America’s Mayors: Who Serves and How Mayors Shape Policy


Questions about representation are fundamental to the study of politics. This dissertation examines representation in the context of American cities, addressing three essential questions about mayors and local politics. Who serves as mayor? How do voters select mayors? And, does it matter who voters choose? That is, to what extent do mayors systematically influence policy outcomes? Although city halls may lack the prestige of the White House or the U.S. Capitol, policy choices and outcomes in American cities are hardly trivial. Combined, U.S. local governments account for over $1.6 trillion in spending per year—nearly 10% of the nation’s GDP—and raise more than $900 billion in annual revenue from local sources (as of 2012; see Barnett, Sheckells and Tydings 2014). Responsible for funding and providing essential services, municipal governments also have a huge impact on the public’s safety and quality of life.

As chief elected officials, mayors are unquestionably important but also understudied political actors. A number of rich and detailed case studies provide valuable insights on individual mayors and their influence. These studies tend to portray individual mayors as crucial actors with considerable sway over how their cities respond to the challenges of local governance (e.g., Ferman 1985; Stone 1989; DeLeon 1995; Fuchs 1992; Inman 1995; Bissinger 1997). In contrast, quantitative cross-city studies have yielded mixed findings on mayors’ abilities to affect outcomes (e.g., Ferreira and Gyourko 2009; 2014; Gerber and Hopkins 2011; Hopkins and McCabe 2012). To date, however, efforts to understand the role and influence of mayors have been hampered by a lack of data to support the comprehensive and systematic study of mayors across cities and over time.

To overcome existing data limitations, I collected and compiled data from newspapers, government documents, and historical archives to construct a comprehensive dataset of American mayoral candidates, with details about race, ethnicity, and gender, as well as political and occupational experience. This original dataset includes more than 3,200 mayoral candidates from 248 U.S. cities in 44 states and spans the time period 1950 to 2007. Drawing on these extensive data, I provide a detailed account of descriptive representation in American cities. My data reveal that mayors, like politicians at higher levels of government, are not very diverse—they are very likely to be white and male, with prior political experience and white-collar careers. Business owners and executives are especially well represented in American city halls, accounting for about 32% of the candidates and mayors in my dataset.

Given the formidable role of business interests in canonical theories of urban politics, it might not be particularly surprising to find that business owners and executives make up a plurality of mayoral candidates. Business leaders were key advocates of the municipal reform movement, which introduced the notion that city governments should be run like businesses (Karnig and Welch 1980; Bridges 1997). Moreover, scholarly accounts suggest that municipal reforms often empowered business interests. Although the reform movement was partly a response to the excesses of political machines, local businesses were often both influential supporters and beneficiaries of the machine (Shefter 1976; Erie 1988). Business interests have more recently been described as key players in a local growth machine (Logan and Molotch 1987) or partners in an informal governing regime (Stone 1989). Business leaders have long been portrayed as potent actors pursuing distinct policy agendas designed to promote economic growth. This emphasis on growth typically implies strong preferences for low taxes and minimal redistribution combined with high-quality services and amenities. Yet, despite the prominence of business interests in the study of urban politics, few claims have been tested empirically.

After documenting who runs for office and who serves, I investigate why executive business experience is so common among mayors. Are business owners more likely to run for mayor? Are they more likely to win? I consider why business executives might run for mayor and why voters might select candidates with experience in business. Although business executives do not seem to win elections at higher rates, I find some evidence to suggest that they may be more likely to run for mayor in cities with reform institutions. To better understand how institutions may interact with voters’ preferences, I employ a conjoint survey experiment to assess the effect of a key reform institution—nonpartisan elections. This approach allows me to investigate how multiple attributes, such as occupation, political experience, race, and gender influence voters’ choices with and without party labels. When party affiliations are unknown, respondents perceive business owners and executives as quite likely, compared to candidates with other backgrounds, to produce more conservative public policy. This result perhaps helps to explain why, in the absence of party labels, Republican respondents do—and Democratic respondents do not—prefer candidates with experience as a business owner or executive.

Notably, survey respondents’ evaluations of business owners are similar to those outlined in influential theories of urban politics. Both generally anticipate that mayors with business back- grounds will keep taxes low, maintain essential services, and promote growth. Do business executive mayors live up to these expectations? Assessing the impact of business executives on public policy presents considerable methodological challenges. Mayors are not randomly assigned to cities, and the factors that determine the type of mayor a city elects also may be related to policy outcomes. Using a regression discontinuity design (RDD) to mitigate the threat of endogeneity, I find that business executive mayors do shape city spending priorities. Electing a business owner or executive leads to significantly lower levels of spending on redistributive programs and greater investment in infrastructure. Some suggestive evidence also indicates that they may increase revenue from local sources, but likely in the form of user fees and charges rather than taxes.

In this dissertation, I draw on an original dataset of mayoral candidates to provide fresh insight on representation in American cities. These comprehensive data document a stunning lack of diversity among mayoral candidates, at the same time revealing the overrepresentation of business owners and executives in city halls across the United States. I present findings which suggest that business owners and executives may be more likely to run for mayor in cities with reform institutions. Perhaps most importantly, however, I empirically evaluate the causal effect of electing a business executive mayor. My findings suggest that business executives preside over policy changes with implications for the distribution of both the costs and benefits of local government.


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