Gotham Gazette

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The Candidates and the City

Recent televised debates
Images courtesy of Ambimb and qqLauraqq

During the 2004 presidential campaign, both major party candidates seemed to have just one concern about U.S. cities: protecting them from terrorism. The lofty plans for an urban agenda from the 1960s and 1970s had vanished. Even former Gov. Mario Cuomo's 1980s references to "A Tale of Two Cities" had gone.

Now it's 2008 with a new campaign, new candidate, new issues. Will this year's contenders put more focus on cities or will urban issues once again get lost in the onslaught of other issues -- Iraq, Iran, the plummeting economy -- to say nothing of poll numbers, spin and media buys?

Some advocates have sought to put city concerns in the spotlight this year. Several candidates, including a few who have survived to this point, have strong ties to U.S. cities. With 10 more months remaining in this already seemingly endless campaign, much could change before people actually vote.

For now, though, it seems that urban issues -- while arguably less neglected than they were four years ago -- still have a long way to go to be as prominent as they were in the political discourse of the 1960s and 1970s. Demographic shifts, election schedules, voting patterns and ideological consideration have all pushed the urban agenda to the back of the national agenda.

Seeking an Urban Agenda

In the 1960s, as riots gripped many urban areas, top politicians saw a role for the federal government in fixing the problems.

"In the next 40 years we must rebuild the entire urban United States," President Lyndon Johnson said in a speech at the University of Michigan in 1964. "Our society will never be great until our cities are great."

Two years later, Congress passed Johnson's Model Cities program, an ambitious plan to coordinate existing urban programs, rebuild and rehabilitate parts of the cities, deliver social services and foster citizen participation. By the mid-1970s, it was dead -- a victim of pork barrel politics, disputes within in cities over who should control what, concern about spending and a raft of seemingly intractable economic and social woes.

While he sought to end the Great Society's urban programs, Richard Nixon, Johnson's successor, still paid some attention to cities. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later to be the U.S. senator from New York, served as a White House counselor, outlining in 1970 a cohesive statement of urban policies, according to a glowing account in Time magazine. Among other things, Moynihan's program said, "The poverty and social isolation of minority groups in central cities is the single most serious problem of the American city today, and we must attack the urgent problem with a greater commitment of resources.''

Rather than rely on Model Cities, Nixon shifted money into revenue sharing, which some critics said weakened the federal effort. But, say what one would about Nixon, the worst for federal urban programs -- and their role in the national debate -- was yet to come.

In 1974, Nixon's successor Gerald Ford, would, as the Daily News so famously put it, tell New York to drop dead (relenting under pressure from the leaders of France and Germany, according to Felix Rohaytn who played a key role in engineering a rescue plan for the city). President Jimmy Carter appointed an august blue-ribbon panel to consider the nation's agenda, including the urban agenda, for the 1980s. It concluded that American's older cities had essentially outlived their usefulness. According to a synopsis that then appeared in Time magazine, the group dismissed efforts to reindustrialize central cities as self-defeating and derided efforts to sustain those cities. Aid instead should go directly to the poor, with government encouraging the "historical role of migration as the dominant means of linking people to opportunity." After all, the report said, "Contrary to popular wisdom, cities are not permanent."

Although the "Agenda for the Eighties," like so many similar documents, has been consigned to the dustbin of history, its recommendations -- at least the ones about neglecting the city, if not those about helping the poor -- seemed to live on in the decades that followed. Ronald Reagan famously disbanded many federal programs aimed at cities, even cutting efforts to eradicate rats.

"Hardly anyone wants to talk about cities these days," Norman Glickman an urban policy professor at the University of Texas wrote in 1987. "President Reagan has largely ignored them. He's cut budgets for urban services and housing. He's talked half-heartedly about 'free market' solutions like enterprise zones and housing vouchers, but he hasn't committed much political capital to either."

While Bill Clinton had widespread support in many American cities, he did not talk much about them. As an astute political observer, he instead "tailored his political rhetoric and policy initiatives to appeal mainly to middle-class resident of suburbia," wrote Charles Euchner and Stephen McGovern in "Urban Policy Reconsidered."

A Loss of Clout

Like it or not, Bill Clinton had a point. Cities account for a much smaller percentage of the population than they did as recently as the 1960s. In 1960, the U.S. population was evenly divided among central cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Today, less than a third of Americans live in urban areas. And 40 years ago, New York City was home to about 4.3 percent of the U.S. population. By the beginning of the 21st century, that had dropped 2.7 percent.

Many of the people who live in cities vote reliably Democratic -- often by overwhelming margins -- giving neither party much incentive to curry favor with their residents.

But Euchner and McGovern go beyond that. They believe there is a widespread sense in the country that the federal government cannot solve urban problems and that some Americans don't care. For many "who have erected all kinds of walls, figuratively and literally, around their suburban and exurban enclaves" the problems of the city remain out of sight and out of mind, the writers say.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown put it another way. "If you look at the riots that took place in the '60s and the flight from our cities since that time, urban issues have definitely become synonymous with poverty, with minorities," he has said. "That has negatively shaped how urban issues are discussed, debated and looked at."

Meanwhile, despite Washington's neglect some cities, including New York, have thrived. Their revival, which began in the 1990s and has continued largely until today, did not come from federal programs. Instead, some experts attribute it to declining crime rates and lower taxes.

