Nation's mayors plan a different kind of parade On Politics Today

Jack W. Dermond & Jules Witcover

August 13, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Hyannis, Mass. -- WITH THE last of the great Persian Gulf war victory parades apparently over, leaders of the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting here the other day voted to stage a parade of their own of a markedly different sort in Washington next April. If it happens, President Bush, who found so much pleasure in the gulf victory parades, isn't going to like it.

The bipartisan group voted, 15-12, to have the Conference of Mayors take the lead in organizing a massive march on April 4, the 24th anniversary of the death of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to protest cuts in federal aid to cities and children's programs. Although there was general agreement among Republican and Democratic mayors that Bush has given short shrift to urban and child-care problems, Republicans before the vote expressed concern that such a march would have a distinctly partisan tinge, and it is hard to see how it can be otherwise.

Several speakers at the two-day meeting here, including the most prominent guest, New York's Gov. Mario Cuomo, took pains to blame "Washington" -- meaning the Democratic-controlled Congress as well as the Republican-held White House -- for neglect of the cities. But because the focus of such a march will be opposition to cuts in federal programs pressed conspicuously by the Bush administration, the president inevitably will be the prime target.

Although Mayor Ray Flynn of Boston, chairman of the mayors' conference, announced confidently that the protest parade will take place and that it will be big, doubts were expressed by some mayors, and by Cuomo, whether the organization had the ability to put together a march of sufficient size to make an impression on Bush and Congress. If it was able to do so, Cuomo said, "I'd be pleased to participate."

The lack of federal aid to the cities and states, in the wake of federal programs being dumped on them by the Bush administration, was Cuomo's central gripe in his speech here, so such a march would seem to be right up his alley. The timing, however, could be dicey for him, in the midst of the 1992 presidential primary season, especially if he adheres to his current position that he has "no plans to make plans" to run. If the Democratic presidential picture remains a blur by then, his presence would certainly put increased pressure on him to be a candidate.

Although the march was advertised by Flynn as a bipartisan affair, the Democratic dominance of the U.S. Conference of Mayors is likely to make it difficult to maintain a bipartisan flavor in an election year. In a letter to the president asking him to meet this fall with a small bipartisan group of mayors to discuss "the need for a renewed national urban agenda," Flynn adopted a lecturing tone.

"It was right for us to help the Kuwaiti people rid themselves of Saddam Hussein," Flynn wrote, "and it is sensible for us to help the Soviet Union rid themselves of communism. Now it is time to put our own house in order."

Flynn, recalling Bush's inaugural speech observation that the country has "more will than wallet," told him: "Well, there are choices. We are spending money on troops in Norway, missiles in the Middle East, aid for the Soviet Union, rescuing the savings and loans, and adding more bureaucrats in Washington. But when it comes time to help poor and needy Americans, or working families, who are all in trouble, Washington seems to have no sense of urgency."

Behind the concern that the mayors' organization may not have the wherewithal to mobilize a truly impressive march is an awareness that unless it is more than the run-of-the-mill Washington march it will be a waste of time. Flynn says he sees it as the start of "a new civil rights movement in America," and the originator of the idea, former Newsweek magazine editor Osborn Elliott, urged the mayors to draw a million citizens to "a huge parade of protest by the cities of this country against the indifference of our federal government."

In a play on President Bush's celebrated "thousand points of light" call for volunteerism, Elliott told the mayors the march could be "a million points of protest." But he included the Democratic Congress as well, which he said "has acquiesced in the butchery" on federal aid to the cities and children. A massive bipartisan protest march in an election year, however, may be more easily talked about than achieved.

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