Race, reform and urban voters

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WITH startling rapidity, four of America's five biggest cities have replaced black mayors with whites: first, Chicago, four years ago, then Philadelphia, then Los Angeles and this week New York. It's irresistibly tempting to see a big trend here and indeed, pronouncements of the end of an era are filling the air.

The era that has supposedly ended is that of "old" black politics -- stressing civil rights, welfare and other traditional liberal policies. Now, the argument goes, the cities have deteriorated to the point where voters want pragmatic, effective government and are willing to vote for whoever can provide it -- "new" (meaning centrist) black politicians or, as in our biggest cities, white politicians. David Dinkins lost because, by presenting himself as a race-relations expert rather than as a tough manager, he epitomized the old black politics.

Watch out for this theory. It misstates the true nature of black politics and urban politics. And as a guide to future events, it is about as useful as the prediction, widespread when Mr. Dinkins was elected, that New York would never again have a white mayor.

The boom years for African-American politicians were the early 1970s, when the lowest annual increase in the number of black elected officials was 14 percent. Two large historical forces drove the increases: the legal enfranchisement of black voters in the South, thanks to the Voting Rights Act, and the massive black migration from the countryside to the cities, which produced large concentrations of black voters. Both of these forces have long since played themselves out. There is no vast untapped pool of African-Americans who can't or don't vote.

For the last decade, the annual rate of increase in the number of black elected officials has usually been well below 5 percent. The overwhelming majority of black politicians represent black-majority districts. Outside of a few all-black small towns, the only place where a majority of elected officials are black is the District of Columbia.

Obviously, white-majority areas should never be thought of as places that will easily elect black representatives. All four of the big cities that used to have black mayors have white majorities. New York never got much above one-quarter black and Los Angeles topped out at about one-sixth.

What generated the feeling that cities like New York and L.A. would ordinarily have black mayors was an idea that all urban "people of color" would stick together politically and look to African-Americans as their natural leaders. This was the premise behind Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition -- but it hasn't proved true.

In Chicago, the Latino population holds the balance of power because the city is about 40 percent black and 40 percent white. Yet it has The former black mayors of the four big cities were the kinds of minority politicians white voters found nonthreatening.

thrown in its lot with the white mayor, Richard Daley, rather than his black opponents.

Even in black-majority big cities like Baltimore, it's extremely rare to find a fiery "race man" becoming mayor, because the business establishment usually wields power far beyond the small number of votes it can deliver.

All of the former black mayors of the four big cities were the kinds of minority politicians white voters found nonthreatening. Of Mr. Dinkins, Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, Harold Washington of Chicago and Wilson Goode of Philadelphia, only Washington had any reputation among blacks as a race leader.

But before his election, he had spent a long career as a loyal member of the Daley machine, as had his father before him. Mr. Bradley was a veteran of the police force, Mr. Goode was a municipal bureaucrat with a degree from the Wharton School and Mr. Dinkins was an accommodationist who spent years rising through the ranks of the New York Democratic apparatus.

Mr. Dinkins had the added advantage of running in what is perhaps the only big, non-black-majority American city with a liberal electorate. The general rule is that the whiter the jurisdiction, the more conservative its black representative will have to be. It's no accident that the only Republican member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Gary Franks of Connecticut, is also the caucus member with the fewest black constituents.

For at least a century, one of the consistent voices in municipal politics has come from the "reform" or "good government" element: people from the middle and upper classes who long for a clean, efficient government that will foster business development. Traditionally, the reformers' opponents were the Democratic machines, which represented blue-collar and poor voters, who were intensely ethnicity-conscious in their politics.

The main policy difference between these two groups was that the "goo-goos" (as the machine derisively called them) saw government purely as a purveyor of services -- police, housing, parks -- while the machines saw government as having two missions: performing services and providing jobs and contracts to people who couldn't find economic opportunity in the private sector. It was in the course of doing the latter that the machines committed sins like graft and featherbedding that horrified reformers.

Reformers have historically realized that most urban voters weren't in their camp, so the only way to get city government to focus solely on providing services efficiently would be to depoliticize it.

There have been two main ways of doing this. One is replacing patronage hiring with a civil service system. The other is chartering city governments in which a hired professional manager runs things and the elected mayor is paid so little that no professional politician would take the job.

To believe that Mayor-elect Rudolph Giuliani and Mayors Richard Riordan of Los Angeles and Edward Rendell of Philadelphia sit at the head of a fundamentally reform-oriented urban electorate requires ignoring all the les sons of city political history.

It is true that many municipal school boards, police forces and housing departments need to be cleaned up. It is also true that politics provides enough of a market test that mayors who don't run their cities well (like Mr. Dinkins and Mr. Goode) often get turned out of office.

Still, city voters remain poorer and more ethnically unmelted than the national average and therefore are more likely to have the dual-role view of government as a source of jobs and power as well as services.

Mayors who only provide efficient services are going to find their constituents curiously dissatisfied. Big cities don't have a voting ma- Richard Daley of Chicago instinctively balances efficient governance with ethnic and patronage concerns.

jority of people who can afford to look to government to pick up garbage and put out fires but not to give them jobs and a sense of ethnic pride.

One reason Richard Daley of Chicago looks like a mayor-for-life is that, as a child of the machine, he instinctively balances efficient governance with ethnic and patronage concerns.

Rudy Giuliani, who has spent his career in moral crusades rather than administration, is not going to keep a majority of New York voters happy for very long if all he does is try to clean up the city.

Urban politics is never going to get that new.

Nicholas Lemann, a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, is author of "The Promised Land."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
28°