GOP's Keyes wants self-governing neighborhoods Senate candidate stresses local control

July 23, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

GOP Senate candidate Alan Keyes has a radical vision of urban America: He wants to turn back the clock, transforming neighborhoods into small, self-governing villages reminiscent of those that dotted America a century ago.

Existing federal and local social programs, he told an audience in Baltimore yesterday, are controlled by "a bureaucratic totalitarianism . . . that subverts families, encourages dependencies and undermines the ability of folks to assert responsibility for themselves."

Inner-city residents, he has written, feel they have no stake in their neighborhoods, which are dominated by outside businesses and institutions. And they feel powerless to change things.

His prescription? Mr. Keyes envisions new neighborhood legislative councils, justices of the peace, courts and other institutions with the power to pass some laws, levy some taxes and punish offenders. Those institutions would, in some cases, replace existing local, state and federal agencies and in other cases supplement them.

At a conference on "empowerment" staged by his campaign at Coppin State College yesterday, Mr. Keyes invited Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp and five other community and social activists to discuss what they see as the failure of traditional housing, poverty, mental health and jobs programs.

Mr. Keyes told his audience of about 120 people that the effort to reshape or abolish the nation's social welfare bureaucracies was "the most important liberation movement that we have ever seen in this country."

While Mr. Keyes said his plan for restructuring government was inspired by Mr. Kemp, it would go much farther than anything the housing secretary has proposed.

Mr. Kemp, whose own views inspired Mr. Keyes, said he hadn't studied the proposal enough to comment on specifics.

But he added: "Keyes has the right concept and the right ideas. . . . Conceptually, it is a very progressive, small 'd' democratic idea."

In a recent article in the National Review, Mr. Keyes wrote that rioters in Los Angeles sacked businesses and institutions in their own communities, not out of blind rage but because those places "symbolized what they hated most -- outside influences, outside powers and the fact that outsiders dominate every aspect of their lives. . . .

"Because they [the poor] have power over nothing, nothing in their environment reflects their own image," he wrote. "Because they see themselves in nothing, it is not long before they see nothing in themselves." He calls this lack of identity the "anti-self."

Grass-roots community governments, he asserts, would combat this feeling of helplessness by giving people direct responsibility for running their neighborhoods.

"Only by participating in the decisions that shape their community do people experience first-hand the meaning of democratic power and the sense of responsibility it should entail," he wrote.

As Mr. Keyes describes them, these neighborhood governments would become miniature city halls.

"Each neighborhood should elect a neighborhood council or governing body, which would be empowered to pass ordinances concerning the peace, order and welfare of the neighborhood," he wrote. The council could "levy a small tax" on businesses and hire a staff.

Each neighborhood would also elect a sheriff or constable who would undergo police training -- although he or she would be subject to the jurisdiction of higher police agencies. Justices of the peace would judge those who violate neighborhood ordinances, and they would impose fines, confiscate property or order community service.

All social service programs would be administered through local councils, subject to some oversight by the state and federal governments.

Mr. Keyes noted that liberals first promoted the idea of community self-government as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" programs in the 1960s. "But when these experiments in democratic self-government threatened existing political arrangements," he wrote, power over social programs was shifted to what he called Soviet-style bureaucracies.

Republicans, Mr. Keyes admits, aren't sure what to make of his proposal.

And a specialist on poverty programs, in a telephone interview yesterday, questioned the assumptions underlying Mr. Keyes' ideas.

Lawrence A. Mead of New York University, a critic of both liberal and conservative views of poverty, said that, in general, "empowerment" schemes were "self-contradictory, because it isn't in the power of the federal government or an outside agency to empower somebody else."

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