Return of the urban Republicans

August 24, 1993

If the Republican Party is to become again a governing party at all levels and all sections of this country, and not perennial second place in Congress and legislatures, it must say something positive to cities, in cities and for cities. It is not enough to be suburban. The Republicans have to win cities and city people. This, as it turns out, the Republican Party is starting to do.

Memory hearkens to past urban champions of the Grand Old Party. There was "President Nixon's favorite mayor," from Indianapolis, now Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. There was the famous "mayor who built San Diego's light rail without federal aid," now Gov. Pete Wilson of California. And there is Mayor William Althaus of York, Pa., last year's president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

But suddenly the prospects are bigger than Indianapolis, San Diego and York. The politics of the biggest cities is tilting in a contrarian manner. Tinged with tax rebellion, racial backlash and endemic crime, urban voters are attracted to a sort of candidate they shunned previously. A 63-year-old venture capitalist named Richard Riordan got elected mayor of Los Angeles in June. He was a white conservative Republican beating an Asian-American Democrat to succeed a pioneering African-American Democrat, Mayor Tom Bradley.

Mr. Riordan was quick to proclaim himself a mayor for all people and to bid them come together. If there is a message, a program for revitalization of the cities that a conservative Republican can make work, he must do it. And if he can, the results will influence the 1996 federal election, when President Clinton seeks re-election counting heavily on the urban vote.

Even Los Angeles can be topped. New York, for all the cracks in its pavement, is still the Big Apple. Like Los Angeles, it has endured trauma and strife between ethnic groups. Mayor David N. Dinkins, liberal and Democrat in the normal mold, won a squeaker four years ago over Rudolph Giuliani to become New York's first African-American mayor. He has been a decent if laid-back exponent of New York's "beautiful mosaic," but out-to-lunch when trouble struck.

Now Mr. Giuliani, a tough former U.S. Attorney, is going like gangbusters to unseat Mr. Dinkins. A lot of Jewish voters who went to Mr. Dinkins four years ago are leaning to Mr. Giuliani today. And Mr. Giuliani is sounding like a real Republican, running against the hotel tax, claiming its removal would revive tourism, not saying where substitute revenue might be found.

It is not enough for Mr. Giuliani to win the election. He would need to show that fiscal conservatism and lowered expectations can bring revival in cities. If he can do that, the reverberations will be felt far and wide -- perhaps even in Baltimore.

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