Whatever Happened to Clout?


With the endorsement of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Larry Agran, former mayor of Irvine, Calif., is organizing a new primary -- CityVote -- for the 1996 presidential campaign. CityVote would be held simultaneously later this year in as many big cities as he can get to cooperate, including Baltimore. The idea is to flex some political muscle. Show clout to get presidential candidates to pay attention to the problems of urban voters.

It won't work. If pure democracy -- the number of voters who go to the polls -- is going to dictate urban policy in the future, then the worst is yet to come. It has been years since cities had real clout in national politics.

In 1992, only 26.9 percent of the presidential vote was cast in central cities. Their suburbs cast 43.4 percent. Historical voting statistical analysis is difficult to do on an urban-suburban basis. City limits change, and some precincts are not either-or. But you can compare city-suburban differences in Maryland over the years, because Baltimore City is a distinct and constant entity.

In 1960, a year when big-city bosses were crucial to the election of President John F. Kennedy, Baltimore City cast as many votes as the next two biggest jurisdictions -- Baltimore County and Montgomery County -- combined. In 1992, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties each outvoted the city. Lack of clout in national elections is evident at the congressional level, too. In the late 1960s, three members of the U.S. House of Representatives lived in and represented Baltimore -- and were chairmen of committees. Today only one lives here, and he is a member of the party (Democratic) that does not have chairmen.

This is also true of many big cities, especially older ones in the Northeast and Midwest, which have been losing population for decades. It bodes ill because as the national budget-cutting contest gets bitter, it will be constituencies with the least clout suffering the biggest hits. Since city populations depend on such federal programs as welfare, Medicaid and public housing more than suburban constituencies (and probably on Medicare and Social Security, too), democracy in action is going to devastate many of them -- Baltimore more than most. Not only does it have the typical poor, old city's dependence on federal aid, its economy is unusually dependent on medical institutions and personnel that Medicare and Medicaid dollars help support.

The survival of cities depends in very large part on federal assistance. The continuation of that depends on the ability of imaginative politicians and community leaders to create effective city-suburban alliances of voters and candidates. City folk can't do it alone. Their clout is long gone.

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