HOUSTON -- The annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors is the quintessential example of the triumph of hope over experience.
Every year the city executives, two-thirds of them Democrats, gather to air their many and legitimate grievances and to demand fairer treatment at the hands of the federal government. They pass bushels of resolutions that quickly vanish into the ether.
Most important politicians ignore the mayors. President Bush skipped the meeting here although he was in the state when it opened last weekend; he did the same thing last year when he visited California but stiffed the conference in San Diego. Ronald Reagan never came in his eight years in office.
Bush didn't even send his vice president, despite Dan Quayle's self-assumed credentials as an expert on what's wrong with New York City.
The administration's prime agent was Housing Secretary Jack Kemp, whose genuine interest in the cities and the underclass is considered an aberration both in the Bush administration and in conservative Republican circles. The mayors greeted Kemp with boisterous enthusiasm, but they know his concern reflects his own view far more than that of the administration he represents.
The mayors did better with the Democrats, bagging the nominee-presumptive Bill Clinton, who used the occasion to enlist the Democratic mayors' backing for his new economic blueprint. But Clinton is desperate enough in his search for media attention to make any forum attractive.
The problem for the mayors, distilled to its essence, is that the cities no longer have the political clout their populations would seem to justify. And one prime reason, unfair though it may be, is that the cities are viewed by suburban voters as largely populated by tax-consumers who are black. The cities have become a political tar baby, to the point that someone like Mayor Ray Flynn of Boston, the outgoing head of the conference, never had any realistic hope of being considered for vice president simply because of the images a city official might conjure up in the electorate.
Still, there are reasons the cities should be getting more attention this year. One is the possibility that the "34 percent solution" will become a reality -- that one of the three presidential candidates will eke out a narrow victory in a contest in which all remain viable to the end. In that case, the votes of blacks and other urban-dwelling minorities would give Democratic nominee Clinton the single largest and most solid bloc in the entire electorate.
That is the argument Flynn and his colleagues have been making as their case for a $35 billion urban package of aid for the cities. It is also the heart of Jesse Jackson's case for his ambitious plan to put together $1 trillion in capital to rebuild the country over the next 10 years. But it is not an argument that takes with pragmatic politicians who read the election results to mean that the voters outside the cities are far more interested in their own concerns than in the disadvantaged.
That is a reality some of the mayors recognize more fully than others. Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, for example, skipped this year's conference. But a year ago he was warning that the city executives were making a mistake by not focusing on issues -- education is the best example -- with an appeal that crossed city lines into the suburbs. Instead, the mayors have become perceived as special pleaders whining for special treatment.
In fact, there is much legitimacy in the mayors' complaints. Even the Republican ones concede the cities have taken a beating in the past 12 years -- more federal mandates and less federal money. And, of course, it is always reasonable to point out that it is the cities that offer the suburbs the cultural and social diversity that makes life more interesting.
But there is nothing more logical than the argument of the election returns. The Republicans have won the presidency in five of the past six elections without giving more than lip service to the cities. The Democrats have been spooked by the fear that any special attention given the cities will be portrayed as more liberal folly. The result is that such groups as the U.S. Conference of Mayors have become almost irrelevant to the political dialogue.