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Government / Budgets

What power do US mayors really have?

Author and legal scholar Richard Schragger says the US's big-city mayors focus on policies far outside their control and lose sight of the ways they can actually effect change.

In the second decade of the 21st century, US progressives put a lot of hope in cities. 

National political institutions proved incapable of achieving major policy changes in the absence of unified partisan control, and state legislatures were dominated by conservative Republicans. But at the city level, there was ideological space for policy experimentation and for innovative attempts to set labour and housing policy. 

This idea of the progressive city, where action occurs in the absence of a competent federal government, has been dramatically challenged by the vicissitudes of 2020. Mayors from New York to Los Angeles have disappointed their cheerleaders in the face of a pandemic, an economic depression and police violence. 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speak during a news conference. Even in a state with Democratic leaders, the governor frequently pre-empts municipal policy efforts. (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

So how much, exactly, can we hope for from city leaders?

Richard Schragger has devoted his career to this very question. A professor at the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville, he wrote an influential book in 2016 called City Power: Urban Governance in a Global Age. His thesis is that the business-friendly economic-development policies at the heart of many urban governments have a dismal track record and that, in fact, we understand very little about what works in local public policy. From that humble beginning, Schragger extrapolates that many of the reforms that technocratic critics have long warned against – local minimum-wage laws and other redistributive policies – are not the poison pills we’ve been led to believe they are. 

[Read more: After 2020, who even wants to run for mayor?]

Schragger is now working with the National League of Cities on ways to combat state-level pre-emption laws, where higher levels of government try to prevent municipalities from policy experimentation. City Monitor spoke with him about how his theories apply to the most distressed US cities, the limits of regional thinking and the track record of the last decade’s progressive mayors.

The coming years are going to be especially challenging for municipal governments as they face a fiscal crisis. You argue that policymakers should rethink how they prioritise municipal governance and that there is very little proof that the economic-development policies at the centre of the urban agenda actually do anything for the overall trajectory of the city. What do you think is a more fruitful path for urban leaders to pursue?

We’ve embraced this competitive model, which asserts that cities have to go out and obtain jobs by corralling mobile capital. They have to converge on the same kind of business-friendly, low-redistribution, low-regulation policies. That’s been the dominant theoretical and popular view: that you’re in a competitive race with other local governments all over the world. 

Much of my book is directed at trying to debunk that. Cities shouldn’t be doing that because they can’t, in fact, predict very well what’s going to cause growth or decline in a particular city. If you looked at Detroit in the early 1950s, you would have said that’s going to be the most powerful economic engine into the future. And it’s at that very point that it starts to depopulate. If you looked at New York City in the early ’70s, you would have said it’s in precipitous decline, and it would have been very hard to predict where New York City is today. 

I make two claims. Whatever economic-development policies you think you’re adopting, they’re not likely to work. On the other side, if you do more redistribution, that’s not going to hurt you economically – because, in fact, we don’t know what’s going to work in terms of economic development or growth in your city. That frees the city to do what I say they should do, which is invest in the basic municipal services that they offer. Nothing fancy: public safety, healthcare, housing, education, transportation.

There’s then a question of: how do you get the resources to do that? For declining cities, for cities in fiscal crisis, it’s very hard to get the resources to do that, so those resources have to be provided by a higher level of government. One way forward is to give cities more taxing power and give them some cross-border taxing power, commuter taxes or certain kinds of regional efforts. That resource problem is always there. It’s one that’s going to afflict cities, because cities cycle up and they cycle down in terms of their health and welfare. National urban policy can try to even out that cycling.

Right now, they are all suffering fiscal crises, so this could be a difficult moment for making the argument for expanded services and more welfare spending at the municipal level.

That is true, and states are also facing obvious shortfalls. But there are mechanisms to share the pain a little bit. One is revenue sharing, which was a Nixon idea, and we could bring that back between the feds and states and some localities. States and localities can’t print money, but the federal government can. We rely on the federal government to engage in that kind of social welfare, deficit spending. There’s just no choice. There has to be a federal role here.

