Reading the grass roots

THE UNITED STATES yanked up its grass roots this week, in local and state elections, to find out what it thinks about less-than-global but hardly trivial matters. Chiefly, the country showed a populist frame of mind, sticking up for individual rights, or revealing a cantankerousness in all sorts of ways.

And it showed greater progress for blacks and women moving up the political ladder.

On the rights theme, the American public showed a mix of conservative and liberal sentiment that defies sorting out. It voted to allow gambling in Virginia (a state lottery) and in Texas (dog and horse racing). It voted against discrimination against homosexuals in jobs, housing, and accommodations in Boulder, Colo. It amended Mississippi's 1890 constitution, removing language that prohibits interracial marriage; at the same time it took Martin Luther King Jr.'s name off a city street in San Diego. It approved keeping guns in the home in rural Maine. Again in Maine, the public approved nuclear power, while in Washington, D.C., the public rejected a bottle-ban measure.

Perhaps in an aftershock of tightfistedness following the recent market crash, voters in San Francisco rejected a new $80 million downtown stadium for the baseball Giants, who had done well in the recent playoffs. Arizona's voters rejected a property-tax increase that would turn 26 miles of trash-infested riverbed into a park, lake, and hiking complex. But Washington State voters chose to allow doctors to charge medicare-eligible patients more than medicare's going rate.

Of greater significance was the continued upward movement for minority groups and women in Tuesday's elections.

Hartford, Conn., elected its first black woman mayor, Baltimore its first black mayor. Houston reelected its woman mayor.

Two cities that have had minority strife - Boston and Indianapolis - gave overwhelming winning margins to mayors that have made great strides in building a sense of community and inclusiveness. Boston's Mayor Ray Flynn and Indianapolis's Richard Hudnut deserve praise for their leadership. Flynn won by the biggest margin of any Boston mayor since 1951, after courageously promoting multiracial housing in his own neighborhood.

By contrast, Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode was nearly defeated by former Mayor Frank Rizzo, largely because of Mr. Goode's role in the firebombing of a radical group's stronghold that destroyed an entire neighborhood. Goode, a black, will have to do better in his next term to restore public confidence.

In all, Americans showed a feisty diversity in their voting, which should lead politicians looking to the big 1988 election to take nothing for granted.

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