Clinton defers payment of debt to U.S. mayors ON POLITICS



NEW YORK -- When the U.S. Conference of Mayors held its annual meeting in Houston a year ago, candidate Bill Clinton's campaign was at its nadir. He was running third behind both George Bush and Ross Perot and his support had slipped to 20 percent.

But the mayors, the vast majority of them Democrats, gave his economic program a rousing reception. Moreover, the black mayors in particular gave Clinton a politically significant pass by ignoring a raging controversy with Jesse Jackson over Sister Souljah.

Thus, Clinton incurred a substantial political debt to the big city mayors -- one that he is pointedly not paying off at their annual meeting here this year. Rather than accept their invitation to the conference, he limited himself to a 20-minute closed-circuit television appearance.

Ordinarily, such a snub would inspire a lot of high dudgeon from the Democratic mayors. It is the kind of thing they came to expect from Ronald Reagan and George Bush but not from the first Democratic president in 12 years.

On the contrary, however, what is striking here this week is that most of them are prepared to give him a pass once again. Privately, some of them are complaining about the White House failure to pass the jobs-stimulus package stymied by Republicans in the Senate and about what they see as a dangerous incompetence in the new administration.

But publicly they are making a point of turning the other cheek. Thus, for example, when the White House asked Mayor Paul Soglin of Madison, Wis., a devout liberal, to back off his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, he accepted language that made the resolution a highly qualified endorsement of NAFTA. "I didn't want to put another nail in his coffin," Soglin said later.

The mayors have not forgotten they are owed one. As Raymond Flynn, the mayor of Boston about to become ambassador to the Vatican, put it, "you have to continue to remind everyone in the White House . . . that it was the cities" that won the election for him by providing such lopsided Democratic margins.

And a few mayors, most notably the influential Richard M. Daley of Chicago, have been outspokenly critical of the performance of the administration. But Daley's complaint is focused less on the failure to get more federal aid for jobs than on the slow pace of the Clinton White House in taking over the bureaucracy and making decisions. "It's not the money," Daley said, "it's that they haven't taken over."

But the most common attitude was reflected by the conference president, Republican William Althaus of York, Pa., who said of his fellow mayors, "We don't want to forget he's the only friend we've got."

Democratic Mayor Jerry Abramson of Louisville, the incoming president of the conference, said the problem was that "expectations were in the stratosphere" and Clinton hasn't been able to deliver on them. But, he points out, there are two former mayors in the Cabinet -- Henry Cisneros of San Antonio as secretary of Housing and Federico Pena of Denver as secretary of Transportation -- and "we've got people who are listening to us."

The conciliatory attitude of the mayors seems to be largely reflective of what they hear from their own constituents -- that voters want to give the new president more time to deliver on his promise of change. "They want to give him a chance," said Chicago's Daley.

Clinton could have helped things along with the mayors simply by making an appearance here. The official explanation that he had to be in Washington because of the delicate state of the deliberations over his economic program in the Senate is not very convincing. And even having four Cabinet members on the program -- Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown as well as Cisneros and Pena -- is not a substitute for the president.

The down side of such an appearance would have been, of course, the possibility Republicans would picture it as more evidence of Clinton placating liberal constituencies of his party at the expense of the middle class and the political center.

But the fact is that Clinton owes the mayors a political debt, and he is going to have to pay it sooner or later. The patience they were showing here this week won't last forever.

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