Atlantic Cities

Why Cities Can't Win in State Government

Why Cities Can't Win in State Government
AP/Mike Groll

In 1969, Norman Mailer entered New York’s Democratic mayoral primary with a simple, if fanciful, campaign platform: “New York City: the 51st State.” Mailer’s New York, he promised, would be free from the control of those “upstate legislators who don’t care about the city."

Mailer’s frustrated platform reflects an age-old urbanist complaint: economically powerful cities held hostage by rurally dominated legislatures. These frustrations have largely been based on anecdote and example.

But an important new study provides the numbers to back them up. Despite having overwhelming advantage in terms of the size of their populations, the nation's biggest cities are typically hamstrung by their state legislatures. The study, by political scientists Gerald Gamm of University of Rochester and Thad Kousser of University of California San Diego, tracks how much worse big-city legislators have been historically at getting their way in state politics.  Published in November’s American Political Science Review, the study draws from the authors' unique database of more than 1,700 “district bills” – those that refer to a specific city or county – in state legislatures from 1881 to 2000 in 13 states. Nearly 750 of these bills (747 to be exact) cover the largest city in each state.

The findings are astounding. Comparing the success rates for legislation that affected cities of different sizes, they found “a large, stable gap in passage rates” between bills that affected cities with populations of at least 100,000 and those that dealt with smaller cities and towns. Bills from legislators from small or medium-sized cities were overall twice as likely to pass as ones that originated in big cities like Chicago or New York, the authors found. Over the last century, the passage rates have been 24 to 34 percent lower for big-city legislation.

The graph below, from the report, sums up the huge discrepancy quite neatly: “Year after year, while most bills affecting smaller districts pass, most big-city bills fail.”

Cities, according to the authors, are victim of their own success. The authors ruled out a number of obvious explanations for this discrepancy in bill passage. It’s not because rural areas resent the big city, or because voters there have little in common with the immigrants and minorities who tend to live in urban areas. The authors also controlled for the possibility that urbanites tended to support different political parties than the rest of the state, and similarly found no relationship between bill passage rates and either the number or kinds of bills that big-city reps introduced.

Instead, the authors found that big-city delegations were just too big. Beginning in the 1960s – during Mailer’s era, not coincidentally – urban political reformers campaigned for a reapportionment of seats in state legislatures across the country, hoping to get urban residents the “one person, one vote” that they deserved. But the ballooning size of city delegations, rather than having a “snowball” effect on their efforts in state legislative contests, may in fact have had unintended consequences. Larger delegations leave far more room for internal disputes, sending unclear messages to potential allies from other parts of the state and, as a result, splintering their ability to get anything done for their urban constituents.

The authors write that “scale exerts its most dramatic effect through the size of big-city delegations. Larger delegations are more likely to be divided along partisan lines and to split over roll-call votes on their own district bills.”  The add, “It appears that legislators from the rest of the state follow the cues of the big-city delegation and split when its members divide, often dooming bills.”

This second graph (below), also from the study, gets at just how much the size of the delegation has affected its ability to get bills passed over the last century. Using a subset of nearly 750 bills, they found a precipitous drop in the number of bills a city’s delegation was able to pass as the number of representatives ballooned. 

“The great narrative in urban politics has been a story of unremitting hostility,” the authors write. But it’s not the “sinister conspiracies” of the rural bloc that have made policies that benefit big cities so difficult to pass. For urban mayors like Bill de Blasio and Rahm Emanuel, it turns out that keeping center-city legislators in line may be just as important as having allies in Albany or Springfield.

Top Image: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, second from left, and Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, left, walk to a meeting at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Tuesday, June 15, 2010 (AP Photo/Mike Groll).

Richard Florida is Co-Founder and Editor at Large at The Atlantic Cities. He's also a Senior Editor at The Atlantic, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Global Research Professor at New York University. He is a frequent speaker to communities, business and professional organizations, and founder of the Creative Class Group, whose current client list can be found here. All posts »

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