CityVote Aims to Put Urban Issues to Fore In '96 Campaign

LARRY AGRAN, former mayor of Irvine, Calif., was a very dark horse in the race for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. His hope was to push urban issues higher on the national agenda.

His '92 campaign went nowhere, but his hope of elevating such urban concerns as housing, economic development, and crime prevention lives on. Mr. Agran's new campaign is called CityVote. It sprang from a resolution passed by the US Conference of Mayors, but is now an independent project based in Irvine and headed by Agran.

CityVote's goal is a nationwide presidential preference ballot, loosely dubbed ``a national urban primary.'' If all goes as planned, it will coincide with November 1995 municipal elections in 15 to 20 cities. No delegates would be at stake, since this nonbinding straw poll would operate outside the official, state-run primary and caucus process that begins the following February in the largely rural states of New Hampshire and Iowa.

The idea strikes some long-time observers of the political scene as a little absurd. ``Delegates are elected by states, not by cities,'' says Stephen Hess, a political scientist with the Brookings Institution in Washington. ``If you're going to have `primaries' for a set of special pleaders, why not have straw votes for farmers, or miners?''

Agran argues that CityVote won't represent the views of a narrow special interest but ``the 160 million of us who live in self-described cities.'' Those people, he says, include inhabitants of many small and medium-sized cities ringing urban centers and partaking of the same problems as big cities.

So far CityVote has signed up six participants: Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., Baltimore, Passadena, Calif., and Spokane and Olympia, Wash.

Boston Mayor Thomas Mennino (D) wants his city in and is petitioning the City Council and state legislature to get the presidential preference question on next year's municipal ballot. In many other cities, approval by higher levels of government is not required.

Howard Leibowitz, Mr. Mennino's director of intergovernmental relations, says CityVote could have particular impact in Boston, since the city is ``right down the road from New Hampshire'' and candidates will be trooping through and looking for TV exposure.

Agran says he has also gotten positive responses from Durham, N.C., New Haven, Ct., San Francisco, Houston, and Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio.

He says he's confident that candidates - notably Republicans, who are likely to have the only contested nomination battle - will want to participate because they'll ``sense the opportunity ... to build a base and communicate a message.'' Plans call for four televised candidate forums to be held in connection with the vote. The first of these, to be carried by the PBS affiliate in the Twin Cities, is already scheduled.

What do the political parties think of the idea? A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee says the project is a bit irrelevant, since President Clinton already has urban issues clearly on his screen.

A representative of the Republican National Committee said she frankly hadn't heard of CityVote, but saw no harm in having Republicans articulate their stands on urban issues. The party, she said, would not tell its candidates whether to participate or not.

And the public, which may feel the campaign is already too long and tiresome? Every serious candidate will be in the race by spring or early summer of '95, says Agran. ``The only question is where will they be campaigning?'' He hopes CityVote will lure them to the cities and away from New Hampshire and Iowa.

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