Urban Politics Changes Complexion

Cities have different problems from suburbs. Suburbs worry about overdevelopment and attracting too many people. Cities worry about having too little development and losing population. Suburbs worry about spending revenue. Cities worry about finding revenue.

These days, most Americans live in the suburbs. But 2001 is a big year for mayoral elections, with nearly 500. Five of the nation's 10 largest cities—New York, Los Angeles, Houston, San Antonio, and Detroit—are electing mayors this year. Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Miami, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Seattle are, too.

The urban agenda has changed over the past 10 years. Look at New York and Los Angeles, the nation's two largest cities. They both have Republican mayors with high job ratings who cannot run for another term. Eight years ago, racial tension had a lot to do with getting Rudy Giuliani elected in New York after the Crown Heights protests, and Richard Riordan elected in Los Angeles after the Rodney King violence.

But racial tension is down this year. The front-runner in next month's nonpartisan mayoral primary in Los Angeles, city attorney James Hahn, is a white man whose strongest support comes from African-American voters, who have rallied around him largely because of his father's years of service to the city's black community as a city council member and county supervisor. One of Hahn's television ads begins, "My dad, Kenny Hahn, taught me people matter, public service matters."

In New York, the front-runner for the September Democratic primary is the city's highest-ranking elected Democrat, Public Advocate Mark Green, a liberal who is popular with both white and black voters.

Look at what happened in last week's mayoral primary in St. Louis. For the second election in a row, Democrats defeated their own mayor in the Democratic primary. Talk about rejection. Mayor Clarence Harmon ended up with just 5 percent of the vote.

But here's what was truly remarkable: This year's St. Louis Democratic primary, in which one major candidate was black and the other white, was less racially divisive than the primary four years ago. The 1997 contest involved two black candidates, one of whom won the nomination with a virtually solid white vote and almost no black support.

The white man who won this year's Democratic primary, Board of Aldermen President Francis Slay, ran a nonracial campaign. The big issue in St. Louis: a last-minute flurry of bogus voter registrations, including three dead aldermen who seemed to have a desire to vote one last time. In the end, the primary vote was sharply divided by race. But St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Greg Freeman marveled that, unlike four years ago: "None of this year's candidates is engaging in racial politics.... The candidates are to be commended this year for campaigning citywide."

With crime rates down in most cities, including New York and Los Angeles, the public's focus has shifted to police behavior. The Rampart scandal in Los Angeles involved a massive cover-up of police corruption. New Yorkers have been shocked by instances of police overreaction, first in the Abner Louima assault and later in the Amadou Diallo shooting.

The central issue in each city is likely to be the legacy of the mayor. Both mayors presided over economic turnarounds, declining welfare rolls, and significant improvements in city services. Even the California energy crisis has not been a problem for Los Angeles. The city generates its own power supply and does not depend on private utilities.

Los Angeles voters who want to continue the Riordan program can vote for Steven Soboroff, a wealthy Republican businessman who has Riordan's endorsement. Soboroff has been edging up in the polls by running TV ads that say, "Steve Soboroff, a problem solver, not a politician." Anti-Riordan voters are likely to coalesce behind former state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who has Democratic establishment support.

New Yorkers who supported Giuliani may go for wealthy media magnate Michael Bloomberg, who is exploring the idea of entering the race as a Republican. Green, known as an enemy of the mayor, should appeal to anti-Giuliani voters.

This year's mayoral elections could mark the arrival of Hispanics as a political force. Two candidates are vying to become Los Angeles' first Hispanic mayor. One is Villaraigosa, who has the support of labor unions and the local Democratic Party organization. The other is U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra, who has a strong base in his congressional district. In New York, a Hispanic candidate, Bronx borough President Fernando Ferrer, is running second in the Democratic primary.

In New York, as in L.A., there's little evidence of racial polarization. That could change if black activist Al Sharpton decides to get into the New York race. But the latest Marist Institute poll shows Sharpton running last, with just 10 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Green still gets enough black support to remain the front-runner.

With no major black candidate so far in either New York or Los Angeles, African-American voters are poised to play a role they've rarely played in the past—that of swing voters. What we're likely to find in this year's mayoral elections is that urban politics has changed. It's no longer a matter of black and white.