Racial politics subside in cities

Votes today in Philadelphia, Baltimore may deepen trend.

Martin O'Malley is fond of saying his campaign is proof that the days of racial politics here are fading. After all, the Irish-American mayoral hopeful won the Democratic primary in this predominantly African-American and overwhelmingly Democratic city with 53 percent of the vote.

Gone are the days of 1995, when Mayor Kurt Schmoke won reelection using a bumper sticker with the African nationalist colors that read: "Schmoke makes us proud."

As voters in cities and towns across America head to the polls today, mayoral elections here and elsewhere will help define how big of a role race now plays in local politics. And increasingly, say experts, the rules have changed.

To be sure, race is still a factor, but black candidates can no longer depend on the solidarity of ethnicity to get in office. Cities where minority voters make up the majority, such as Oakland, Calif., and Gary, Ind., have elected a new breed of white mayors who promise to deliver services faster and cheaper.

"[African-Americans] want to have their lives free of discrimination and racism, but they want the services delivered that suburbanites takes for granted," says Keith Reeves, a political scientist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

As a result, the overall culture of elections is revolving around mayors who function like municipal managers, focusing more on efficiency than ideology.

Jerry Brown, for instance, touted his experience as governor of California in his campaign in Oakland. Meanwhile, the steel town of Gary - one of two cities to elect the nation's first black mayor in 1967 - has turned to white Mayor Scott King to help draw new industry.

"[It's] a political gold mine," says Claudine Gay, a political scientist at Stanford University in California, of the emerging approach.

And the efficiency message resonates whether the candidate is black or white. Washington's new mayor, Anthony Williams, got elected on the promise to clean up the city's notoriously inefficient bureaucracy. Black moderates such as Dennis Archer in Detroit and Michael White in Cleveland are in the mayor's office because they focused mostly on the business of delivering goods and services, says Professor Reeves.

In this year's election, meanwhile, the power of practical politics is threatening to unhinge traditional party lines in Philadelphia, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 4 to 1.

Sam Katz, a white Republican, is in a tough battle with Democrat John Street, an African-American. While Mr. Street was relying on African-American allegiances, Reeves says, Mr. Katz promoted his ability to give Philadelphians the basics: better police protection, better schools, cleaner streets.

A turning point came when Democrat John White Jr., whose father was considered the dean of the black political movement, threw his support behind Katz. Now Katz is well-positioned to become the city's first Republican mayor in 52 years.

Historically, blacks voting for white politicians is nothing new. Until a few decades ago, white politicians were the only choice on the ballot. So blacks are used to crossing the race line, say political observers. In addition, most predominantly black cities have already elected black mayors, so the novelty is now gone.

"Black candidates can no longer make appeals on the historic nature of their campaign," says Katherine Tate, an associate professor of politics at the University of California at Irvine who organized a national survey of black voting habits in 1996.

Indeed, these days, differences between black and white mayors can be minimal. "For many city dwellers, life under a black mayor is very similar to life under a white mayor," says Zoltan Hajnal, a political scientist at the University in California at San Diego.

Still, there is a portion of white voters - about 20 percent nationwide - who won't cross the racial line. "The black candidate is getting fewer whites' votes than what was forecast in opinion polls," says Reeves.

But this resistance may be slowly ebbing. A study of 23 cities conducted by Mr. Hajnal found that white support of black candidates increased by 10 to 12 percent when the candidate was an incumbent.

"It's a positive development," says Hajnal. "You know you have less racial bloc voting."

In Baltimore, where 9 of 10 voters are Democrats, Mr. O'Malley courted African-American voters by preaching a zero-tolerance policy toward crime while promising to keep police in check.

Just weeks after his primary victory, though, a controversial police shooting ignited protests about the candidate's crime-fighting policy. Yet the city's desire to see a drop in its perennially high crime rate means O'Malley's position may yet be a winning one, say some experts.

"Why should we in the lower-income neighborhoods live with the level of crime activity that wouldn't be tolerated in an affluent neighborhood?" says Herbert Smith, a political scientist at Western Maryland College in Westminster, paraphrasing O'Malley's stance. "That cuts across all racial divides."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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