Maxine Waters on Kelo:

My imnpression is that liberals and the left have been somewhat divided in their response to Kelo (unlike conservatives and libertarians who seem to be largely critical, with a few exceptions). Howard Dean and Bernie Sanders both seem to be critical of Kelo, Nancy Pelosi seems to be ok with it.

Today's Washington Times ran this column by Rich Lowry discussing Rep. Maxine Waters's response to Kelo that indicates that she really doesn't like it:

"Government should be in the business of protecting private property," she told me in an interview, sounding every bit a member of the free-market group the Club for Growth. "Private property is precious in America."

What has galvanized Waters and a surprising left-right coalition in defense of private property is the Supreme Court's instantly notorious Kelo decision in June saying government can use its eminent-domain power to take property from one private owner and give it to another. The Constitution says eminent domain — used to force the sale of property — must be exercised in cases involving "a public use," a phrase the court has stretched to encompass any private purpose that will produce more tax revenue. Almost immediately, Waters was on the House floor denouncing the decision, part of a backlash that has dozens of states considering tighter rules in how they use eminent domain.

Waters is a longtime scourge of eminent domain. A few years ago the L.A. Unified School District wanted to take a park and private homes in the community of South Park to build a new school (which at least is a legitimate public use). Waters made it clear that if eminent domain were used, the residents, many of them low-income, would appeal it property by property, holding up the process for years. "We backed them off," she says. If anyone is trying to grab your home, you could do much worse than have Waters — whose public mood seemingly fluctuates between outraged and irate — on your side.

She is acting on a crucial insight — the right to property is the most important check on governmental power and abuse, especially for the poor and vulnerable. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed an amicus brief in the Kelo case arguing against expanding eminent domain and recalling that it was often used in 1960s "urban renewal" projects to dispossess black property owners — "'urban renewal' was often referred to as 'Negro removal.'" Indeed, the naked logic of the Kelo decision is to take property from working- and middle-class people who aren't in a position to build big-box stores, casinos or condos and give it to wealthier interests, who can create more tax revenue and inherently have more political influence. Poor property owners usually don't have the wherewithal to fight back. "I think they'll just be run over," Waters says.

Alabama just adopted a law prohibiting the state and its localities from taking property for private development. Delaware has tightened its law, and even Connecticut — home to the dispute that spawned Kelo, when homes were to be taken for a Pfizer development — is suspending its use of eminent domain while it considers whether it has taken it too far (quick answer: "yes"). Congress is considering denying federal funds to support any projects that involve taking property for private use, and Waters is supporting two of the Republican-sponsored Kelo backlash bills. "I'm working with people I've never worked with before," she says.

My casual impression is that the response to Kelo reflects a division along class lines in the liberal coalition, as upper-middle class liberals such as Pelosi (and similar commentators such as here) are generally fine with Kelo, whereas rural (Dean/Sanders) and lower-income Democrats (and minorities in particular, if Waters is representative), are very concerned. So, in addition to the left-right coalition that the article notes, perhaps there is an interesting rural-urban coalition at work here as well.

This may simply reflect who expects to be the likely winners and losers from tossing homeowners into the maw of local political processes. As Waters indicates, upper middle-class homeowners are not likely to bear the cost of the ability to take property for private development, but may favor the amenities that such development may produce, whereas lower-income and working class neighborhoods are more likely to be simply "run over" (to use Waters's expression) with little direct benefit in exchange.


I call readers attention to some thoughtful posts on the Comment Board, several from self-identified liberals who also express little love for Kelo as well. (See this one, for instance.) As they note, Rep. Pelosi's statement is somewhat ambiguous (which is why I used the phraseology "seems to be" in my original post as well). It may be that dislike for the ruling really is quite widespread across ideologies and class, with only a small handful of supporters even among liberals. I was just guessing that there must be some support for Kelo somewhere out there, but it really may be that I am wrong about that. Anyway, click over to the Comment Boards for some interesting thoughts.