Event Recap: When Cities Lobby Book Talk & Panel (3/29)

Event recap by Dhruv Kapadia

Watch the full recording here!

On Wednesday, March 29th, the Initiative on Cities (IOC) and the American Politics Seminar Series hosted a discussion titled “Cities, Lobbyists, and Power” that investigated why mayors rely on professional lobbyists to amplify their voices and represent their city’s interests in state politics. More generally, the event explored the current system in which city political officials at different levels of government choose to pay lobbyists to facilitate communication between them. 

The event featured New York University Associate Professor of Political Science Julia Payson, who shared insights from her recent book When Cities Lobby: How Local Governments Compete for Power in State Politics. Throughout her book, Payson documents how local officials use lobbyists to compete for power in a political environment characterized by intense urban-rural polarization and growing hostility between cities and state legislatures. Following her presentation, a panel of experts, including the City of Boston’s Intergovernmental Relations Director Clare Kelly and Boston University associate professor of Political Science Katherine Levine Einstein, joined the author for a panel discussion moderated by associate professor of Political Science Maxwell Palmer.

Motivation, Purpose, and Argument

Payson began her presentation by discussing the personal motivation behind her research, which stemmed from a radio news story that highlighted local governments in California spending more on lobbying than any other interest group. As a graduate student at Stanford, Payson quickly learned that this pattern was not exclusive to the Golden State but was a common occurrence across the nation. For this reason, Payson set out to investigate why some cities hire lobbyists to represent them in other levels of government, how this paid representation influences politics and policymaking, and the broader implications for intergovernmental representation.

Through her research, Payson argues that lobbyists can help local governments bridge representational gaps that emerge between different levels of government. “Cities are uniquely dependent on elected officials in higher office, which can be good due to de-facto representation and shared constituencies,” said Payson, “but the quality of the relationship between cities and their electeds in different levels of government can dramatically vary.” Lobbyists, argues Payson, can bridge this gap. 

In addition to this central argument, Payson also finds that city government lobbying can be a “double-edged sword” that can lead to further inequalities: “Depending on the types of cities that choose to engage in lobbying and depending on how successful those efforts are, we might end up seeing the intergovernmental policymaking process end up favoring certain types of communities over others.” According to her research, wealthier, high-income communities are particularly adept at securing funding, hiring more effective lobbyists, and shaping policies. Lastly, as an overarching finding, Payson discovered that state lobbying is more common than federal lobbying, with an increase in this divide in recent years.

Types and Patterns of City Lobbying

After providing an overview of her book, Payson dove into the three overarching types of city lobbying: legislative lobbying, executive branch, and monitoring. Firstly, legislative lobbying seeks to support and oppose specific bills, target budgeting, and appropriations, and procure earmarks. Executive branch lobbying seeks to engage with state agencies to secure grants and shape regulations. Lastly, monitor lobbying seeks to gather information about potential state actions that may affect local governance and necessitate proactive responses.

Payson also discussed additional patterns in localized lobbying. According to her research, lobbying strongly correlates with city size, with larger cities having higher probabilities of hiring lobbyists. Furthermore, virtually all cities lobby via their municipal leagues, which all have “in-house advocates and contracts with private firms that advocate for local interests.” Lastly, legislative lobbying is more common than executive-branch lobbying. “It really comes down to who are your elected officials in your district,” said Payson, “and what is going on with their budget.”


To conclude her presentation, Payson detailed the key findings of her book. Firstly, representation correlates with city lobbying, as cities with greater political polarization and larger federal representative delegations also have a higher probability of lobbying. Secondly, cities lobby more after hostile redistricting, a trend that has steadily increased since 2006. Discussing more of the local motivations, Payson also finds that cities lobby more when constrained from raising local revenue. Furthermore, cities with a greater dependence on the state for revenue also lobby more. Other interesting patterns included that lobbying is more prevalent in states with term limits, higher legislative professionalization, and more conservative legislators. Payson also notes that state efforts to ban or limit local government lobbying have failed thus far.

Lastly, Payson examined the efficacy of localized lobbying. According to Payson’s research, the efficacy is clear: cities get more funding when they lobby. This is especially true for higher income cities, with wealthier local governments getting more than less economically advantaged counterparts. These higher income cities also lobby on more bills, specifically focusing on progressive “green” policies that will “benefit the states as a whole.” In short, both affluent communities and cities are effective lobbyists, the latter of which have been traditionally underrepresented in our federal system. 

Panel Discussion

Einstein opened the panel discussion by asking Payson and Kelly how concerned we should be about lobbying distorting federal resource allocations, especially in a context of hyper-partisan polarization. Kelly responded first, highlighting the importance of increasing partnerships between local, state, and federal governments to address shared issues. “There is a real passion, especially in state government and…on the federal [level], to support cities and towns,” said Kelly, asserting that big cities and state governments share overlapping concerns of housing crises, opioid addiction, and sustainable transportation. Payson followed up, stating that, regardless of whether local lobbying is disbanded or not, more affluent communities will continue to benefit from the swaying policy. “There will always be a way for economically advantaged communities and individuals to have an advantage,” stated Payson, “but the nice thing about lobbying is that it is transparent…and it is open to low-income communities.”

As a second question for discussion, Einstein asked the panelists if cities and states with strong political organizations and party machines could substitute lobbying with this political infrastructure. In response, Payson asserted that lobbying at a local level is only prevalent in some nations outside of the United States. Instead, as Einstein alluded to in her question, intergovernmental relations are dominated by party machines and patronage networks. On a domestic front, Payson argued that older states, with more party and machine infrastructure, may be less likely to have as much prevalent lobbying infrastructure. She concluded her statements by highlighting the next steps local governments must take to address lobbying concerns.

“The solution is not to try to limit lobbying – it’s an important and necessary part of the intergovernmental landscape. The key is to design policies that don’t leave behind the most vulnerable communities.”