Carter timing of urban grants called shrewd, but not unfair

To a disgruntled Kennedy strategist, it is "buying people's votes with their own money." To a Carter aide, it is a highly successful government program which "should not be discussed in a political context."

To many election-year observers, it is simply part of politics -- and the power of an incumbent.

"It" is the awarding of Urban Development Action Grants (UDAGs) under a two- year-old, $675 million federal program which has become what President Carter calls the "centerpiece" of his urban policy.

The grants, awarded every three months, supplement local and private dollars for urban projects ranging from parking garages to child-care centers. They come under the heading of "discretionary funds." Although Congress must put the money in the budget, its approval is not needed for individual UDAGs given by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which administers the program.

Most observers agree that UDAGs also are a political tool that is being skillfully wielded by the Carter administration to boost the President's re-election bid.

The millions of UDAG dollars pumped into urban areas across the United States have earned the Carter administration rave reviews from mayors of many cities. Their gratitude has more often than not been reflected in mayoral endorsements of Mr. Carter, or at least careful neutrality in the current Carter-Kennedy battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

HUD authorities flatly deny that the grants are distributed as political favors. City officials tend to agree, arguin that, despite the election year, their applications stand on their own merits. But few contest the symbolic impact that a multimillion-dollar grant can have on local voters, particularly if a Carter administration official arrives to participate in the grant-announcement press conference. Just four days before the March 4 Massachusetts primary, Mr. Carter's Bay State coordinator, David Flynn, said: "I can tell you, I wish we had some UDAGs to announce."

Richard Carver, the Republican mayor of Peoria, Ill., and president of the US Conference of Mayors, says: "It doesn't hurt. There's absolutely no question about that.

"I'm sure they [Carter administration officials] are at least maximizing their ability to announce new grants," says Mr. Carver, whose city received one of the largest grants in UDAG history -- $16.3 million -- in the latest round of big-city grants announced Jan. 10.

Jack Flynn, a HUD spokesman, explains that in reviewing applications "the politics of the program are completely neutral." But he also admits, "Where [HUD ] Secretary Moon Landrieu visits is certainly up to him. And he's appointed by the President.

"So if he wants to show up to congratulate some city leaders on the good job they've done in using federal dollars, that's his business," he continues. "And that's probably small-'p' politics."

A review of HUD documents shows that cities in states with primaries before the next round of april UDAG announcements reaped sizable benefits in the $122.9 million UDAGs awarded Jan. 10: Massachusetts (a March 4 primary) $5.5 million to two cities; Illinois (March 18) $17 million to two cities; Alabama (March 11) $2 .8 million to three cities; and New york (March 25) $13.5 million to three cities, including five grants to New York city.

However, the largest grant -- $18.8 million -- went to San antonio, in Texas, where there is not even a Democratic primary scheduled. And millions of dollars flow to other nonprimary states as well.

But the aura of politics remains. And what has been a feather in Mr. Carter's cap has been something of a thorn in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's side.

Massachusetts State Rep. Barney Frank, a key figure in Mr. Kennedy's Maine battle, claims, as do many observers, that the UDAG program is one of the major reasons President Carter enjoys strong mayoral support. In addition, he says, UDAGs allow Mr. Carter to "bite into natural kennedy constituencies such as urban residents and labor unions."

However, other Kennedy strategists -- while while admitting that the urban funds put their candidate at a disadvantage -- are simply resigned to what almost everyone agrees is the power of an incumbent.

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