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Can Republicans Hold the Cities? The Races Begin

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 7, 1997



LOS ANGELES

From 1993 to 1995, they strode into urban America like Wyatt Earp into Tombstone.

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Wielding budget axes and new ideas instead of six-shooters, a freshman class of Republican mayors promised to reinvent city government - to streamline city services, boost local economies, improve public safety.

Buoyed by the same voter discontent that led to the Republican revolution in Congress in 1994, GOP mayors took over five of the nation's 12 largest cities, including New York and Los Angeles. They also wrested city hall from Democrats in several mid-size cities as well, such as Jersey City, N.J., Dayton, Ohio, and Raleigh, N.C.

Now, voters get their first opportunities to score these rookie performances, in seven key elections stretching from tomorrow through Nov. 4. "These are are the first big tests of a whole new approach to running the American city," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

So far, big-city Republican mayorships have emphasized nuts-and-bolts management rather than political ideology, observers say. The coming votes will test whether new ways of conserving revenue, privatizing city services, cutting crime, and downsizing bureaucracies have staying power.

At the political level, the votes will gauge whether these latest urban coalitions dominated by conservative whites will permanently replace minority-dominated, liberal, rainbow coalitions that gave Democrats the upper hand in post-war city governance.

"Though many of these mayors have been successful out of the gates, it is by no means certain that they will remain so," says Mr. Schier. "A lot is at stake locally, as well as nationally. If the national Republican Party claims to be a truly national, majority party, it has to prevail with incumbents like these in places like these."

Some of the names credited with city makeovers, such as Pat McCrory in Charlotte, N.C., are in metropolitan regions with long traditions of Republican dominance. Other Republican mayors who are not up for reelection this year but who have achieved national prominence - such as Greg Lashutka in Columbus, Ohio, Stephen Goldsmith in Indianapolis, Skip Rimsza in Phoenix, and Susan Golding in San Diego - may get a hint of what voters think of their shared tactics.

But the most telling barometer, say pundits, is those larger cities where Republicans replaced Democrats in long-time liberal bastions. Those include New York, Los Angeles, and Jersey City. In the last of these, first-term wunderkind Bret Schundler has been nicknamed "Robomayor" for lowering crime, cleaning streets, revamping education, and improving the business climate.

"Schundler has provided a model for how much can be done quickly in a short period of time," says Steven Erie, an urban affairs professor at the University of San Diego. "The question is, can his success be sustained?"

Even though Messrs. Schundler, Riordan, and Giuliani are expected to cruise to victory, the report card for the overall class of GOP freshmen is mixed.

"We've seen a whole new breed of Republican mayors who tried to focus on being good managers rather than ideologies or partisanship," says Donald Kettl, director of the LaFollette Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Though he says there were no high-profile disasters, he gives the class only a "B to B minus."

"Most ran into roadblocks they didn't expect and found out it is harder to make reforms in practice than they thought before taking office," says Mr. Kettl.

Donald Borut, executive director of the National League of Cities, is more sanguine, holding that the Republican wave has made two lasting contributions.

"These mayors have recognized the fiscal savings of opening city services to competition from private firms," he says. Noting specifically Charlotte's Mayor McCrory, Columbus's Mayor Lashutka, and Glenda Hood of Orlando, Fla., he says: "They have been able to build strong economies by recognizing and nurturing the interdependence of the greater regions they inhabit."

The races to watch, say observers, are those in Los Angeles and New York, where Riordan and Guiliani took over from black Democrats in liberal strongholds. Both have been credited with lowering crime, cutting red tape that strangles business growth, and winnowing welfare rolls.

But neither is credited with delivering a definitive turnaround.

"Crime is down, employment is high, and both cities are on surer economic footing," says William Schneider at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. They have prospered, in part, because of a change in the national and state economies, he says. But "both Riordan and Giuliani have failed to inspire a widespread voter approval that ensures long-term legacy for their policies."

The Republican way may be enough, however, to satisfy voters for now. The GOP class has "tended to be moderate, nonpartisan, and effective by just trying to make government work better," says Kettl. "The question is, will their innovations stick?"

Spring Lineup For Voting On GOP's Mayors

April 8 Los Angeles

Richard Riordan* (R) Tom Hayden (D)

April 15 Anchorage, Alaska

Rick Mystrom* Tom Fink

May 6 Omaha, Neb.

Hal Daub* Brenda Council

May 13 Jersey City, N.J.

Bret Schundler* (R) Jerramiah Healy (D) Jaime Vazquez (D)

* Incumbent. Not all races are partisan.