By Keith C. Jones

*   About 40 years ago, I interviewed the head of the Model Cities program in Lancaster, Pa., shortly after she announced that she was resigning to get married. She had arrived in town two years earlier full of hope and optimism. She left pretty much crushed by the system. She had begun with Model Cities in Washington and then got to head the Lancaster program as a reward for her good work.

One thing she said has always stuck with me: “The dollar amounts are smaller locally than in Washington, but the reality is greater. At this end, you get to see how all the ideas hatched there work out in practice.”

Smaller dollars but the same result?

When it comes to the influence of money on politics, the dollar amounts are smaller but the result seems to be the same. But that is only a tentative conclusion I have drawn from a limited amount of contact with local politics. So like the judge in “Miracle On 34th Street,” I am keeping an open mind after consulting the highest authorities.

“Campaign donations are a form of free speech.”

There is little doubt what is happening nationally. A series of Supreme Court decisions has wiped out attempts to limit the influence of money in political campaigns. All the decisions have  equated political donations with free speech, which is protected by the Bill of Rights.

About a year ago, a scientific study came out claiming to prove what everyone already suspected is true. This study, titled “Testing Theories Of American Politics” was published by two political scientists: Martin Gilens, of Princeton, and Benjamin Page, of Northwestern. Their report, in the Sept. 2014 issue of Perspectives on Politics, concludes that the views of a few rich people have a far greater impact on important federal policy decisions than the desires of more numerous middle class citizens.

Apparently the rich have a veto over policies they don’t like.

Frankly, I went to the website where the article was published, but was too cheap to pay the $30 they were charging to view it. My knowledge of the study comes from the abstract published by the site and an article by John Cassidy in the April 18, 2014 edition of “The New Yorker”.

The authors looked at 1,779 important issues between 1981 and 2002. They measured public opinion by looking at polls asking people whether they favored or opposed the issue. They compared these results with the relevant positions on the issues by corporate and other lobbying groups.

Their study investigated 1,779 issues between 1981 and 2002 when a national survey asked people whether they favor or oppose the proposed policy change. They then checked to see  if the polled public preferences had been turned into polices, or whether the interest-group positions had prevailed over what the public wanted.

When democracy still works

Democracy seems to be working when affluent citizens and middle class people want the same outcome. But the authors found when the wealthy supported a policy on one of the issues studied, their desires had about a 45% chance of being enacted. On the other hand, when the citizens at the top strata of the income spectrum oppose something, it has about an 18% chance of  becoming law.

Less than a 1% chance

Beyond this, the authors found that the public has little impact on whether a proposal is enacted. Absent support from the top, the chances of achieving a policy change are only about 0.3% — whether a small number of average citizens or a majority of them favor the proposal.

Now one is temped to conclude that the same principle is happening locally but on a smaller scale. I have no scientific study to support this claim or even much experience observing the local scene so far. I can only offer these items and let the reader draw his/her own conclusions. None of the things I cite had any impact on the recent council decision to rezone 21.6 acres on Joe B. Jackson from light to heavy industrial.

Petition results opposed rezoning

From May 12th until the end of June, I collected signatures on a petition, gathered at various public places that were all within the city limits. I didn’t keep records of rejection. But I estimate that at a minimum one in two people didn’t want me bothering them and blew me off. On the other hand, less than 5% of the people I talked to actually opposed the petition statement.

That statement said: “We oppose any rezoning to heavy industry on land that is within two miles of a neighborhood of 50 homes or more.” I collected 551 signatures for the statement, which would make the sample size at least 1,000 people.

That is about the size of the sample the Gallup Poll uses, but, of course, mine was not a random sample. Maybe the places i visited were packed with strong environmentalists. In any case, my petition had no effect on the outcome.

Ranked last among top 20 cities

A month earlier I interviewed a representative of the planning departments of the other 19 largest cities in Tenn. I found that political leaders here rank dead last when it comes to protecting homeowners from heavy industry. That conclusion was based on the 20-foot “Type E” buffer, which is the widest type of landscape buffer required under the city’s ordinance. You can see how this requirement compares with what other cities do by clicking:

A large turnout, and most opposed the rezoning

When the rezoning first came before the council, more than 61 people turned out for the meeting. Most opposed the change. Although the process took three more weeks, the protesting citizens had no influence on the outcome.

Finally, I visited the county election commission last spring to look at the most recent campaign reports of the council members. I came away with two conclusions. Some, but not all, campaigns are a lot more expensive than in the 1970s when I last covered local politics. There were no radio ads or campaign T Shirts in the city where I worked as a journalist.

Perhaps as a rule of thumb voters should be wary of candidates who can afford those T shirts and radio ads. They may be beholden to someone other than the voters.

Familiar names on donor lists

Second, several names on the donor lists have had business before the council since I began attending meetings. Other donors have not appeared before the council in my time there, but they are completing developments in the city.

These campaign reports are public record. Anyone reading this can go to the county elections office on the courthouse square and ask to see them. You just have to give the lady there a day or two to get them together.

I throw all this out not to be judgmental or argumentative. Rather it is the flip — or more realistic —  side -to that pep talk I gave last week on the importance of showing up at council and making your views known. Perhaps I should have spared my feet and saved all that money I spent on toner, paper, rubber bands and sandwich bags. It is a sadder but wiser bird who shares these thoughts with you.