No one can accuse Alan L. Keyes, the Maryland Republican running against Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, of campaigning on vague platitudes. The outspoken former diplomat and college instructor has devoted much campaign attention this year to an issue that is probably more familiar to academics and community organizers than it is to ordinary voters. The political scientists call it "empowerment;" Mr. Keyes calls it "grass roots community self-government."
Sounds like a sleep-inducer. But it is, in fact, a truly radical idea: shifting some real governmental powers to elected officials at the neighborhood level. Not just passing judgment on cosmetic changes to people's homes, as many neighborhood associations But passing laws, enforcing them with constables, imposing taxes to pay for them, punishing minor miscreants and dispensing public funds. The argument is not as outlandish as it may seem at first glance. Some cities around the country have already delegated to elected neighborhood associations meaningful authority and significant power to influence government decisions.
Mr. Keyes' idea is certainly controversial. Most urban experts, in the universities as well as in government, think he carries the germ of a good idea to an outlandish extreme. Even people with decades of experience in neighborhood self-government shudder at the thought of community law enforcement or taxing powers. And some hark back to the community action agencies of the '60s, many of which dissolved in anarchy, as models not to be emulated 30 years later.