A MARCH on Washington scheduled for May 16 may prove one of the most unusual and dramatic yet staged.
The nonpartisan demonstration will pit one level of government against another. The nation's mayors, impelled by what they see as a decade of steady neglect by Washington, are taking their case for a major shift in funding priorities directly to Congress and the White House.
"If the cities die, our society dies," insists Osborn Elliott, co-chairman of the "Save Our Cities" march. "The cutbacks have been brutal. They've sort of happened without anybody paying much attention. It's time for the country to wake up. The cities are the engines of our society. It's in them that the commerce and art and culture and medical science and higher education ... take place."
Washington's urban cutoff has been sharp and consistent. Mr. Elliott notes that over the last 10 years federal military spending went up $579 billion while federal aid to states and cities was cut by $78 billion.
The National League of Cities (NLC) says federal aid to cities and states fell about 60 percent during the 1980s. In New York City federal aid as a share of the city's budget dropped from 20 percent to 9 percent during the 1980s. In Boston during that decade federal aid was cut by more than half.
The cities now are "reaping the disaster" of such cuts in many of the increased problems they face, says Mr. Elliott, chairman of the Citizens Committee for New York City, a group that helps fund 10,000 local grass roots organizations. "These groups are fighting an uphill battle day in and day out against crime, drugs, homelessness, and hunger ... which in my view can't be won unless the federal government's resources are once again directed toward these problems."
Elliott first broached the idea of the march a year ago in the "My Turn" column in Newsweek, where he was once editor-in-chief. Last August he was invited to speak to a meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors, which adopted the project as one of its own. Conference president Raymond Flynn, mayor of Boston, is co-chairman of the march.
As announced in Washington April 9, the march is expected to draw at least 100 mayors. So far 67, including those from Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven, Conn., have signed up. "Connecticut has been one of the hardest-hit victims of the recession," explains Allen Lowe, an aide to New Haven Mayor John Daniels. The urban leaders will be flanked by 100,000 or more representatives of urban-based church, labor, civil rights, and education groups. Democratic presidential contenders Bill Clinton and Jerry Bro wn have promised New York Mayor David Dinkins that they, too, will march.
DESPITE White House and congressional pleas that the cupboard is bare, city advocates say a lack of political will rather than cash is the problem. National League of Cities leaders note that the Bush administration is committed to as much as a $6 billion share in Western aid for shoring up new democracies in the former Soviet Union.
Although recent congressional efforts to break down the existing legal wall against any transfer of military savings to domestic spending have failed, Mayor Flynn insists that an appropriate share of the peace dividend must be used to meet urban challenges. "Billions upon billions of dollars are still being spent on military (purchases) at cold war rates," says Mr. Elliott.
The marchers intend to lobby their congressmen on Friday, May 15. The next day they will make their way through several downtown Washington neighborhoods to a Mall rally. "They're modeling this after the civil rights marches of the '60s," notes National League of Cities spokesman Thom McCloud, who has attended several planning meetings. Elliott says he sees the march as the "kickoff" of a sustained drive to change US priorities.