Why Cities Have More People but Less Clout

Cities have always gotten less than their share from states. As they've become wealthier and more Democratic, they've come increasingly under attack.

Philadelphia city hall from street level.
Philadelphia's city hall. Pennsylvania's largest city has had little luck passing a gun control bill in the state legislature, which is dominated by rural lawmakers. (Photo: David Kidd)
Gun violence is on the rise in Philadelphia. In January, homicides jumped by a third over the same month in 2020, which itself had been the deadliest in three decades. Non-fatal shootings increased last month by 71 percent.

City officials, wanting to address the issue, have repeatedly come up with gun control measures they believe will save lives. Their efforts, however, have gone nowhere. Pennsylvania, along with more than 40 other states, blocks localities from passing their own firearms regulations.

Last fall, Philadelphia sued the state to end its gun pre-emption law. “If the Pennsylvania General Assembly refuses to do anything to help us protect our citizens,” said Darrell Clarke, the president of the Philadelphia city council, “then they should not have the right to prevent us from taking the kinds of actions we know we need to keep our residents safe from harm.”

Good luck with that. Courts have repeatedly upheld Pennsylvania’s power to block local gun control laws. Across the country, states have consistently pre-empted localities on a broad range of issues, from minimum wage increases and paid sick leave requirements to bans on plastic bags or removal of Confederate monuments.

There are numerous reasons states have become so pre-emption-happy. One surprising one is that cities have been so successful. Over the past decade, most of the nation’s economic growth has been concentrated in major cities, particularly technology and finance centers such as Boston, Seattle and San Francisco.

Mayors see their cities as the primary economic engines of their states and thus deserving of support. Instead, state officials often use their power to keep money flowing from those cities to less prosperous areas. Although there’s often the perception that cities grab more than their share of state support, the opposite is generally true, with cities sending far more tax dollars to the state that they receive back in spending. “Fiscal flows are increasingly going from a small number of blue counties in a state to the rest of the state,” says Stanford University political scientist Jonathan Rodden.

As cities are prospering (or at least were, before the pandemic and the great migration out of downtown offices), they have been moving in an increasingly progressive direction. Only three of the nation’s 25 largest cities have Republican mayors. Meanwhile, a majority of state legislatures are controlled by the GOP. That creates a disconnect that leads to frequent pre-emption, particularly in Republican states in the South, Southwest and Midwest.

The political gap between metropolitan areas and other parts of states both reflects and is reinforced by other overlapping differences, including cultural attitudes, education levels, class and race. There’s always been an urban-rural divide — or differences between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas — but now it’s caught up in the polarization of our time.

“It maps all these economic and social and regional cleavages,” Rodden says. “That’s where a lot of the feeling that both sides have comes from, that it’s existential and it’s the end of the republic if the other side wins.”

When Only Cities Vote Democratic

In his 2019 book Why Cities Lose, Rodden traces geographic political divisions back to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, when farmworkers, former slaves and immigrants flocked to the cities. Unions helped organize the working class politically, first in favor of socialist parties and then for Democrats.

In today’s knowledge economy, the Democratic coalition remains largely metropolitan — a mixture of low-income members of minority groups and highly educated white professionals. Republicans receive a majority of votes from whites as part of their dominance of rural areas and small towns.

Joe Biden carried 91 of the nation’s 100 largest counties in November, winning just 520 counties in total while Donald Trump carried more than 2,500. But Biden’s counties represented 60 percent of the nation’s population — and 71 percent of the economy, according to the Brookings Institution.

Democratic dominance of populous counties can be enough to overcome more spread out GOP voters in presidential voting (although it wasn’t in 2016, when Hillary Clinton carried 87 of the 100 largest counties). But it’s not enough to win majorities in most state legislatures.

Democrats can compete and win statewide in states including Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin — and now Arizona and Georgia — but they’re shut out of power at the legislative level in all those places. Pennsylvania falls into this category as well. 

Gerrymandering is a factor, but the fact is that Democrats are densely packed into cities and college towns, leaving them with limited numbers of districts where they can compete successfully in many states. “Legislators are in safe seats,” says Richard Schragger, a law professor at the University of Virginia who studies state-city relations. “That means you don’t get a lot of rural-urban coalitions built, at least in state legislatures.”

After Democrats won the governorship and other statewide offices in 2018, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said, “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority. We would have all five constitutional officers and we would probably have many more seats in the Legislature.”

That apparent attitude — that some areas of the state just don’t count — is becoming increasingly common. 

