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A last hurrah for urban liberals?

Mayoral elections this week signal a growing wave of big-cityconservatism.

By Paul Van SlambrouckStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 1, 1999


It felt like old times the other day when the Rev. Jesse Jackson hit the campaign trail here on behalf of Mayor Willie Brown, running hard for reelection tomorrow.

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Seeming to recall better days for urban liberals and connecting Mr. Brown with that past, Mr. Jackson told a crowd on the steps of City Hall that the mayor "has had a sense of the big tent," adding almost wistfully, "it was called liberal."

That is practically a dirty word in big-city politics these days and as San Franciscans ponder whether Brown deserves a second term, this election might also serve to shed light on another question: Is San Francisco the last hurrah for urban liberalism in America?

The national picture would seem to suggest so, say a number of political analysts.

"I wouldn't say liberalism is dead, but cities have certainly taken a half-turn away from that approach," says Fred Siegel, author of "The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A. and the Fate of America's Big Cities."

Indeed, analysts are hard pressed to name any candidates out of the traditional liberal mold that dominated the big cities from the 1960s through the 1980s that are likely to be elected in the medium and large cities choosing mayors this month.

And even here, though Brown is favored to win, his surprising weakness in the polls is seen by many as a sign that he's failed to join the modern mayoral trend of hard-nosed pragmatism and fiscal conservatism that puts quality-of-life issues above all else.

The national transition from liberal to more conservative mayorships was crystallized in New York in 1993 when Rudy Giuliani replaced David Dinkins and the same year in Los Angeles when Richard Riordan succeeded Tom Bradley.

National snapshot

But the trend is broader than just those two cities. This year's president of the US Conference of Mayors, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, fits the modern more pragmatic mold.

In his inaugural speech in June, he told the nation's urban leaders, "We need to bury forever the old image of mayors with a tin cup and an extended palm asking for handouts to sustain and expand cumbersome bureaucracies."

Looking to Washington and government in general for answers was one of the hallmarks of the 1960s liberals, says Siegel. But it came packaged with goals of broader civil rights and economic opportunity.

It was given voice by the first generation of black mayors in American cities, including Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Coleman Young in Detroit and Marion Barry in Washington, to name a few.

But as some mayors began calling for black nationalism, economic entitlement, and an emphasis on economic redistribution, middle class and business flight accelerated, and urban problems skyrocketed

Reagan-era cutbacks sent a clear message that Washington wasn't the answer, and voters began methodically looking for mayors that could fix things.

Age of the technocrat

Today, technocrats like Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago, reformers like outgoing Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, and law-and-order zealots like Jerry Brown of Oakland, Calif., rule the roost.

And while many of these new-styled mayors embrace socially liberal views on issues like gay rights and affirmative action, they are far more fiscally conservative than their predecessors and preoccupied with efficient delivery of services to their constituents.

Using a term that would have made 1960s liberals' skin crawl, longtime executive director of the US Conference of Mayors Tom Cochran says mayors today are "more like CEOs than social workers."

City hall and the local business communities, often at war in the heyday of liberalism, are allied as never before. And while the suburbs used to be the enemy, most mayors now seek cooperation and alliances throughout their metropolitan areas as essential to their cities' health.