Mayors to the Fore

January 04, 1993

President-elect Clinton's appointment of Henry G. Cisneros as secretary of Housing and Urban Development and of Federico F. Pena as secretary of Transportation attracted most attention because of their Hispanic roots. In time we suspect another thing they have in common will prove more significant: They are both former mayors.

It is rare for two former chief executives of cities to serve in a president's cabinet. It occurred at the end of the Carter administration. But not even one has graced the table in the past two administrations. The change in two federal departments with substantial impact in the cities should be striking after 12 years of low priority to urban issues.

Despite some creditable efforts by Jack Kemp, the departing HUD secretary, the Bush administration's record on urban problems is dismal. The Reagan administration's record was even worse: a mixture of corruption, incompetence and not-so-benign neglect. Transportation fared a little better under the Republicans, though the department was never blessed with an abundance of talented leadership. And the transit needs of urban areas slipped down on their list of urgent problems.

In Mr. Cisneros and Mr. Pena, the nation's mayors will find sympathetic and understanding ears. While President-elect Clinton will not have an abundance of money to pour into the cities, his focus on rebuilding the nation's infrastructure opens the door to urban initiatives. Both have largely successful -- though not uncontroversial -- records, Mr. Cisneros as a four-term mayor of San Antonio and Mr. Pena as two-term mayor of Denver. Both get high marks as thoughtful as well as energetic mayors. Mr. Cisneros may be more the egghead, but Mr. Pena probably has a better developed instinct for high-impact public projects.

Baltimoreans -- and, increasingly, their close-in neighbors in Baltimore County -- know how much needs to be done in housing, economic development and mass transportation. These elements of domestic policy must be blended in the sort of political and economic synergy that has been conspicuously lacking for more than a decade. Having two energetic, relatively young leaders at HUD and Transportation, who have so recently learned at first hand what the cities need, is the best news Baltimoreans have had in years.

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