“As the Republican leader of the party, you can say those kinds of things and know it’s not going to hurt you, because you know you’re probably not going to compete in those places,” Rodden says. “There is something very unhealthy for our democracy that neither party sees itself even trying to compete in big chunks of the country.”

‘No Strength in Numbers’

There isn’t a single state where the largest city makes up a majority of the population. That means to have clout at the state level, big cities must make common cause with others, whether neighbors within the immediate metropolitan area or other cities around the state.

Rural populations have long been shrinking, but rural politicians are masters of minority politics, seeking out common ground and coalitions wherever they can. Cities are nowhere near as effective at this. In states where there are multiple sizable cities, they tend not to work in concert. Legislators representing suburbs often view their home communities as being in competition with each other or the central city and so don't always see themselves as part of the greater metropolitan team.

Some of this is the nature of the game. Cities tend to have more heterogenous populations, meaning their constituents are more likely to have varying and competing desires than rural residents. That’s reflected in a lack of agreement among politicians who call the same cities home.

In a study called “No Strength in Numbers: The Failure of Big-City Bills in American State Legislatures, 1880 to 2000,” political scientists Gerald Gamm and Thad Kousser surveyed more than a century’s worth of legislation. What they found was that big cities tend to strike out. Cities with populations under 100,000 got their way in legislatures more than 60 percent of the time, while cities over 500,000 succeeded only 32 percent of the time. “It actually is a shocking figure,” Gamm says.

The study looked at district bills — bills that only affected one particular place, not statewide policy. Things like barring barber shops in Brookline, Mass., from being open on Sundays. Still, the study showed more than anything a failure among urban delegations to achieve internal cohesion. “To our astonishment, the best explanation for large cities being unsuccessful at passing their bills is that they have large delegations,” says Gamm, who teaches at the University of Rochester. “If you have multiple people from that city and they can’t agree on what they want, it’s impossible (for legislators) to defer.”

The same holds true today, only it applies more widely. There’s a long tradition of outstate resentment of the dominant city, but now that overlaps with the partisan split that often leaves metros without a single member of the Republican caucus, which in most states is the majority.

“They don’t have any reason to take into account the interest of the urban population in making legislation, and they have a lot of interest in not doing so,” says Schragger, the UVa law professor. “Particularly on cultural issues and fiscal issues, it pays for these legislators to resist giving cities more home-rule powers, because their constituents tend to be opposed even to local policies that are contrary to national conservative positions.”

Not the United States of Cities

Next month, Rice University, the University of Texas and Southern Methodist University will release an urban and metropolitan policy blueprint for the state. “Texas is a mostly urban and metro state, but you wouldn’t know it walking into the capitol,” says William Fulton, director of Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research (and a former Governing columnist).

Between them, the Houston and Dallas metro areas alone account for more than half the population of Texas. That’s to say nothing of San Antonio, Austin or El Paso — each also among the 25 largest cities in the nation.

Nevertheless, Texas ranks among the nation’s leaders in pre-emption, blocking localities when it comes to tax policy, red-light cameras, fracking, telecommunications regulation and a long list of other issues. Gov. Greg Abbott has repeatedly sought to stifle local authority, complaining about their “patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations” even before taking office.

Although Texas is home to some of the nation’s largest cities, it’s also home to lots of smaller cities and a total of 254 counties that collectively can leave Houston and Dallas and the rest in the political dust. In any state, large urban political minorities “may find themselves ganged up on by other parts of the state,” Gamm says.

As far back as 1915, an economist named Robert Clarkson Brooks observed that “to a large degree, the history of the relations of states to metropolitan cities in this country is a history of repeated injuries (and) repeated usurpations.”

Nothing much changes. Home-rule laws were passed at the dawn of the 20th century and strengthened after World War II in efforts to insulate city governments from state interference. Those laws provided weak cover during this past decade’s wave of pre-emption laws. Any protection granted by a state can be taken away by the state.

City-state relations could be at a crossroads. One of the major political dynamics in recent years has been the shifting of suburbs in areas around Philadelphia, Atlanta and many other cities from habitual red or purple voting suddenly to blue. 

It remains to be seen whether those shifts will outlive the Trump presidency. Or how alliances between progressive urban voters and affluent but tax-averse suburbanites might play out. If history is any guide, unwieldy and fractious coalitions have not played to cities’ advantages, even or especially if they represent large numbers of people.

“Look at the name of our country,” Fulton says. “It’s not the united counties, cities, towns and special districts of America. States have had an upper hand from the beginning.”

Alan Greenblatt is a Governing senior staff writer. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.