What Do States Have Against Cities, Anyway?

Legislatures regularly interfere with local affairs. The reasons, according to research, will surprise you.
November 2017
(Shutterstock)
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

For as long as there have been cities and state legislatures in this country, the cities have complained that the legislatures give them a raw deal. For most of the nation’s history, of course, they had an obvious reason to complain: Legislatures were malapportioned in favor of rural interests. Cities didn’t get anything close to the number of seats that population alone would have entitled them to.

There’s plenty of evidence, however, that malapportionment wasn’t the whole problem. If it had been, it would have been solved by the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” mandate in the 1960s. But in the half-century since then, urban frustration at the hands of unfriendly legislatures has remained constant. Urban lawmakers, especially in the biggest states, continually lament having to endure second-class legislative treatment even on bills that pertain only to their cities.

Why would this happen? In New York, they don’t have much doubt about why it happens: The state has one mammoth metropolis, and legislators from everywhere else in the state enjoy sticking it to the Big Apple whenever they get a chance. It explains why, a few years ago, an upstate legislator blocked a bill to allow traffic enforcement cameras even though there wouldn’t have been a single one outside New York City. It also explains why the city can’t even run its subway system without legislative approval.

But you find similar frustrations in states with entirely different demographic balances. Take Pennsylvania, for example. In the legislature there, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have long suffered not so much because the rest of the state dislikes them but because they dislike each other. Much of the dysfunction that has gripped Harrisburg in recent years is traceable to the inability of the state’s two biggest cities to reach common ground, or even work together. Something similar might be said about the inability of St. Louis and Kansas City to cooperate in the Missouri General Assembly.

Then there are the states that have too many large cities for their own good. Florida is a highly urbanized state, and it’s reasonable to suppose that, given a little coordination, Miami, Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg and Jacksonville ought to be in a good position to make progress on an urban agenda. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. Legislators from the different cities tend to be isolated from each other. Ask a member from Miami what’s going on in Jacksonville and you might as well be asking about the latest news from Bulgaria. Fragmentation can be as much of a problem for urban interests as resentment against one metropolis or friction between two of them.

But is all of this pent-up city frustration legitimate, or is a lot of it just a matter of making excuses for embarrassing defeat? It’s a tantalizing question. As it happens, two political scientists have spent much of the past decade looking for the answer.

Gerald Gamm of the University of Rochester and Thad Kousser of the University of California, San Diego, took on the monumental task of examining the fate of 1,736 pieces of legislation in 13 states over 120 years. All of the bills dealt with issues affecting one particular big city in a given state, so rural and suburban legislators had no practical reason to oppose them. Nevertheless, they did. Gamm and Kousser found that big-city bills were approved at a rate 15 to 20 percentage points lower than other pieces of legislation. “The great narrative in urban politics,” they concluded. “has been a story of unremitting hostility.”

In making that judgment, the two were reinforcing the view held by a large group of scholars over more than a century. “Not only do state legislatures interfere with the fundamental rights and pettiest details of city affairs,” the political scientist Charles Beard wrote in 1912, “but their consent is required for some of the most insignificant undertakings of municipal government.” Gamm and Kousser demonstrate that Beard was right about the early 20th century, and he was right about the early 21st as well: Cities get cheated in legislative politics. And the more that a single city dominates its state, the more often it loses in the legislature. You might call that the Gotham Syndrome.

But the results still beg the question of what sets this prejudice in motion. Why would a rural lawmaker from upstate New York go out of his way to squelch legislation that has zero effect on him or his constituents? Gamm and Kousser looked into several different possibilities.

The most obvious culprit would be partisanship. Over most of the past century, big cities have been Democratic and the hinterlands have been largely Republican. Voting against the city could be a simple way of punishing the opposing party. Surprisingly, Gamm and Kousser didn’t think this was much of a factor. They found that big-city bills had about the same chance of success whether they were sponsored by a member of the majority party or by someone from the minority.

Ethnicity mattered more. When the city’s population was largely foreign born, its elected representatives suffered from a nativist reaction that helped to sink their local legislative agenda. On this reasoning, you would expect New York City to have lost in the legislature more often over the years than, say, Indianapolis, where the ethnic differences between city and state were minor. And, indeed, this seems to have been the case.

But the factor that hurt cities most of all in their legislative efforts was one I never would have guessed. It was the sheer size of the urban delegations. The more seats a city had in a legislative chamber, the more conflicting opinions its representatives were likely to offer. And when legislators from the same city disagreed with each other, those from the rest of the state were inclined to dismiss their legislative goals altogether. As Gamm and Kousser put it, much of the urban failure was due “not to hostility but to the complications of getting a large delegation to speak with a single voice.”

That sounds odd, but given the meticulous character of the research these scholars did, I think it has to be taken seriously. What I find myself wondering is whether their research explains the world that cities and legislatures are currently living in. The two political scientists studied the years between 1880 and 2000. Could it be that the politics of 2017 are built around a different set of tensions?

A few weeks ago, I asked Kousser if he thought the conclusions of his research applied to the present. He gave me a cautiously mixed answer. On the one hand, he said, the conflict between urban interests and legislative power is too deeply ingrained in American politics to disappear. “It’s a continual fight,” he told me, “between cities and capitols.” But he conceded that something new was happening. The legislatures seem fraught with open hostility in a way they haven’t been in the past. Legislatures aren’t just holding up urban requests these days; they’re preempting cities from taking action on a whole range of major subjects. Missouri won’t let St. Louis raise its minimum wage; North Carolina is blocking Charlotte from enacting LGBT protections; Tennessee doesn’t want Nashville to build a light rail system. Texas would prefer that its cities not do much of anything at all.

If the Gamm-Kousser project were being revisited now, it would likely place more emphasis on partisanship than it did a few years ago. That’s because the parties themselves have become much more ideological and polarized. During most of the 20th century, there was considerable overlap in most legislatures. Nearly all Democratic legislatures had a sizable contingent of liberal Republicans; Republican legislatures had their share of conservative Democrats. Party labels didn’t matter all that much when urban priorities came up. Other factors were more important. But that balance has largely eroded in the past decade. Promoting an urban agenda in a legislature these days means challenging basic conservative values in a way it never did before. As Kousser puts it, “What we’re seeing is the blue city in the red state having trouble getting things done.”

There are ways around this, at least in theory. Urban delegations could work harder in legislatures to build alliances with their suburban colleagues, especially those from inner suburbia where the challenges are increasingly similar to the ones cities face. Myron Orfield, a Democrat who used to represent Minneapolis in the state legislature, has been preaching this for a few decades now. But it has been very slow to develop, if it is developing at all. When Democratic Charlotte found itself bullied a couple of years ago by Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly, the Charlotte suburbs weren’t any help. In fact, some of the members who led the anti-Charlotte blitz came from districts just outside the city limits.

So it’s probably appropriate to shed some tears over the fate of cities in the legislatures of the past century and those of today. For most of that time, malapportionment deprived them of their rightful representation. By the time one person, one vote came in, they were losing so much population to the suburbs that the reapportionment windfall didn’t help all that much. Now they find themselves marooned, many of them, as islands of progressive politics in an ocean of anti-urban resentment. If Rodney Dangerfield were still around, he’d know what to say about it.