Cities Said to Lose Political Clout

Elections expert says urban giants are 'invisible' in national elections

THE dominant strategy of presidential candidates this election year is to emphasize issues of economic concern to the suburban middle class.

This is an especially troublesome fact for big cities. It is a stark reminder of how their place on any political map, as a reflection of political power, has shrunk and why.

"The idea of a city simply does not compute as demonstrably as it did in the 1960s or early '70s," says Donald A. Hicks, a professor of political economy at the University of Texas in Dallas.

"Cities are politically invisible [in a national election] because they became economically invisible," he says. Downtown economic power where the buildings are is the image but not the reality.

The 1990 census data reveal that the newest and fastest-growing areas of economic growth are now more likely to be found on the edges of a metropolitan center than at its core, as well as in the Sun Belt and Western portions of the country. Fast-growth metropolitan areas like Seattle, Atlanta, or Orlando have economic "grappling hooks to the outer world," says Mr. Hicks.

For the first time in United States history, a majority of Americans live in metropolitan areas of a million residents or more - almost 125 million people, or a little more than half the nation's total of 249.6 million. The bulk of the population in these metropolitan areas lives in suburbs. Of the 39 metropolitan areas of a million or more people, only eight have cities of a million-plus at their core.

Further eroding the political clout of cities in national elections is the fact that the scheduling of the early primaries ignores urban issues, says David Bositis, senior research associate at the Washington-based Joint Center for Policy Studies.

The New Hampshire and early Southern primaries comprise decidedly nonurban populations. This, plus the fact that in the last two presidential election cycles Jesse Jackson had a lock on the black vote (overwhelmingly urban in the North), and America's big cities had little if any role in the presidential selection process, Mr. Bositis says.

This concern is shared by Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn (D), president of the United States Conference of Mayors. "The present primary system is a deck stacked against America's great cities, and we've already been dealt out," he told an audience at Brown University in Providence, R.I., last week.

Not one of the 50 largest US cities participates in the first four primaries and caucus states. Mayor Flynn has called for the dismantling of the Super Tuesday state primaries to be replaced by a nationwide urban primary in 1996.

"If you are in the big cities you hope a candidate has the right inclinations, because you know candidates can't wear urban concerns on their sleeves" and get elected, says William Frey, a demographer at the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

However, an urban primary has little chance of being established, says Mayor Victor Ash (R) of Knoxville, Tenn. States, not cities, send delegates to conventions.

Big cities can have a greater say in presidential elections by getting their states to move the primaries up, he says.

More important and of greater benefit to cities would be to get Congress to stop passing legislation that requires unfunded mandates, Mr. Ash says. "These drain our local tax base and leave us with either fewer funds to do what we want to do, or the alternative of having to raise our own taxes."

Instead of job growth, the single greatest common denominator of big cities is that their numbers and concentration of people create organizing issues and problems not just quantitatively different, but qualitatively different, says Charles Adrian, a retired political science professor from the University of California at Riverside.

In addition, older cities suffer inordinately from one of the structural weaknesses of democracies, a failure to do any long-term planning, says Professor Adrian.

Problems of transportation, housing, communications, crime, health care, AIDS, to name the obvious ones, all plague cities and all require long-term planning, he says.

A central misconception of Democrats in the last election was to espouse "the problems of the urban poor as if the middle-class problems had been resolved. This is a total misunderstanding of the democratic process which is a middle-class phenomenon," says Adrian.

Anthony Downs, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says, "The [big] city does not give us a solution" to the problem of being more competitive internationally. "In terms of deficiency, cities give us the greatest deficiencies," and education is the best place to show this, he says.

The US can't have a globally competitive work force without a better-educated work force, says Mr. Downs, but far too many children in cities "are not getting this education."

Politics aside, what should be of greatest concern is that, as the economy comes out of the current recession, all of the signs we are looking to for an end of the slump will only further aggravate the plight of the core city, says Hicks.

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