Expert Commentary

The power and perspectives of mayors: Data from a survey of more than 70 U.S. officials

2014 report from Boston University’s Initiative on Cities based on interviews of more than 70 mayors of cities across the United States. Topics discussed include policy priorities, gentrification and income inequality.

In recent years, many city mayors have increasingly stepped into the wider policy-making space, coordinating actions and working toward common goals, even as the U.S. Congress — and other state, national and international bodies — have struggled to legislate and govern in a complex and changing world. The political theorist Benjamin Barber crystallized this movement in a 2013 book, If Mayors Ruled the World, and scholars such as Richard Florida have long explored the growing importance of cities in economic, civic and social life.

Some city leaders are working together both locally and world-wide: Organizing for the Global Parliament of Mayors is continuing through fall 2015, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors continues to formulate policy responses to national problems. For example, that coalition issued a report in 2015 that outlined policies for improving community-police relations. Although such recommendations do not have the power of legislation, the sharing of best practices and the creation of rough consensus can result in immediate policy changes on the ground.

Part of the reason for the outsized influence of U.S. mayors is the powerful role that cities play in the economy: According to a 2010 McKinsey Global Institute report, the 259 U.S. cities with populations over 150,000 generated 85% of the country’s GDP that year. Not only is that percentage impressive, it’s higher than the proportions for other regions and countries. (In China the figure is 78% and in Western Europe, 65%. The top U.S. cities also represent a higher proportion of the nation’s population, 79%, compared to 48% and 57% for China and Western Europe.)

Research suggests that U.S. cities’ economic importance is only going to grow in the coming years, and that three mega-cities — New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — are also becoming powerful political and societal players on the national and global stage. However, research indicates that U.S. cities’ power can be surprisingly limited in the country’s multi-leveled political system. A 2013 study in the American Political Science Review found that despite some large cities having dominant delegations in state legislatures, their bills failed at higher rates than those sponsored by areas with smaller delegations.

To better understand urban politics and policy-making processes, Katherine Levine Einstein and David M. Glick of Boston University analyzed interviews with more than 70 mayors of a representative sample of cities across the United States. In conjunction with the Initiative on Cities at Boston University, they present their findings in a 2014 report, “Mayoral Policy Making: Results from the 21st-Century Mayor’s Leadership Survey.” Topics discussed with the mayors included the challenges facing their cities and their policy priorities, as well as subjects such as gentrification, income inequality and climate change.

The study’s key findings include:

  • Whatever the size of their cities and party affiliation, the core priorities of all mayors were similar: “[They] appear to spend a significant amount of energy thinking about how to better grow and plan their cities, how to manage transportation and city operations, and how to budget limited resources given contemporary fiscal constraints.”
  • When asked to define the major challenges they face, there is no significant difference between responses of mayors of large and small cities. The three most-frequently cited policy priorities for the next year were eco­nomic development, quality of life and infrastruc­ture.
  • A mayor’s party affiliation had a significant effect on his or her priorities: “Republican mayors are more likely to prioritize the two related issues of economic development and infrastructure. These categories comprise roughly 50% of all Republican priorities. While Democrats also prioritize develop­ment, they are much more likely to also emphasize issues related to inequality, education and quality of life. These differences suggest that partisanship does matter at the local level in unsurprising ways that also likely follow from mayors fitting and responding to differing constituent priorities.”
  • When asked if cities should work to reduce income inequality, a majority of mayors said “no.” However, the political affiliation of the mayors had a strong influence: “While the overwhelming majority of Republican mayors (almost 90%) disagree with our inequality statement, just over half of Democrats agree.”
  • Mayors of both political affiliations were evenly divided on attitudes toward gentrification. Those in favor tended to be mayors of large or less wealthy cities.
  • To help them better do their work, mayors expressed a need for “more technical expertise about running the city (e.g. budgeting) rather than more knowledge about particular policy areas.”
  • To inform policy choices, mayors tend to rely on their staff, other cities and other mayors as well as unofficial advisors and business leaders. This “suggests that many mayors rely on a ‘kitchen cabinet’ approach in which they combine their formal resources with a network of trusted advisors.”
  • When it came to cities to which mayors looked for policy and management ideas, political affiliation was a significant factor. The three cities most often mentioned by Democratic mayors were New York, Boston and Denver; Republican mayors looked to Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; and Dallas.
  • Overall, the mayors surveyed rated their relationships with their business communities, neighboring cities and their congressional delegation as positive. The relationship with federal government agencies and the state government were regarded as being more difficult.

The researchers conclude that both the similarities and differences between cities are important to understand: “An exclusive focus on, say, the mayor of San Francisco, might miss the fact that the mayor of another, less nationally prominent city shares many of the same concerns, priorities, and policy attitudes. Analogously, an over-emphasis on San Francisco (and other prominent cities) would fail to take into account the salient differences in the types of policies cities tackle and places from which they obtain policy ideas,” they write. “Indeed, cities that are less wealthy, more Republican, and smaller differ sharply on at least some of these metrics from the large coastal cities with high property values that seem to garner the most attention.” At the same time, they caution that the sample size is relatively small and that the key attributes “are highly correlated with each other and with other important variables.”

Related research: A 2014 literature review, “Gentrification, Urban Displacement and Affordable Housing,” pulls together major studies on the issue, with a focus on benefits and drawbacks for low-income residents. A 2013 roundup, “Economic and Social Change in U.S. Cities,” reviews studies relevant to reporting and coverage of U.S. cities, including research on economics, environment, crime, health and demographics.


Keywords: cities, mayors, local government, local governance, gentrification

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