A Passionate, Innovative Friend of Cities Loses 'Lift'

April 03, 1995|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- A cloud of gloom has settled among associates of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros. They fear that whether or not a special prosecutor finds that he tried to mislead the FBI, his political effectiveness has been irreparably compromised.

Their reaction -- and ours -- should be different. It should be outrage that a case is being pursued against Henry Cisneros at all.

Here is a man never accused of misusing his public offices, local or federal, for any kind of personal gain. A man who lives a modest personal life. Who cares enough about poor people to spend nights in homeless shelters, or public-housing projects.

Few people in public life have as big a heart, or as strong a civic consciousness.

I am prejudiced on this score, and admit it. Mr. Cisneros has been a friend ever since he was a freshman mayor of San Antonio. I liked then, and still do, his affection and care for cities -- their meaning for people, for our civilization. And his optimistic belief that even the poorest among us, with the right ''lift'' -- lift is perhaps Mr. Cisneros' favorite word -- can become self-sufficient, capable, contributing members of our society.

After stepping down as mayor of San Antonio in the '80s, Mr. Cisneros agreed to become chairman of the National Civic League, working (without pay, of course) to help a group of us scope out the profound changes affecting America today and rejuvenate a century-old organization dedicated to a broadened citizens' role in our democracy.

I've had a chance to cover HUD secretaries since the Carter administration. From Patricia Roberts Harris to Jack Kemp, all (save the disastrous Samuel Pierce) spoke with passion and conviction about our cities. All were defenders of our urban poor.

But none equaled Mr. Cisneros' grasp of the intricacies of federal housing law. None confessed the full arrogance and aloofness of the HUD bureaucracy, as he has. None was willing, as Mr. Cisneros now has, to demand a total reinvention of the department -- even while insisting it be more assertive than ever in trying to stamp out discrimination in mortgage financing and renting.

The Cisneros reinvention formula seeks to sweep 60 HUD grant programs into three block grants -- one for production of affordable housing, one for community economic development, a third to replace public housing as we've known it with a free-market-oriented program of housing vouchers placed directly in low-income renters' hands.

HUD is ready to stand its old ways on their head under Mr. Cisneros. He promises to forsake HUD micromanagement as ''an approver of applications in 60 different programs,'' and

instead invite communities to develop inventive blends of local government, business and charitable funds with appropriate federal programs.

No other federal department has gone so far with a '90s-style government ''reinvention'' scenario.

There's great danger that the congressional Republicans' budget moves -- hitting HUD harder than any other agency, terminating new housing vouchers, hitting the homeless, summer jobs and homeownership counseling -- will make mincemeat of all of Secretary Cisneros' promises.

Undaunted, he recently told a Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation conference to expect a new Clinton-administration initiative aimed at achieving, by 2000, a 65.5 percent homeownership rate among Americans. Not only would 65.5 percent match the all-time high hit in 1980, argues Mr. Cisneros, it would also build strong neighborhoods by giving millions (including many minorities) a ticket to equity and financial security.

To that one can add Mr. Cisneros' rare belief, in today's politics, that entire metropolitan regions, not just inner cities, must contribute to desegregating our society, racially and economically.

Other than New Jersey's Sen. Bill Bradley, we lack another national leader speaking with Mr. Cisneros' eloquence of the perils of a socially, racially splintered America -- and the benefits of one that's more cohesive and opportunity-oriented.

Yet now a three-judge court is to appoint a special prosecutor to decide if Mr. Cisneros lied about the size of his payments to a former mistress (during a time he was a private citizen). This may become a felony offense if it's determined (and of course could then be proved in court) that this was done with the intent of misleading President Clinton and Congress in the appointment and confirmation process.

What have we come to? Super-moral tests for public officeholders? Give anyone 40 to 50 years of life and there'll likely be some skeleton in the closet, some incidents one would like to keep veiled.

Unless there's a legitimate issue of the public trust, do we want to exclude all those people from public life? If so, many of the most promising leaders of our generation will be kept away from government. Indeed, thousands already fear the hot white light of publicity and stay away. We're threatened with government by mediocrities, to satisfy purists.

Maybe the special-prosecutor law should be amended to allow a Committee of Common Sense to issue a limited number of dispensations in the public interest. We need some device to save us from our own laws, to give us a better shot at recruiting and keeping leaders of true vision.

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

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