Maybe it’ll happen in the next Congress, depending on what happens in the elections. But the current Congress’s failure to do so really represents a lack of leadership and a lack of realisation that if you starve state and local governments for money and resources, that has an effect on the national economy. If you’re in a downturn, you want to feed those governments, not starve them.

A point you make throughout your book is that cities are the level of governance where democracy has been called into question the most frequently – from Progressive Era reformers villainising the urban machines of the 19th century to Gerald Ford solely blaming New York’s leadership for its fiscal crisis in the ’70s, and not societal trends beyond their control. 

Now there’s the current Republican line that the federal government shouldn’t help cities, because they’re profligate or whatever, even though by any reasonable analysis their current fiscal crises are the result of an insane exogenous shock. And most urban governments have actually been pretty responsible since the Great Recession. Why do you think that narrative has proved so resilient? 

To take Trump’s hostility to urban areas, he’s also hostile to states that he’s not going to win, like California. It’s not just the urban areas but also states where he thinks he’s a loser. That’s a function of federalism and the Electoral College.

But there is a deeper anti-urbanism, which is a scepticism of cities. We see the same tropes in Trump’s rhetoric that we saw in the rhetoric against cities in the Progressive Era in terms of concern about the ethnic masses or immigrants. In the early part of the 20th century, there was also a conception of the city as corrupt, polluted and dangerous. That tradition is a very long one, back to Thomas Jefferson. He was quite concerned about the city as a site for unrest. That strand of anti-urbanism has continued. The efforts on the part of Trump to frighten the suburbs is a reflection of that. It actually was pretty effective, that strategy to frighten whites throughout the second half of the 20th century. It seems less effective now, in part because the suburbs are much more diverse and the city much more desirable. 

 But yes, we have a politics that seems to be as geographically polarised as it’s ever been into a rural-urban dynamic. It’s not quite rural; it’s sort of a mix of exurban and rural. That dynamic has resulted in both hostility from the president, in this case, but also you see it in hostility at the state level. I’ve written a lot about state law pre-emption of local laws. We’ve seen it most dramatically in the pandemic response. 

State officials overriding local business closure laws, local mask laws and other pandemic-related health efforts. You see that in Georgia with Atlanta, you see it in Florida with its cities. That’s a dramatic example of state-level overrides of local government and mostly city efforts. Some of those efforts include local minimum-wage laws, local anti-discrimination laws. The famous transgender-bathroom issue in North Carolina is an example of that too. And so I’ve been working a lot with cities to figure out ways to resist what I’ve seen as a pre-emption epidemic.

This is a big complication with how the US governs its cities. Municipal fragmentation really limits your abilities on everything from gun regulation to public-school funding – how effective can a handgun law be if you can walk over a city or county line and face a whole different set of laws?

I grew up as a regionalist and thinking about the inequalities across city and suburb lines and the necessity for a larger sphere and cooperative enterprises. But I’ve become less enamoured of that. Obviously, there are disparities and inequalities of fragmented metropolitan areas, but we’ve tried to deal with them for a long time, and I don’t think there’s a lot of room for success there despite generations of efforts. I also think that the city itself is a more amenable place for the politics of equality that I’d like to see. I have come to the view that if we could just get more city power, even understanding that there are resource constraints, that would go a long way, especially in light of the urban resurgence where you do have some more resources in these places than you used to have. 

Where does that leave the many cities that don’t have much of a resurgence? People and companies are going to come to New York no matter if they have a paid sick-leave policy. But a city like Cleveland, where they’ve had an unbroken population decline for 70 years, a hostile state legislature, vast swaths of vacant land – what does city power look like there?

You’re right in terms of resource constraint, but look at Ohio cities and you’ll see they’re trying all kinds of stuff. They’re pre-empted from doing inclusionary zoning, residency requirements for city employees, minimum wage of various kinds even just for their own workers. They’re also deeply constrained in their taxing authority. There’s just a lot of constraints, and they’re only going to get very limited help. You have to be able to free them from state control if you want them to actually help themselves. 

