BLACK mayors were elected in overwhelmingly white cities from Seattle to Minneapolis this week, while white mayors were elected in cities where whites are in the minority.
In city after city facing social and economic decline, many voters clearly want mayors who are tough, effective, and dollar-efficient. Urban voters are opting for more police on the streets and harder bargains with public employee unions instead of redistributing wealth.
In some cities, blacks and whites still hew to racial divisions, but many voters around the country are clearly willing to cross lines of race and party to get conservative administrators.
In New York, where whites are 43 percent of the population and 4 of 5 voters are registered Democrats, white Republican Rudolph Giuliani became mayor Tuesday. At the same time, Hartford, Conn., voters elected a white independent, Michael Peters, to replace the first black woman elected mayor of a major US city.
Those are only the latest indications of a growing trend. Just a few months ago, Richard Riordan, a white Republican, won the mayor's office in overwhelmingly Democratic and nonwhite Los Angeles. A year ago, mostly nonwhite and Democratic Jersey City, N.J., elected white Republican Bret Schundler mayor. And the year before, Philadelphians chose conservative white Democrat Ed Rendell.
The upshot of these elections: The nation's five largest cities, rich ethnic stews where no one race dominates the electorate, are now run once again by white mayors - the two largest by Republicans.
Yet black mayors are gaining ground in cities where whites are predominant. This week, Seattle's first black mayor, Norm Rice, was re-elected in a landslide, as was Cleveland's black mayor, Michael White. Minneapolis elected its first black mayor in Sharon Sayles Belton. So did Rochester, N.Y., in William Johnson Jr.
Running a city is an increasingly difficult job. The backdrop for many urban elections this year is an eroding tax base as middle class residents - black and white - leave for the suburbs and beyond. Many businesses follow them out of town. But the problem is not just the money; it is also the social order that middle class families bring to neighborhoods.
In New York City, residents of all classes and incomes are seeing violent crime rise, city services decline, and incivility increase. Although the law requires a balanced city budget, New York is currently heading toward an $800 million deficit this fiscal year and $2 billion in each of the next two fiscal years, says Joseph Viteritti, a management professor at New York University.
The new mayor will have to make some very tough decisions in the next few months to pull the city out of its financial nosedive, Dr. Viteritti says. The fundamental question that New York and many other older Northern cities have to ask themselves, he says, is whether they can afford to pursue an agenda of redistributing wealth to the poor anymore. ``I just don't think the resources are in the city to do this kind of thing anymore,'' he says.
Another close analyst of city affairs, Cooper Union history Prof. Fred Siegel, says the question is not New York's redistributive agenda but whether the city's bureaucracy can make that or any other agenda work. ``As it stands, we have a 19th century bureaucracy in New York,'' including pneumatic tubes for sending messages. ``It's the last stronghold of centralized bureaucracy in the world.'' Tough guy for New York City Hall
Voters may have sensed in Mr. Giuliani's tough-guy persona that he would address such basic questions of governance more boldly than the courtly, soft-spoken Mayor David Dinkins. The former Mafia-busting prosecutor has certainly outlined an agenda for restructuring government and luring back business.
But few New Yorkers have heard it. Instead the campaign was absorbed by race.
Well over 90 percent of blacks voted for Mr. Dinkins, the city's first black mayor, and three-quarters of whites voted for Giuliani. Dinkins won about 60 percent of the Hispanic vote, which is largely Puerto Rican, and Giuliani won at least two-thirds of the Jewish vote.
In a campaign appearance for Dinkins several weeks ago, President Clinton chided New Yorkers unwilling to vote for people ``unlike themselves'' - an apparent reference to white voters rejecting Dinkins.
But Andrew Hacker, a Queens College sociologist and author of a recent book on race relations, says that Mr. Clinton got it slightly wrong. Whites are willing to vote for blacks, he says, unless they develop a sense that a black mayor is empowering a community seen as a threat.
``You get a black mayor, and the black types walk all over us,'' he says, describing a sentiment among white voters. ``People feel they're losing their city.''
That feeling works both ways, of course. If some whites, some Asians, and others felt that Dinkins was too soft on youths running wild in black neighborhoods, many blacks fear that Giuliani will grant moral authority to the most violent element among white police.
Volda Moore, a black woman from Guyana who lives in Brooklyn, says she is as upset over growing crime as anyone. But under Giuliani, she fears a ``holocaust'' for black youth. She has five grandchildren, she says, ``and I'm scared.''
Mrs. Moore says she was sitting in a hospital emergency room recently when two white police officers brought in a black youth with a badly beaten face. When a woman tried to read one of the officers' badges, he unleashed a furious stream of profanity on her. ``It's people like him that would shoot to kill,'' she says. ``A man like that will get so much force from Giuliani.''
Other black voters have no such qualms about Giuliani, but supported Dinkins out of racial pride. ``It's not a prejudice thing,'' says Henry Gilbert, a young black man who works on the receiving dock at Blue Ridge Farms in Brooklyn. A Dinkins win would have meant that the black mayor had done a good job, he says. Non-blacks turned off
Although Jewish voters in this city are overwhelmingly Democratic and mostly liberal, many never took to Dinkins. The mayor's slow response to rioting in Crown Heights, where a mob killed a Hassidic Jew, put him beyond the pale for many.
Rabbi Eli Greenwald, dean of Yeshiva Manhattan Beach, blames Dinkins for the ethnic balkanization of New York. ``It shouldn't be that way. That's not the New York I know.''
Yong Chang, the Korean assistant manager of a small grocery in Brooklyn, says the city needs Giuliani's strength. She saw indecision in Dinkins's failure to act against a black boycott of another Korean grocer that forced the grocer out of the neighborhood.
Dinkins lost some Puerto Rican voters as well, a community that ``sees itself as a racial minority but not as a black minority'' and felt a lack of access in his administration, says Angelo Falcon, director of the Institute for Puerto Rican Studies.
Giuliani now has to begin weaving this frayed ethnic tapestry back together.