Fresh Air in City Hall

NEAL R. PEIRCE

November 08, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Nineteen ninety-three will likely be remembered as a watershed year in America's urban politics.

It is not just that Rudolph Giuliani, a tough-talking ex-prosecutor, upset David Dinkins to become New York's first Republican mayor in more than a quarter-century.

Or that vividly multiracial Los Angeles last spring decided to give the mayoralty relinquished by Tom Bradley, a black Democrat, to Richard Riordan, a white Republican businessman.

Or that Detroit's Dennis Archer, a black centrist talking rapprochement with the overwhelmingly white suburbs, last Tuesday defeated Sharon McPhail, who was the hand-picked successor of outgoing Mayor Coleman Young and who ran a ''blacker-than-thou'' campaign.

In contest after contest, victory has gone to mayoral candidates who eschew talk of race and instead espouse tax restraint, reform of big bureaucracies, tougher bargaining with municipal unions and stronger police departments to make the streets safer.

More of the new-style candidates happen to be white -- in four years whites have in fact replaced black mayors in four of the nation's five largest cities (Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago). But landslide re-election victories went last Tuesday to two black incumbents who have governed imaginatively, and in almost color-blind fashion -- Norman Rice in Seattle and Michael White in Cleveland.

Hartford (Conn.) voters dumped their contentious three-term black mayor, Carrie Saxon Perry, who called for ''redistribution'' of wealth to have-nots, in favor of Michael Peters, a white firefighter who said he'd focus on rebuilding City Hall ties to alienated businesses and homeowners.

Pittsburgh gave a strong victory to Thomas Murphy, who pledged to reorganize city government to make it ''customer-friendly.'' Two popular white incumbents, Jerry Abramson in Louisville and Bob Lanier in Houston, were overwhelmingly re-elected.

But savvy blacks scored breakthroughs, as in predominantly white Minneapolis, where Sharon Sayles Belton easily beat a white male opponent who harped single-mindedly on law and order.

Voting by racial bloc has by no means disappeared. Running four years ago, Mr. Giuliani got 7 percent of the black vote. This time he got only 3 percent. He won by slight shifts in the Latino and white vote.

The best overall analysis of the year may have been a comment David Axelrod, a Chicago political consultant, made to the New York Times: ''I think people desperately want leaders who will make cities work, and they will take them in whatever shapes, sizes and colors they come in.''

Jim Sleeper, writing in the New Republic before Election Day, divided today's urban world, with its melange of white, black, Latino and Asian voters, into Rainbow I and Rainbow II.

Mr. Dinkins, in this view, was the last of the Rainbow I group that began in the '60s with such racial-breakthrough mayors as Richard Hatcher in Gary, Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Coleman Young in Detroit, Harold Washington in Chicago and Marion Barry in the District of Columbia. These were ''broad-shouldered veterans of elemental, often brutal struggles for racial justice,'' most of whom won initially ''against unyielding white hostility.''

But now, says Mr. Sleeper, we have Rainbow II mayors -- many, ironically, white men. They're candidates who successfully draw many non-white votes ''by touting a can-do pragmatism and a common civic identity that is more than the sum of skin tones, genders, sexual orientations and resentments.''

Chicago's Richard M. Daley was an early member of this class, in 1989 defeating Alderman Timothy Evans, who enjoyed the enthusiastic support of Rainbow Coalition creator Jesse Jackson. In 1991 the trend continued with Edward Rendell, like Mr. Giuliani an ex-prosecutor, who preached fiscal austerity to stave off municipal bankruptcy. Mr. Rendell campaigned heavily in black areas and won 20 percent of the black vote against three black primary opponents before defeating a Republican to succeed Philadelphia's first black mayor, Wilson Goode.

Houston's Mr. Lanier, also winning in 1991, fit the same mold, as did Republican Wall Street investor Bret Schundler, who last spring won the mayoralty of heavily minority Jersey City by capturing 40 percent of the black and 60 percent of the Latino vote.

Mayor Dinkins' defeat is attributed by many to his failure of leadership during protracted black boycotts of Korean stores and rioting against Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights. But Mr. Dinkins also failed to restructure New York's top-heavy, highly inefficient government bureaucracy, even as the red ink rose about him.

Voters may lack sophistication in how tough it is to downsize entrenched bureaucracies or tangle with powerful city unions. But instinctively, they seem to detect the need for a new day, and to be voting for it.

Some of the Rainbow II candidates now being elected may, in time, fail and lose office. But Messrs. Daley in Chicago, Rendell in Philadelphia, Lanier in Houston, White in Cleveland are more ,, popular now than the day they were first elected. Given the daunting nature of leading any big city in the '90s, that says a lot.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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