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Main Street’s Power Players

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Main Street’s Power Players

A new book takes a rigorous approach to understanding the role of interest groups in local decision-making. June 17, 2022
Politics and law

Local Interests: Politics, Policy, and Interest Groups in U.S. City Governments, by Sarah F. Anzia (University of Chicago Press, 312 pp., $35)

Before a meeting on the city budget, a tense silence pervaded the city council chamber in West Covina, California. For years, city leaders had been locked in a battle with the local firefighter’s union over the fire department’s impact on the city’s ballooning deficit. Federal money dried up, forcing the city to consider downsizing Engine 4, one of its five fire houses, which necessarily implied a staffing reduction. As contract negotiations stalled, the union orchestrated pickets and even filed a tort claim against the city. Elected leaders had to decide what to shrink: the deficit or the department. During the public-comment period, firefighters arose to speak out one by one, repeatedly lambasting the proposed cuts as a major threat to public safety. The result? One councilmember switched his vote to secure a majority for keeping Engine 4 unaffected. The audience—consisting of many firefighters—erupted in applause. But over the next few years, the fire chief was dismissed, one of the councilmembers who supported department cuts lost reelection to a union-backed challenger, and California’s auditor declared West Covina at risk of bankruptcy. Engine 4 was decommissioned, too.

The story of West Covina is the story of local interest-group influence in local government. The many interest groups in the United States want and do different things, but they share a common purpose: seeking favorable public policies from government. In her groundbreaking new book, Local Interests, University of California–Berkeley professor Sarah Anzia explores how interest-group activity shapes policy across thousands of U.S. municipalities, laying out findings from her extensive study and providing a novel methodological research framework.

Local governments make policy on issues that residents tend to care about most: public safety, property and sales taxes, primary and secondary education, commerce, and housing, to name a few. Despite the obvious practical importance of understanding how municipal policies materialize, the academic literature had for years neglected this question. Research on local representation focused on voters and elected officials, effectively leaving interest groups out of the equation. Studies of interest groups, meantime, nearly exclusively examined national groups by describing their resources, expenditures, or numbers, not their policy goals—their actual interests. Missing from both was the study of local interest groups and their influence on city governments. The scarcity of reliable and relevant local data posed a major barrier to research.

To examine local interest groups’ influence on municipal policy, then, Anzia had to devise an original methodology to collect and analyze new survey data from municipal leaders across the country. Years of painstaking study and survey design, data compilation, and careful analysis testify to her perseverance, ingenuity, and insight. She discusses her empirical findings in chapters that read as miniature studies in themselves. Theory, literature, and predictions precede methodology, results, and discussion; conclusions summarize each chapter’s main takeaways. The lucid flow of Anzia’s prose explains statistical tables and their implications for a sophisticated lay audience, though the book’s primary utility will be to political scientists and researchers.

The key message in Local Interests is that interest groups matter in local politics but their activity and influence vary, depending on the environments in which they operate and the nature of their policy goals. Groups can achieve their objectives without directly competing against others so long as these goals are not mutually exclusive. Some groups, like the West Covina firefighter’s union, face little pushback from other interest groups or residents; only city officials stand in their way.

But issues of economic development and budgets often dominate local government agendas, generating conflict. Consider unions of public-safety employees, such as firefighters and police officers. Anzia finds that public-sector union activity varies by place and depends especially on the existence of state collective-bargaining laws. By itself, collective bargaining is associated with increases in municipal spending of $35 per capita on police and $50 for fire protection. On top of that, moving from slightly active to very active public-safety union activity is associated with greater municipal spending of $13 per capita on police and $20 for fire services. And unions exert a subtler influence on municipal coffers when they negotiate generous work rules or shield members from performance-based accountability through tenure protection.

Business groups, such as chambers of commerce and real estate developers, are also highly active across jurisdictions. That is to be expected, given that business and land-use decisions take place everywhere. But again, their specific activities depend on their policy goals. Chambers help secure local tax incentives and abatements for businesses. Where chambers are most politically active, municipalities lose larger amounts of revenue to tax abatements. In fact, Anzia discovers, moving from places with slightly active chambers to very active ones is associated with an additional loss of $9.50 in tax revenue per resident. By itself, that might not seem like much, but cumulatively, interest groups exert major influence on municipal budgets.

Developers, on the other hand, are highly active on land-use issues but don’t tend to make cities friendlier to business in general. Focused interests and direct stakes impel developers to take tailored actions, but allies with aligned interests, such as chambers, occasionally join in. Anzia finds that cities where developers are the most active tend to issue more housing permits, including for multifamily units, and that greater chamber of commerce activity corresponds to shorter development-review times. On the other side, Anzia reveals, cities with higher per capita income and rates of homeownership are associated with longer development-review times and especially fewer multifamily permits granted. A jurisdiction where homeowners comprise 75 percent of city residents is 40 percent less likely to permit multifamily development than one in which homeowners make up 25 percent of the population. Yet there is far less to suggest that neighborhood associations or environmental groups impede development, indicating that the battle over land use often pits business groups against formally unorganized groups of voters—or, in William Fischel’s famous terminology, “homevoters.”

What role does partisanship play in local government? Interestingly, cities with higher shares of Democratic residents permit significantly fewer single-family homes. Nationally, political parties resemble coalitions of interests and ideologies. And from what Anzia has shown, we might assume that conservative business groups and homeowners usually battle against liberal government-employee unions.

That conclusion would be unwarranted. Local groups often don’t identify or align in any consistent ideological pattern; they support candidates who will advance their objectives, regardless of party. And local political parties are not omnipresent in city politics as they are on the national scene. Their activity across cities varies in ways that Anzia cannot explain with a straightforward theory. In fact, she finds evidence to suggest that local parties largely behave like another interest group, not a coalition of interests, participating in elections that suit particular purposes at certain times.

In the process of revealing interest groups’ influence on local policymaking, Local Interests sheds light without overgeneralizing. Anzia’s careful treatment of her results and their limitations gives the reader the impression that she has left no nuance unexamined and no alternative explanation unaddressed. Her goal is not to make sweeping proclamations about who governs or holds power in a community but to examine how local interest groups translate activity into municipal policy.

Local Interests enters a realm of politics that, while dynamic and contested, operates differently from the partisan and ideological frames that are second nature to most Americans. By unveiling the distinctive character of local political life and the interest groups that shape it, Anzia has made a major contribution.

Photo: Karl-Hendrik Tittel/iStock

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