In the US, we should be more supportive of our declining places, our declining cities. Instead, we abandon them. But progressives’ strategy has always been: let’s move the level of government up to either the regional or the state or the federal level. I don’t think we’ve learned our lesson that these folks are not reliable partners. We need a new home movement for cities, similar to the Progressive Era movement, which was animated by similar ideas of stopping interference in the city by the state. The new home-rule movement would be beneficial even to those places that are struggling. It would be beneficial, too, because I don’t know why we would think that the politics of the state or the federal government would change anytime soon.

Let’s talk about the mayors who have been elected in big cities who were seen as progressive alternatives to the technocratic, business-friendly administrations that preceded them. This was a narrative you saw in New York, Philly and Boston. Especially after this year, they’ve disappointed a lot of people.

When I published the book in 2016, de Blasio was coming in and New York City was moving from this technocratic former Republican to what appeared to be a highly progressive mayor. We’ve actually seen some really significant successes in these places, despite some of the leadership. The municipal minimum wage, when that got started there were many theorists and economists saying you can’t do that. But we’ve seen very successful urban-based labour movements in places like Los Angeles that then translated into state-level minimum-wage legislation. 

But again, what you see in these places is that the realities of governing make the progressive agenda a challenge. Some of that is resource constraint, but a large part of it is state constraints on what locals can do. We see that, for example, in Richmond, Virginia, which is a city coming back, doing better, with a dynamic young Black mayor – who just can’t do anything. He couldn’t regulate his own police, he couldn’t take down his own Confederate monuments, he can’t tax in certain ways. He’s got some capabilities, he can do good work, but he doesn’t have all the resources he needs, and there are a lot of constraints on him. Those constraints are a reality that requires a revolution in state and local relations.

Where would the leverage point for that be? In a lot of these states where you have Republican control of the legislature from here until eternity, there’s no incentive for them to change.

The argument for local control does have some cross-party appeal. You have some increased political power in these urban places, in part because there are suburbanites who have now moved in there; the white flight is reversing in some of these places. You may be able to build a statewide coalition at least for some increased authority. 

We’re trying to do that in Virginia a little bit, and there is some appetite for that. You’re certainly right that if the state legislature is hostile to cities, which in many of these Republican states they are, then it’s going to be hard to do any of the things that we want to see happen in these urban places. What we’ve invited cities to do is to find a quiet way to do some of the things that they want to do without exciting opposition. 

Are there any city leaders who have succeeded in quietly revolutionising the provision of basic services? 

Cities are doing a better job overall and have a bit more capacity than they used to as a function of their economic rebound. But I don’t actually believe that policy makes a ton of difference in this respect. I’m very sceptical, and my argument is a little quirky. 

I’m writing against a bunch of folks who say you can achieve by attracting mobile capital and attracting new people, they will pay more taxes, and suddenly your city will be flourishing. I oppose that kind of model. Doug Rae has this great book about New Haven called City: The End of Urbanism. He has this great opening chapter where he says: we did everything right, and then it all went to shit anyway. There’s some good lessons there. We have to be really modest about what policy makes possible. 

I’m doubtful that it’s corruption or poor leadership that ruins a city, and I’m doubtful that it’s good government that makes the city flourish. We’ve seen the opposite many times in the history of the United States. Cities were growing and producing great infrastructure during the most corrupt periods of their existence. 

The relationship between policy and economic thriving is one that’s more attenuated than we think. So what should we do instead? We should do the right thing – we should pursue justice. How do we pursue justice? Provide, as best you can, and with the help of those units of government that can print money, for the basic municipal services of the populace. 

On the other side, don’t try to invent a bunch of policies to attract new people into your city, because that’s never worked. It just happens to be that somebody was mayor, which coincided with the urban resurgence, which happened in most cities and cities all over the globe. It can’t possibly be that all of them suddenly had great mayors.