TWENTY-FIVE years ago this week I sat across the desk from...

March 27, 1995|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

TWENTY-FIVE years ago this week I sat across the desk from the mayor of a big city who convinced me that the cities had a future after all.

I needed convincing, because I was on a reporting tour that took me to Newark, Detroit and Cleveland -- riot scarred and, to me, hopeless.

But the mayor of Indianapolis said he knew the key to urban salvation, and his ideas and his intellect converted me. I've been preaching his gospel ever since.

And what is the message? Merge the city and its suburban county! Indianapolis and Marion County had just done that, and Mayor Richard Lugar was in charge.

I thought of that interview early this month, when Senator Lugar announced he was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. One of the credentials he listed was having been a mayor of a major city for seven years.

Few mayors ever run for president. Only one has ever been elected president. (Take a guess, trivia buffs. Answer at the end. Don't peek.)

The last one to try was Hubert Humphrey, formerly mayor of Minneapolis, who lost the Democratic nomination (as did New York City Mayor John Lindsay) to George McGovern in 1972. Humphrey had won the presidential nomination in 1968 and in the general election came within 0.7 percent of the popular vote of the winner, Richard Nixon.

This year Senator Lugar is not the only ex-mayor running. California Gov. Pete Wilson was mayor of San Diego for 12 years. He said last week that he was forming a committee to "explore" a presidential campaign. That almost certainly means he'll make a run for it.

Lugar and Wilson were pretty successful mayors. Their cities have been pretty successful, too. San Diego passed Baltimore in population in the 1970s, and Indianapolis did in the early 1990s.

(Of course, if Baltimore were as spread out as either San Diego or Indianapolis, things would be different. Baltimore covers 80 square miles. San Diego covers 320. Indianapolis covers 352. Were Baltimore's city limits pushed out to include 300-plus miles, our population would definitely be greater than Indianapolis' and probably greater than San Diego's.)

Now, my ticket is Wilson-Lugar. Or Lugar-Wilson.

Would a double-mayor ticket turn off suburbanites? No. That's the point. Lugar and Wilson were elected mayor by city and suburban voters.

Would the ticket turn off non- metropolitan area residents? All I can say is, Senator Lugar is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Governor Wilson served on that committee with him when he was a senator.

Most mayors and most city voters are Democrats, but -- and here is the answer to the trivia question -- ironically the only mayor-president was the most Republican of Republicans, who was mayor of Northampton, Mass., 1910-1911, Calvin Coolidge.

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