Mayors, Partisanship, and Redistribution

By Katherine Levine Einstein (Boston University) and David M. Glick (Boston University)

In the face of federal and state intransigence, progressive policy advocates have increasingly looked to cities for innovative and aggressive redistributive policy. Recently promulgated local policies tackling issues like minimum wage and sick leave policies offer some preliminary evidence that urban governments are important players in this policy arena. Given their direct and indirect powers at the local level, mayors naturally play a salient role in pursuing these policies through agenda setting and other means. Despite mayors’ centrality in these issues, prior studies of local redistribution have not focused on their prioritization of redistributive policy and efforts to put it on the agenda.

Media accounts of cities redressing income inequality notwithstanding, finding that mayors do place redistribution on local policy agendas would be surprising in light of research on economic constraints that argues that state and national governments are better situated to provide these services. Moreover, even assuming that cities do promote redistributive initiatives, it is still an open question which kinds of cities are most apt to do so, with competing explanations weighing the roles of partisanship, economic demographics, and institutional configurations.

Survey of Mayors and Mayoral Endorsements of Redistribution

To explore whether and when mayors place redistribution on the local policy agenda, we collected two types of data. The first is a nationally representative survey of mayors of cities over 30,000 (sample cities closely match the national population in racial, economic, political and institutional characteristics). In partnership with the Boston University Initiative on Cities, we surveyed 72 mayors—including many from the nation’s largest cities—to explore, among other things, their attitudes towards income inequality and redistribution. Because the bulk of these interviews took place either in person at the annual meeting of the US Conference of Mayors or over the phone, we were able to obtain qualitative elaborations on survey questions from many of the mayors. We couple this survey with searches of mayors’ and cities’ websites to collect public statements exploring whether our nationally representative sample of mayors endorsed and/or implemented redistributive programs.

Surprisingly Strong Support for Redistribution

These data suggest that mayors do place redistribution relatively high on their policy agendas—in contrast with previous research arguing that cities are primarily governed by economic imperatives. One-fifth listed it as one of their top two policy priorities and/or political capital expenditures (in comparison, 33% cited economic development and 21% cited infrastructure). Just under one-third of mayors supported reducing income inequality, even when such policy efforts were framed as a tradeoff that required mayors to weigh redistribution against harm to businesses and wealthy residents.

Strong Partisan Differences

There were stark differences in mayoral support for these initiatives, however, along partisan lines. This suggests that national-level debates may be filtering down to the local level in some cases. Figure 1 illustrates the proportion of mayors making public statements endorsing redistribution (a) and implementing redistributive programs (b) by political party. 50 percent of Democratic mayors made statements endorsing programs targeting income inequality on their websites, compared with only 5% of Republicans. Similarly, 35% of Democratic mayors helped implement programs targeting these issues, while only 5% of Republicans did the same. These effects hold when we control for other factors like mass partisanship and city institutional and demographic traits.


Our survey evidence confirms these partisan differences: 28% of Democratic mayors named a redistributive policy as a top political capital expenditure, while only 5% of Republicans did the same. Similarly, over half of Democratic mayors supported redressing income inequality, even at the expense of businesses and/or wealthy residents, as compared with only 5% of Republican mayors.

The one area where we did not see a partisan gap emerge is on a redistributive policy issue without a clear national analogue: gentrification. Across partisan lines, roughly 40% of mayors agreed that “it is good for a neighborhood when it experiences rising property values, even if it means some current residents might have to move out.” 30% disagreed, and 30% neither agreed nor disagreed. When a local policy issue does not clearly map onto national partisan divides, then, the effect of partisanship unsurprisingly vanishes.

Partisan Gap Does Not Vary by Economic or Institutional Context

Interestingly—and in contrast with a wide array of urban politics research—the strong partisan divide that we observe across most of our survey questions and our analysis of statements and programs does not vary by city institutional or economic characteristics. Regardless of whether a city is governed by a strong or weak mayor, has high or low property values, is big or small, or is surrounded by many or few neighboring cities, partisanship strongly predicts mayoral preferences for redistribution.

These findings generally suggest a selective nationalization of local politics. As mayors tackle many policies that are traditionally under the state and national purview, national partisan cleavages accompany those that map on to national ideological divides. This finding may prove especially troubling to liberals given the results of the 2016 presidential election. Republican control of the federal government and many statehouses has led progressives to view cities as potentially a lone beacon of hope for promulgating preferred initiatives. In light of our findings, we caution that cities are not as insulated from partisan polarization as previous scholarship might have believed; as a consequence, we should only expect the most liberal cities to be fertile grounds for redistributive policy programs, and not necessarily cities more generally.

Read the full article here.

Katherine Levine Einstein is an assistant professor in the Department Political Science at Boston University. Her research and teaching interests broadly include urban politics and policy, racial and ethnic politics, and American public policy. She is currently the co-principal investigator of the Menino Survey of Mayors, a multi-year survey of U.S. mayors exploring a wide variety of political and policy issues.

David M. Glick is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Boston University. His research and teaching interests in American Politics include political institutions, especially law and courts, federalism, decision making, and public policy. He is currently the co-principal investigator of the Menino Survey of Mayors, a multi-year survey of U.S. mayors exploring a wide variety of political and policy issues.



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