Politics in the United States of Ambition

NEAL R. PEIRCE

May 13, 1991|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

When a 27-year-old disc jockey responds to a listener's dare, runs for mayor and upsets a competent, hard-working 63-year-old incumbent, you have to figure it's grave news for the political establishment.

That's precisely what the 1974 election of Rick Knobe as mayor of the old stockyards and trade town of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, represented. For decades a benign cabal of realtors, lawyers, bankers, members of the country club all, had ruled Sioux Falls, balancing budgets, building a new airport, pushing downtown renewal.

But since the 1974 upset, stability has vanished. Old city commissioners have been ousted, their replacements tainted with scandal. Political power, once tightly held, has been ricocheting back and forth between organized labor, the local branch of the National Women's Political Caucus and a conservative anti-tax league.

A proposed convention center, labeled as a plot of the ''downtown crowd,'' was defeated. The local paper sold out to the Gannett chain which sent in outsiders with little background, or clout, in town.

The atomization of power in Sioux Falls is one of Alan Ehrenhalt's clever depictions of the '70s-to-'90s flip-flop of American politics in his just-released book, ''The United States of Ambition'' (Times Books). It's the kind of book you read and suddenly see politics in a brand new perspective.

We've all watched power disperse six ways to Sunday in our hometowns, state legislatures, even Congress -- and wondered why. It's simple, says Mr. Ehrenhalt. The old hometown establishments, the political parties, the bosses who used to set the rules, the parameters of political debate, have imploded. We won't stand for them any more. We're into an anti-organization, anti-hero age.

So who rushes in to fill the void? Self-nominated politicos, that's who -- thousands of local replicas of Jimmy Carter who ''came out of nowhere,'' out-maneuvered his opposition and seized the presidency.

No ''screening committee'' of politicians or town fathers sorts out today's hopefuls. Instead we get candidates willing to forsake all else for sunrise-to-twilight door-to-door campaigning. The result: ''careerist'' politicians with no other job -- no law firm, no farm, no family store -- to fall back on. Cast too tough a vote, risk some decision that would roil a key constituent group, offend some well-oiled special interest, and you could find yourself unemployed. There's no party, no boss, no local establishment to take care of you if you lose.

To illustrate the resulting paralysis, Mr. Ehrenhalt notes how congressmen keep preaching balanced budgets but never pass one, talk up a national energy policy but never write one. Or how state legislators avoid tax votes like some kind of bubonic plague.

Mr. Ehrenhalt, even a touch nostalgic about boss rule, recalls how Connecticut Democrat John Bailey's machine in 1959 decided it was time to cut back radically on state trial courts and abolish 66 municipal judgeships outright. Bailey also demanded reform of Connecticut's antiquated 1666-vintage county government system. Reluctantly, Democrats in the legislature went along. In today's political free-for-all, in Connecticut and elsewhere, such fundamental reform is nearly inconceivable.

My own travels keep turning up an equally paralyzing political disease -- rampant parochialism among the cities, towns and counties of a single metropolitan region.

With the old-power establishments dispersed, how do we ever gather our wits as a society and pave the way for imaginative decisions that serve the public good instead of some interest's private advantage? Communities plagued by bulging prisons, soaring child poverty, unraveling infrastructure can't afford to let parochialism and timid careerism do them in.

Strong parties, bosses or ''establishments'' are not about to return. But there's one chance for coalescence, at least on the metropolitan level. Minneapolis-St. Paul, Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City and Seattle are among the urban areas with metropolitan-wide citizens' organizations that form issue task forces which try to develop policy solutions aimed at strengthening all parts of a region. Quality metro-wide citizens' organizations can hold politicians' feet to the fire on key issues. Just as critically, they can defend far-sighted politicians who come under special-interest fire.

A common shortcoming of such groups is elitism -- a surfeit of well educated civic junkies but few minorities or Joe Sixpack types. That could be corrected if foundations and public-spirited corporations provided citizen groups with funds to organize a full cross-section of active participants. A fraction of the money spent on any race for county executive or mayor would do the job.

My guess is thousands of citizens, inner-city and suburban, are deeply concerned about the future of their region and would like to work on ''win-win,'' metro-wide solutions. Citizen power has helped us reform before; maybe it could again.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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