Candidates say little on cities

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FROM ALL reports, the Democratic presidential candidates had precious little to say about urban issues at last week's debate at Morgan State University.

The impression that issues affecting cities are being overshadowed by broader concerns, such as the debate over foreign policy, or relegated to the back burner is reinforced by the Web sites of many of the major candidates.

Drop-down issues menus on the Web sites of Howard Dean, John Edwards, Richard A. Gephardt, John Kerry and Joseph I. Lieberman have no separate categories for cities, the way they do for such subjects as agriculture (for Dean); rural America (for Edwards); smart energy (for Gephardt); GLBT (Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgender, for Kerry); and global warming (for Lieberman).

To be fair, many of the candidates allude to cities in their positions on other issues. In his statement on the environment, for example, Dean says he'd "strengthen our downtowns to reduce sprawl" - though he doesn't provide any specifics.

Still, residents of cities - or, for that matter, metropolitan regions - will be hard-pressed to find some comprehensive guidance on how the candidates stand on issues affecting them.

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, whose affiliated institute sponsored the debate, is among those who feel too little is being said. Cummings said that he is drafting a letter to the candidates on behalf of the caucus pointing out that "there is lacking true discussion about the urban agenda."

"We want to urge them to include that in their discussions" at a second caucus debate next month in Detroit, on their Web sites and in their speeches, Cummings said.

And the U.S. Conference of Mayors, concerned that the candidates aren't spending enough time talking about cities, is preparing a bipartisan "action agenda" for release in early November to present to candidates a list of issues its members consider to be the most important.

These efforts to get candidates to spell out more clearly their positions comes at a critical time for cities. After decades of decline, a few older cities, such as Chicago and New York, managed a recent turnaround; others, like Baltimore, seem to be on the cusp of doing so.

Cummings acknowledges some of the issues that the candidates are talking about, such as the aid package to Iraq and the size of the federal deficit, are important to cities because they ultimately affect the funding for agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Health and Human Services whose programs are vital to urban areas.

But the candidates are "not talking directly enough" about what they'd do, he said.

Cummings said he'd like to hear more about where the candidates stand on providing more help to cities to repair decrepit water and sewer pipes and pumping stations, the cost of which has recently resulted in hefty fee increases for Baltimore residents. Another is funding for the HOPE VI revitalization program, which Baltimore used to such great effect to replace its public housing high-rises and which city officials would like to tap into to renovate low-rise units. The Bush administration wanted to scuttle the program, and Congress is poised to fund it at a greatly reduced level.

And Cummings said he has not yet heard anybody talk about the drug problem. "Do they believe in drug treatment? Are they willing to put up the money?" he asked.

John DeStefano Jr., mayor of New Haven, Conn., and president of the National League of Cities, suggested one reason candidates may shy away from articulating a package of programs affecting cities is "because 'urban agenda' got to be a very charged term."

DeStefano himself talks about the threat of federal budget deficits to "all kinds of programs that support families," reasoning "It's a more inclusive term than 'urban.'"

Still, DeStefano's organization has a list of specific actions it expects the federal government to take, including footing the bill for the local costs of homeland security, increasing funding for roads and mass transit projects and ensuring an adequate supply of affordable housing by fully funding a range of federal housing programs, from community development block grants to Section 8 certificates.

It hardly seems too much to ask for the Democrats who would be president to outline - clearly and concisely - where they stand on these and other issues vital to cities.

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