A Need for an Urban Policy

Many mayors and others still see a need for a focus on cities. While cities have done much on their own, Neal Pearce writes, they need recognition and an assist from the presidential candidates on matters such as immigration, crime, illegal drugs, housing and infrastructure.

"Down here where the rubber meets the road, we're fixing potholes, we're making cities safer, we're solving problems around health care," Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper told Pearce. "We can figure out the solutions. We're America's laboratories." But cities, he adds, need Washington's help to "roll out" the new solutions "to the whole community and the whole country."

The National League of Cities recently urged President George Bush to focus more on cities in light of the nation's economic slowdown. The group, which includes many of America's mayors, called on the federal government to address such problems as aging infrastructure and crime, "develop innovative energy and the environmental programs" and help find solutions to housing crisis. " As the nation's cities and town struggle to address the influx of immigrants in their communities," the group urged Washington to "refocus" on immigration reform.

To spur a discussion of urban issues, Mayor TV, a project of the progressive policy group, the Drum Major Institute, and The Nation magazine interviewed a number of mayors about what they thought. In the interviews the mayors underscored that the presidential candidates largely ignore matters they confront every day.

"The federal government has been almost absent in addressing the issues of our cities, whether it's the issue of poverty, or work and opportunity, or bolstering the middle class and working families," Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa of Los Angeles said. "We have wars here in our city with drugs. It's a huge war. It hasn't gone away," said another of the mayors, Baltimore's Sheila Dixon.

This Year's Campaign

So will these issues get any attention this time around?

A number of the candidates have ties to large cities. Hillary Clinton is a senator from New York, Senator Barack Obama has lived in both New York and Chicago and worked as a community organizer in Chicago. Mitt Romney's father, George, served as a secretary of housing and urban development, and during his time as governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney took several initiatives aimed at housing and transportation in Boston. And then there are the two New York City mayors. During his ill-fated campaign Rudolph Giuliani often trumpeted what he viewed as his success in righting a metropolis that had gone disastrously wrong. And Michael Bloomberg hovers in the wings pondering a presidential bid that, one thinks, would have to discuss cities in some way.

Then too, domestic issues seem back at center stage. After the 2004 election, with national security and the war in Iraq capturing most attention, Americans has now focused again on the economy, housing, health care, environment and energy -- all of which play out in a major way in American cities.

The focus on issues such as building a middle class, while not explicitly an urban agenda, addresses urban concern. Mayor Manny Diaz of Miami hailed this development, saying he was glad candidate were finally debating such topics.

Despite this, many think the cities still get short shrift.

"In mid-October, I noted that the Democrats and Republicans had held 17 or so presidential debates..., but that with all the gabbing they managed not to focus on America's cities," Clyde Haberman of the New York Times wrote in December. "Well, two months have passed, and that observation is no longer valid. The candidates have now held 25 or so debates without talking about urban issues."

"Each presidential candidate has talked about issues that are important to cities, such as health care and jobs. But none has set forth a comprehensive revival program," the Detriot Free Press said in an editorial.

The Candidates and the Issues

The remaining candidates do not have explicit urban agendas, although several have rural agendas. They do, though, have stands on issues Gotham Gazette views as having particular relevance to our cities. Click here for the table showing where the remaining major Democratic candidates stand and here for the table showing the four remaining major Republican candidates and where they stand on issues from gun control to infrastructure.

A quick look at the table will show many similarities between the tables and many differences between them. As has been often noted, for example, the two Democrats, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, agree that a federal program should provide health coverage to all Americans who need it (though they differ on whether that coverage should be required for all adults). None of the Republicans endorses federally sponsored universal health care, as they look instead to an array of measures to bring down costs and make coverage more available.

The Republicans all stress school choice -- including allowing parents to home school their children. Clinton and Obama both emphasize more early childhood education and better training and support for teachers. The two Democrats support gun control measures; the Republicans largely oppose them. And so on.

In general, reflecting perhaps the reality that most urban voters are Democratic voters along with an ideology that looks more to government solutions, the Democrats call for more actions and programs from Washington that would benefit cities and Republicans barely mention them . Both Clinton and Obama, for example, had representatives at a recent forum on infrastructure and transportation issues sponsored by the Rudin Center. None of the Republicans sent anyone, although center director Allison deCerreno said John McCain did try to. The others, she implied, did not even try.

Writing in the Boston Globe earlier this month, Harvard economic professor Edward Glaeser decried the Republican attitude. The Republican line on key issues, he said,"does not favor cities. While a right to riflery may make sense in rural Iowa, an abundance of guns only harms our inner cities. While residents of small town America may dislike immigrants, immigrants are the lifeblood of dynamic urban areas."

Not that Glaeser finds much to like in the Democrats either: "Republicans now ignore cities altogether, and Democratic urban policies cater too much to well-organized urban interests."

For years, political columnists and television talk show comedians have mocked politicians of both parties for their shameless pandering to the "good people" of Iowa and New Hampshire. In 1980s, Saturday Night Live featured a skit where actors portraying various politicians of the day occupy the home of an average Iowa so they can do the dishes, run errands -- and get the family's votes.

The revised primary calendar in effect this year seeks to give urban states, including New York, a bigger -- and earlier role -- in the process. Does that mean aiding the subway will soon become the political equivalent of backing ethanol. That the fields of Central Park will supplant snowy New England town squares?

Tune in in 2012.



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