, particularly Loudon County.

Since 1980, Loudon County’s population has tripled to 240,000 residents, drawn by the boomtown economy of Washington, D.C., 25 miles away and to MCI, AOL, and other stars of the county’s home-grown digital communications economy. In the first four years of the 21st century some 30,000 new homes were built, converting a region of cozy Civil War era towns into a place of soaring expense, frantic congestion, and unyielding stress.

So when Mr. Kaine told an audience of conservative business executives last summer that, if elected, he would give local governments more authority to direct new construction to places that already were developed, and invest state transportation funds in public transit and alternatives to new highways, they got the message. Loudon County voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Kaine, whose Smart Growth ideas contrasted sharply with rival Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore’s promises to spend billions on highways and restrict local governments’ authority to regulate private property.

Loudon County’s, and Virginia’s, vote for Smart Growth is exemplary of other state and local elections since 1998 that have demonstrated the willingness of voters to dig into their own pockets to beat back sprawl, make it possible to own one vehicle instead of three, and promote the construction of new neighborhoods that are close enough to downtowns and small towns to walk. 

Those elections also show that when Smart Growth issues are debated on the campaign trail the Smart Growth candidate generally has the edge. Mr. Kaine’s victory in Virginia is the latest evidence of that trend. In 1994 and 1998, Democrat Parris N. Glendening, founder of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, twice won the Maryland gubernatorial race. In 2002, Democrat Jennifer M. Granholm and Republican Mitt Romney — both Smart Growth champions — won the Michigan and Massachusetts gubernatorial races.

For advocates, Mr. Kaine’s emergence as a Smart Growth supporter presents a tremendous opportunity to convince both parties of the issue’s salience and to compel them to compete on Smart Growth issues as they campaign in the conflicted, congested, and vote-rich suburbs.

Growth politics has come of age. Conventional views about the benefits of a business-at-any-cost economic strategy are colliding with the reality of ugly sprawl, congestion, cracked roads, obsolete schools, fiscal deficits, escalating energy prices, and rising civic discontent about how communities grow. Advocates now have the best opportunity in a generation to make the case that Smart Growth’s proven economic principles and popular cultural values represent a national economic development strategy that has real merit.

Let’s make that case. The 2008 presidential election is just two years away.

Keith Schneider, a journalist, is the editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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