Lousville, Ky. — The new president of the US Conference of Mayors views politics as "a most honorable profession," requiring sensitivity to people's problems and a very thick skin.
"I love city government because it's the unit closest to the people where you see the results the most," says Helen Boosalis, mayor of Lincoln, Neb., "but you don't go into it if you can't take it."
As incoming president of the US Conference of Mayors, she is expected to be somewhat more moderate than outgoing president Richard Hatcher, mayor of Gary, Ind.
Like her, she is a Democrat. He is currently serving as head of the Democratic National Committee Black Caucus. But his outspoken criticism of the Reagan administration has led to clashes with the White House on several occasions. He insists, for instance, that because of his views he was "purposely excluded" from the list of mayors who have been invited to the White house for consultations in recent days.
Mayor Boosalis, who visited President Reagan a week ago, says she has no illusions that cities in general face an easy time in the decade ahead. "It's going to test elected officials' capabilities to the ultimate," she says.
She views Reagan's proposals to channel federal aid to cities through the states and eventually to turn taxing power back to state legislatures as moves that will increase the dependency of cities on states.
"States will be part of the urban solution, but it's critical that we move slowly and only after a major national debate on all the pitfalls involved," she says. "We must have some indication of state intentions and capabilities, for it could just end up creating another expensive layer of bureaucracy. . . . Cities have to become part of the decisionmaking process."
Mrs. Boosalis currently is midway through her second term. Before winning the mayoralty, she served 16 consecutive years on the City Council. In the process, she gained a solid reputation locally as adept in the personal art of politicking and in the more tedious business of carefully studying the issues.
"On the council, she always did her homework and went to every meeting, listening and asking intelligent questions," recalls Arthur Winter, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska. "Citizens certainly get their money's worth in terms of the time and effort she puts in. She's serious and works very hard at what she does."
She has some regrets about not having a college degree and urges young people with an interest in politics to first broaden their education. But he insists that she got the needed basic training for her political career through her work as a volunteer with the League of Women Voters.
She and her husband Mike, who is chairman of the University of Nebraska's plant pathology department, had moved to Lincoln from Minneapolis in the early 1950s. Mrs. Boosalis promptly joined the local League chapter and before long found herself immersed in its campaign to strengthen Lincoln's mayoral system by making the chief political officer also the top administrative officer, responsible for all staff appointments.
As a city councilwoman, she helped get the issue on the ballot. But she says , she never thought that one day she would be testing the wisdom of the change. After her fourth term on the City Council, a group of citizen's persuaded her, as she says, to "practice what I'd been preaching about the importance of citizen involvement." But she says it was she added encouragement of her husband ("he loves every bit of all this") and her married daughter, who is an attorney living in a Chicago suburb, that finally persuaded her to challenge the incumbent mayor.