A Colorful Race

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.

7 Responses to A Colorful Race

  1. Seth August 31, 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    I can’t recall the last time I saw such an encouraging graph. Not only are city services improving – dramatically – but disparities across communities have been erased. Is this the result of civic leadership? Are rising home prices producing a tax windfall that makes providing services easier? Or are these numbers being massaged (see “The Wire,” seasons 3-4)?

  2. mona September 1, 2010 at 8:42 am #

    WOW, Iu knew the Williams and Fenty administration had done well in this but this is great. So why do people want to vote for Gray?

  3. London September 2, 2010 at 8:21 pm #

    This looks great & the numbers may be true. However, this just shows that Fenty was fortunate to have a predecessor with a vision which placed a lot of balls in action. FENTY IS SIMPLY REAPING THE BENEFITS OF WILLIAMS HARD WORK & VISION. I can’t say Fenty is one with a clear enough vision to make such improvements. He’s more like middle management. He can sustain a true leaders vision in some areas, but he lacks the ability to have a clearly defined and communicated vision for an entire city that others can follow for years to come in order to see the vision realized.

    The Wire relected on real life politics!

  4. truxtoncircle September 3, 2010 at 8:10 am #

    These numbers done tell the full story.
    Just because there is a response doesn’t mean anything is done. I am frequently placing online requests, get an email that it is completed, when in fact it isn’t. They consider completed, when someone looks at the request. Example I request to pick up of illegal dumping materials and ally cleaning, my request is closed, but nothint happened. When I call they say an inspector has looked it and sent the request to another department. Needless to say after 3 requests I’m still waiting on both. Pretty much the same when stolen cars are dumped in my ally.

  5. Cary Silverman September 3, 2010 at 10:25 am #

    Very interesting. I’d like to see Ms. Pettingill full study. Is there a link? You mention that she has data by Ward and year, but it is not posted.

    Each the four folks who have left comments to this post have valid points. The numbers are very encouraging, show Fenty has continued to substantial progress of the Williams’ Administration in lowering response times, and, it is likely that effective response time (as opposed to merely a response) is a bit higher.

  6. question September 7, 2010 at 8:19 am #

    truxtoncircle raised an issue that should be included probably as a separate chart. How many calls represent repeat requests. That may be more telling.

    In addition, there should be a chart that shows the number and type of calls going into 311 each year. Is the response time decreasing because fewer people are calling 311 and therefore they have a lower number of issues to tackle? It is a pretty good start. But there are questions that need to be answered.


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