A Colorful Race

by Dan Hopkins on August 31, 2010 · 7 comments

in Blogs

When political scientists arrive in Washington, DC over the next few days, they’ll be stepping into a close closely contested Mayor’s race between the incumbent mayor Adrian Fenty and the City Council Chairman, Vincent Gray. Color is playing a role in the race, and not just because the Democratic primary features candidates named “Gray,” “Orange,” and “Brown.” Voter support has split along racial lines, with African American voters preferring Gray and whites preferring Fenty. (Both candidates are black.)

One criticism of the incumbent mayor Fenty is that he has favored predominantly white neighborhoods, like APSA’s host Woodley Park and its Northwest neighbors. Chairman Gray has echoed those concerns, telling a local radio station that “[b]e it real or be it perceived, there is a view that people in certain parts of this city, especially predominantly African American [parts], have not been well served by this administration.”

And that criticism—which is by no means unique to DC—points to a gaping hole in a wave of recent studies of local distributive politics conducted by economists and political scientists. While several of our studies have looked at the relationship between local ethnic/racial diversity and public spending across cities (here, here, or here), there is little systematic work on how public goods are distributed within cities. Our recent work has focused on the share of the city’s money devoted to parks or libraries, paying little attention to where within the city those resources are going. Claims like Gray’s are common in big-city politics. But political scientists haven’t been testing them systematically.

That’s what makes work now underway by Georgetown graduate student Lindsay Pettingill intriguing. Pettingill collected all of the calls made to D.C.’s 311 hotline—over 1.5 million calls in all—from 2000-2009. These calls are service requests, and the District tracks its response times to each request. Pettingill shows below how these response times vary both by ward and by year.


First, we see substantial improvement in average response times. In 2000, it was taking the District upwards of 40 days to respond. By 2009, that figure was down to 11 on average. Most of the decline took place during the tenure of Anthony Williams, Fenty’s predecessor. The other key fact: response times across neighborhoods have converged over the years, with just two days separating the neighborhood with the longest response time from the neighborhood with the shortest response time in 2009. Calls from the heavily black neighborhoods like Berry Farm and Kenilworth don’t seem to go unanswered. In fact, it was the predominantly white neighborhoods in Northwest that initially saw the slowest response times, although those gaps have closed. Of course, this is not the only metric of bias in District services—and capital projects could tell a very different story. But if you see a broken meter outside the Woodley Park Marriott, don’t expect special service because of that green Fenty sign on the nearby lawn.


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