Countering State Preemption + Protecting the Power of Local Government

  • Resources

Co-sponsored with the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA), Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR), Grantmakers Income Security Taskforce (GIST), Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG), Philanthropy New York, and Women Donors Network (WDN)

American cities have historically been places of innovation and incubation when it comes to advancing equity and inclusion. Today, however, they face a fast-growing threat. Since the 2010 midterm elections, state lawmakers have become more aggressive in their use of preemption to stop local lawmaking across a broad and expanding range of issues, including labor standards, civil rights, broadband, environmental protection, and public health. Preemption is now being used to negate elections, perpetuate racial and economic inequality, and limit local anti-discrimination efforts. The sheer number, significant reach, and punitive nature of these preemption laws have overwhelmed local officials and advocates, and sapped the problem-solving power of local governments critical to our representative democracy. Speakers will discuss the landscape of state preemption and share newly developed legal theories and strategies to push back preemption. We will also learn about the organizing and communications tactics that have been used in specific states protect the power of local democracy.

Moderated by Elizabeth Guernsey, Open Society Foundations


Andrew Gillum, Mayor of Tallahassee + Campaign to Defend Local Solutions
Kim Haddow, Rockefeller Family Fund
Professor Nestor Davidson, Fordham Law School



Funding Considerations

  • Legal support for cities and organizations challenging state preemption laws in Court
  • Specific campaigns challenging state legislation before it is signed into law (for example, we saw TakeAction Minnesota lead a successful coalition effort that defeated state preemption of paid sick leave laws.)
  • Public opinion and messaging research which is critical for testing the best ways to talk with people about the impact of state preemption on their lives
  • Education and organizing of elected officials and their staffs about strategies for standing up to preemption laws


Following the 2010 election, local government authority and autonomy has increasingly been in the crosshairs as states have passed laws that prevent cities from advancing various policies, including minimum wage laws, anti-LGBTQ discrimination ordinances, municipal broadband policies, and ride-sharing regulations. While the impact of this type of punitive state interference has been challenging for cities to counter, things are beginning to change. Locally-elected officials and community groups across the country are speaking out and challenging preemption laws. We are learning a lot about what strategies, including legal, communications, and organizing, that are proving effective for pushing back on state preemption. As Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum cautioned, “It’s not just about a legal or public-awareness strategy, it requires them [strategies] ALL.”

Combine These Three Strategies to Beat Back Preemption Laws:

1: Legal

  • Mount a strong defense. A variety of legal strategies have been developed that can be replicated to address preemption. Utilize the legal strategy that applies to your local situation.
  • Go on the offense to prevent preemption before it happens, and strengthen “home rule” through legislation, litigation and ballot initiatives. Challenging preemption has proven effective in stopping or slowing its advancement.

2: Communications

  • Appeal to the concerns of everyday people and get them involved by focusing on the issues they care about. Avoid legal jargon.
  • Emphasize that local electeds are accountable to you, but the corporations behind these efforts are not.
  • Go for hearts and minds using social media campaigns and events to show how these laws show up in our communities.  

3: Organizing

  • Get everyday people involved and appeal to both rural and urban communities.
  • Build strength through solidarity by bringing multiple stakeholders together from across issue areas and then collectively mobilize them whenever there is a threat to any one of their issues so that the fight is not marginalized.