Suburban politics

January 27, 1998|By Richard Miniter

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- For the first time in U.S. history, nearly half of the population lives in suburbs, and that simple fact is changing the nation's political priorities. If you live in a major city, your concerns are no longer at the top of the heap.

While the number of Americans living in cities stayed a flat 31 percent from 1975 to 1995, the number residing in suburbs grew from 37 percent in 1975 to 47 percent in 1995, according to U.S. Census Bureau reports.

Growing trend

Meanwhile, cities are losing their political clout. The unprecedented population shift to the suburbs is only one factor. Urban residents disproportionately tend to be members of minority groups and recent immigrants. These are groups that typically give less money to political campaigns and vote less often than suburban residents.

Also, business owners and managers, a key building block of any political power base, are moving to the suburbs.

If the suburbs are beginning to set the nation's political agenda, what can we expect to change? Some public-policy shifts are obvious. Support for mass-transit subsidies and public-housing construction will probably wither.

Congress and the president will pay increasing attention to the issues that suburbanites say they care most about: improving education, curbing crime and trimming taxes.

The suburban voter also has some surprises for the urban political observer. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the new political potency of cars.

Why? To be a suburbanite is to be almost always on the road -- traveling to work, school, supermarkets and soccer games.

More than 19 million suburban households have two or more cars. The political power of the suburbs -- and the suburbanite love of cars -- has already been seen in November's gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, two of the nation's most suburbanized states.

In Virginia, Republican Jim Gilmore won by a landslide after calling for an end to the car tax -- an unpopular twice-yearly levy on the value of one's car.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Republican Gov. Christy Todd Whitman eked out a narrow 1 percent victory against state Sen. Jim McGreevey, who promised to trim the cost of the nation's most expensive auto insurance.

Mr. Gilmore's victory ''will be the model for races around this country in 1998,'' predicts Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Political strategists are meeting all over Washington to figure out how to apply the Gilmore model to the 1998 House and Senate races.

One idea being debated is ending the federal 19-cent per gallon tax on gasoline, which funds pork-barrel highway ''demonstration'' projects in a handful of districts and subsidizes mass transit.

To an increasingly suburbanized electorate, stopping the federal gasoline tax might be just the ticket to victory in the 1998 congressional races.

Richard Miniter is an Alexandria, Va.-based writer and radio-TV producer.

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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