GOP in City Hall?

September 28, 1993

Richard Riordan, a sexagenarian, white, male, capitalist Republican is the mayor of Los Angeles, elected in June. David N. Dinkins is seeking a second term as mayor of New York and is a slight underdog to former U.S. Attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, another Republican.

If this is the year the Democrats regained the White House, a Republican preserve, it is also the year the Republicans stopped talking about taking back the city halls and started doing it. Their prophet was Mayor William Althaus of York, Pa., the Republican who headed the U.S. Conference of Mayors last year.

Most of the mayors are still Democrats and several cities like Detroit, which just held a primary to replace Mayor Coleman Young, have nominally nonpartisan elections. But the Republicans now hold the mayoralty of the new Second City (Los Angeles surpassed Chicago in the 1990 Census) and are assaulting the Big Apple itself. This could be a trend.

Republicans have won in New York before (Fiorello H. LaGuardia in the 1930s and John V. Lindsay in the 1960s) but they were notably liberal. Mr. Giuliani projects a more traditionally GOP image. Republicans formerly seemed content with suburban votes and the reputation of not caring about cities. To become again a national majority party, the GOP needs to speak in the cities to city people with answers to city needs, among other things.

As yet, no one can talk of a Republican approach to the city halls, though former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp tried valiantly to create a positive Republican urban policy at the federal level.

If this comes about -- irony of ironies -- one of the reasons will be strictly personality. Mr. Dinkins is a nice and good man in his public projection, personifying civility where it is most needed. But he is over his head in an impossible job, and not so civil to his own staff. He has been inept on a number of matters, most notably the Crown Heights riots of two years ago. None of this makes Mr. Giuliani better, but might make him mayor. Mr. Dinkins beat Mr. Giuliani by only two percent of the vote in 1989, and disaffection among his previous supporters is greater than that.

New York has gone for conservative political messages before. Mayor Edward I. Koch, though a Democrat, was a master of them. Now the more conservative Republican Party is winning back city halls after decades of Democrats taking them for granted. And to have a permanent impact and spread to such places as Baltimore, the Republicans have to do more than just win scattered municipal elections. They have to use Republican policies to make those cities better places, and that they have yet to do.

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