Reagan's Babies Come of Age

March 24, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

PHOENIX — Phoenix.--Just one of Tom's Tavern's pancakes for Paul Johnson's breakfast today, a day with little heavy lifting. In two hours he will resign as mayor and begin seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. He draws the eye not only because he is so young (34) and tall (6-feet-7) but also because he is a species more frequently celebrated than sighted -- a New Democrat, the sort suited to rise in the only state that has voted Republican in 11 consecutive presidential elections.

During his term no tax was increased, property taxes were trimmed a tad, the number of city employees declined by about 500, and in 1993 for the first time ever the city spent less than in the year before. But parsimony, although virtuous, is, as virtue often is, more admirable than fascinating.

What makes Mayor Johnson and kindred spirits in city halls across the country worth watching are their responses to the challenge formulated by Philadelphia's Democratic Mayor Ed Rendell: The governments of cities can be put in order; the larger problem is putting the residents of cities in order.

Mr. Johnson's various attempts to do so have made him, he says, ''an equal-opportunity defendant.'' The National Rifle Association has gone to court to challenge an ordinance requiring parental consent for a youth to carry a gun. (Parents who consent must be an interesting bunch.) And the American Civil Liberties Union has challenged the new curfew requiring youths 15 and younger to be off the streets at 10 p.m. and 16- and 17-year-olds by midnight.

Most cities, Mr. Johnson says, have curfew laws, they just are not enforced. By enforcing a curfew he says the city helps parents who are intimidated by their own children who are gang members. He remembers the, well, stimulating ride home with his father when Phoenix's old curfew was enforced on him when he was 16. And speaking of bonding moments, Mayor Johnson's proposed parental-responsibility agenda would require parents to be present for half of the hours of community service that their children are sentenced to serve.

In schools with disciplinary problems, Mr. Johnson favors dress codes, for three reasons. Codes weaken the influence of gangs, which build solidarity with their own uniforms. Dress codes narrow the visible disparities between children from poor and affluent families. And dress codes acquaint adolescents with standards, sometimes for the first time.

Adolescents, he says, are going to push against rules. So give them some rules to push against, lest they find themselves in such an unconstraining environment that they cannot find a way to rebel until they get guns.

''The increase in crime,'' he says, ''is directly related to the loss of the front-porch swing.'' That is, safe streets are apt to be full of watching, mingling people. ''Today people come home in the evening, go in the house, bolt the front door, turn on the TV. If they go out, it is to the back yard.'' So as part of his general policy of ''pushing decision-making down,'' he has organized neighborhoods for crime prevention, distributing such low-tech tools as T-shirts and flashlights.

But what, then, about the police? A decade ago, he says, a person annoyed by a neighbor's barking dog called the police, who preferred it that way. The police, wanting to preserve the peace, believed, says Mr. Johnson, ''Don't talk to your neighbor, call us.'' But the result was a diminished sense of community, and an unreasonable expectation -- that government can cope with every barking dog.

The mayor illustrates the headache Republicans are having because the country has moved so far in their direction. Americans are much more conservative than they were when Ronald Reagan was elected president, and young Democrats, like Paul Johnson, reflect the fact that their politically formative years were the Reagan years.

Not long ago the phrase ''big-city mayor'' called to mind a Democrat practicing the redistributive politics of buying constituencies to assemble majorities. Mayor Johnson certainly has been mayor of a big city: Phoenix is supplanting Detroit as the nation's eighth-largest city. But he is a far cry from a Sun Belt version of the senior Richard Daley.

And he represents a national tendency: almost anything done by government at the local level is apt to be more interesting than almost everything done by government at the national level.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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