URBAN America faces a year of political change as an election cycle begins that promises a cupolaful of new faces at city halls across the country.
From Seattle to Miami and New York to Los Angeles, voters choose mayors this year in elections that will see a new generation of leaders take over in some of the largest cities and spirited contests in many others.
The changing of the guard began two weeks ago when Freeman Bosley Jr. became the first black mayor of St. Louis.
Today voters in Los Angeles go to the polls to narrow the field of candidates to succeed Mayor Tom Bradley, who is stepping down after 20 years in office.
Pittsburgh holds a primary election next month to fill the seat being vacated by longtime chief executive Sophie Masloff. Later in the year, open mayoral elections (party endorsement not required) will be held in Boston, Miami, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., and Rochester, N.Y.
"It is a big year for mayoral races," says Craig Smith, political director of the Democratic National Committee. "They are particularly important in a year when there are only two governor's races."
The mayoral plebiscites will give a reading of the country's political mood and help define key issues before next year's mid-term elections.
They also come at a crucial time for urban America. Many of the nation's cities face familiar problems: rising crime, ethnic rivalries, suburban flight, poor schools. An economy that cannot decide whether to pick itself up off the mat continues to trouble city stewards. Los Angeles alone is looking at a budget deficit as high as $500 million.
Yet the nation's major cities, where 31 percent of the population lives, are also constantly trying to reinvent and revitalize themselves, whether it is a new "urban village" growth plan in Seattle or an Atlanta preening itself for the 1996 Olympics.
There is, moreover, a new optimism in many cities today - particularly those run by Democrats - with President Clinton in the White House. Mayors are expecting more federal aid. Ties to Clinton
A lot of these mayors were instrumental in getting the president elected," says Douglas Baj of the United States Conference of Mayors. "They see themselves back on the map." In all, there will be more than 500 mayor's races this year in cities of 30,000 people or more. They range from the Big Apple to Dekalb, Ill.
Though blacks govern in only 48 of the 1,050 cities that the Conference of Mayors follows, they occupy one-third of the top slots in the country's 24 largest cities. Democrats outnumber the GOP about 2 to 1, though most mayor's races are nonpartisan.
A vacant desk at city hall does bring out political ambition. The mayoral free-for-all in Los Angeles, for instance, includes 11 major candidates and at least as many minor ones. It is the city's first open election since 1929.
The top two vote-getters will face each other in a runoff June 8, provided no one garners more than 50 percent of the vote today. The expected survivors: City Councilman Michael Woo (D), a Chinese-American who is a champion of the city's multiethnic melange, and Richard Riordan (R), a self-made millionaire who presents himself as a Ross Perot-style outsider "tough enough to turn L.A. around."
In Boston, the vacancy left by Raymond Flynn's appointment as US ambassador to the Vatican is prompting jockeying among more than a dozen possible contenders. City Council president Tom Menino, the acting mayor, is an early favorite. But City Councilor Albert "Dapper" O'Neil has high name recognition, and other longtime pols are vying for early positioning in just the second open mayoral election in Boston in 26 years.
A key dynamic to watch in Boston: whether the city's Irish and Italian Catholic voters will be split among several candidates.
The ethnic vote will be important in Miami, too, where Cuban-born Xavier Suarez is stepping down after eight years in office. Two Cuban-Americans, Miriam Alonso and Victor De Yurre, both city commissioners, are probable candidates. Other likely top contenders: Metro-Dade County Mayor Steve Clark and Urban League President T. Willard Fair. Hotly contested race
Ethnicity, crime, and the tug of war between neighborhood and downtown interests will be major issues in Miami. "We are going to have a hotly contested race," says Robert Joffee, a Miami-based pollster.
Incumbency isn't completely an endangered species this year. Sitting mayors are running or expected to run in Atlanta, Dallas, San Antonio, Seattle, Houston, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Louisville, Ky., Hartford, Conn., and Buffalo, N.Y.
Even though many are favored to win, that doesn't mean there won't be spirited contests. In New York, incumbent David Dinkins (D) faces formidable opposition from former district attorney Rudolph Giuliani on the Republican side and City Council president Andrew Stein in his own party.
Detroit's Coleman Young, a 20-year officeholder, hasn't decided if he will seek reelection. Even if he does, he will be no shoo-in. "We are probably going to have the biggest turnover among mayors in quite a while," says Charles Todd of the Hotline, a political newsletter.