“Democratic mayors don’t govern as Democrats for the most part,” said Elisabeth Gerber, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.
About 85 percent of all cities have nominally nonpartisan elections, in which candidates’ party affiliations never appear on the ballot (researchers, however, have ways of sussing out partisanship nonetheless). And in some cities that do have partisan elections, the leading candidates may all be Democrats, making their partisan identities unimportant. Party is less relevant, anyway, to local races that may turn on who can clear the snow fastest, or negotiate with the teachers’ union effectively, or build the most affordable housing.
“Partisanship isn’t the story either in electoral politics, or in position-taking, or in messaging,” Professor Gerber said. “It’s not like they’re running as Democrats.”
Cities have been faced with problems far beyond their making. Deindustrialization and globalization wiped out many middle-class factory jobs, destabilizing neighborhoods of blue-collar workers. The federal policy of highway construction enabled both taxpayers and employers to leave cities. Federal housing policies dissuaded or prevented Black residents initially from joining them, cementing patterns of racial and economic segregation that persist to this day.
The coronavirus pandemic offers another example. Professor Gerber and colleagues found that nearly half of Detroit’s labor force was unemployed at the worst moment of the pandemic this summer, as lower-wage workers were hit hardest by the economic crisis and Black residents were hit hardest by the virus. That pattern isn’t Mayor Mike Duggan’s fault, Professor Gerber said.
As cities have confronted these problems over decades, Republicans in Washington have cut funding to cities and programs they relied on.
“Republican administrations have really decided that cities should be left to market forces,” said Marion Orr, a professor of political science and urban studies at Brown University. “And those cities who can survive those market forces are worthy of survival, and those who cannot really find themselves struggling.”