Digging out from city woes, mayors again political force

National conference finds heads of big municipalities are no longer disparaged

January 29, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After serving as governor of California and making several runs at the presidency, a graying Jerry Brown searched last year for a public office where he could have the most direct impact on the problems plaguing America.

So the liberal Democrat with national name recognition became the mayor of Oakland.

Brown joined hundreds of his colleagues here this week at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, being held when big-city mayors seem to be gaining respect again.

Years after factory jobs dwindled, crack cocaine arrived and cuts in federal aid crippled the cities and turned the office of mayor into a thankless, no-win, dead-end job, big-city mayors are back in the forefront of American politics.

Credited with turning his city around, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is talked about as a formidable candidate to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

And Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, whose work to revitalize his city is chronicled in a book that's received national attention, is leaving office this year seen as a possible candidate for everything from governor to U.S. senator.

"I think that's really where the action is," San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, former California Assembly speaker, said of being mayor.

Mayors say their image has been burnished for a few reasons: Because of the monumental problems facing big cities -- such as the exodus of residents, high property taxes and the explosion of drug-fueled gun violence -- mayors have had to meet the urban challenges by being innovative.

Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith became famous in government circles for forcing city workers to compete with private companies to handle city services.

Rendell gained notoriety for challenging city unions, which helped pull his city from potential bankruptcy to ending the most recent fiscal year with a $169 million budget surplus.

And Giuliani's administration may be remembered best for the creation of the "zero tolerance" crime-fighting strategy.

That plan has served as a model for other mayors and has helped big cities lower the murder rate as police enforce minor crimes -- to trip repeat criminals before they commit more serious offenses.

"Mayors have demonstrated the ability to get things done and change things," New Orleans Mayor Marc H. Morial said.

"The federal government has been proven incompetent," said Jerry Brown, who was California governor during the 1970s. "Our cities have been abandoned.

"It's certainly true in Baltimore and Philadelphia and a hundred other cities that there is real deprivation that is incompatible with an affluent country like America. It's up to the mayors to sear the conscience of the nation."

Mayors here, however, acknowledge that their return has been helped by President Clinton.

Because most of the mayors in America's major cities are Democrats, Clinton has formed a partnership with urban leaders that mayors say was missing during the 12 years of the Reagan and Bush administrations.

From dedicating hundreds of millions of dollars to empowerment zones, to lure jobs back to the city, to increasing federal funding for more police officers on city streets, Clinton has been a friend to mayors.

Although the spotlight of American politics has begun to shine again on mayors, Baltimore's first open mayoral race in close to 30 years has failed to attract the expected flood of candidates.

Almost two months after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced that he would not seek re-election this year, the story of Baltimore's mayoral race has been more about who is not running than who is.

Mayors such as Chicago's Richard M. Daley say that although the office of mayor has been resurrected to match the days when men such as Philadelphia's Frank Rizzo; New York's Edward I. Koch; and Daley's father, Richard J. Daley, were national figures, the office can easily swallow political careers.

Baltimore's next mayor faces intractable problems, including more than 300 murders a year, 59,000 city residents addicted to drugs, a property tax rate double that of every other jurisdiction in the state and a city school system that is considered the worst in Maryland.

One misstep could quickly turn into political quicksand, Daley said.

"In very rare circumstances do mayors jump into larger political offices, because they make decisions," Daley said.

"And when you make a decision, some people are upset and some people are happy. If you have 60 percent happy, you still have 40 percent upset."

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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