Credo for American Mayors: Innovate or Prepare to Vacate

City chiefs confront growing challenge as federal backing slips

If you want to know what Americans expect from their elected officials, don't ask a pollster. Take a look at Thomas Menino and Freeman Bosley.

Mr. Menino was an unlikely choice for mayor of Boston. He's an awkward public speaker, and pundits wondered whether a man with an Italian name could break the Irish grip on City Hall. Now, four years and a raft of social reforms later, Mayor Menino cruises toward reelection with nary a whiff of protest.

Half the country away in St. Louis, Mayor Bosley is packing boxes. His critics accuse him of aggravating racial tensions and letting graffiti artists overrun downtown. Two weeks ago, his former police chief beat him in a primary, and Bosley became the first US mayor this year to fall.

In this age of social reinvention, the more federal government recedes, the more cities are on the firing line. Washington may be all partisanship these days, but ask a mayor what party he or she belongs to and you're bound to draw a laugh. New York's legendary Mayor Fiorello La Guardia once remarked that there's no such thing as a Republican or Democratic way to collect the trash. Now the same might be said for putting a welfare recipient to work or attracting a corporate headquarters.

Across the country, 33 cities with a population of 200,000 or greater will elect a new mayor this year. Of those, 13 mayors are officially unaligned with either major political party. But nearly all of those running for reelection make the same arguments: US cities must now compete with foreign cities to draw international businesses; Congress can win praise for cutting welfare benefits to immigrants, but mayors lose office when crime or homelessness swells.

More than ever, mayors feel they're on their own - and the rule of thumb, they say, is innovate or prepare to vacate. "There's no hiding behind the legislative process," says Pat McCrory, mayor of Charlotte, N.C. "We have no choice but to save money while increasing services. Whether you're a Republican or Democrat, aggressive change will get you reelected. But if you wait, you've waited too long."

Look around urban America for what Mayor McCrory means by "aggressive change." Albuquerque's Martin Chavez fights graffiti with a hot line and by reporting vandalized sites himself from his car phone. Detroit's Dennis Archer is revitalizing downtown with not one, but two new stadiums. In Charlotte, McCrory has deputized every citizen as a truant officer. Mayors are revamping schools, appointing drug czars, and fighting for business.

Mayors "face all the same problems, only they are worse," says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "This puts cities on the spot. They've never had a good relationship with the states, because states are dominated by suburban legislatures. Cities have always relied on a special relationship with Washington. Now they've lost that."

Incumbents' year

In pure electoral terms, Mr. Schneider notes, this year will be good for incumbents. Crime is down, the economy is up. Two big-city Republicans - New York's Rudolph Giuliani and Los Angeles's Richard Riordan - face little opposition in Democratic towns.

But voters, perhaps due to the rhetoric of reform in Washington, are edgy, and safety and prosperity can seem fleeting. Four years ago, David Fischer took the helm in St. Petersburg, Fla. and launched an aggressive and novel campaign to restore the city's most neglected neighborhoods. Here's how "Operation Commitment" worked: The city focused all its resources - fire, police, and public works - on one neighborhood for six months of concentrated rehabilitation. Then it would move on to the next area. Property values have risen, so Fischer has cut the tax rate every year.

The mayor enjoyed broad support until last October, when a black motorist was fatally shot by a white police officer in a minority neighborhood. The seams of St. Petersburg unraveled in race riots, and now Fischer faces a tough reelection race.

Lost urban ally

When Democrats ruled Congress, urban America had an ally. There were always federal mandates, but there was also federal money to be had. The Republican takeover in 1994 has changed Washington's relationship with the cities in important ways.

One change is what Donald Borut at the National League of Cities calls "preemption." Ongoing deregulations, he says, strengthen business and weaken city government. Consider telecommunications. Phone firms will get greater freedom to place cellular towers where they want, leaving cities with less zoning control and revenue-raising power. "Local elected officials are concerned that deregulation may be taking away their powers by preemption," Mr. Borut says.

Also, the federal pie is shrinking. To balance the budget even as entitlement programs like Medicare grow, Congress has to cut discretionary spending - that portion of the budget that is allocated each year and from which cities received funding.

In such a climate, says Boston's Menino, the people expect you to stand by them. Even if that means stiff-arming the owner of the New England Patriots as the team heads to its first Super Bowl in 11 years. Bob Kraft offered to pay for a new stadium in the South Boston, a neighborhood known for its Irish political muscle.

Menino, in the opening round of his reelection year, took a goal-line stance. "What does a football team that plays 10 games a year do for the city of Boston?" he asks. "I want a convention center that brings in $486 million a year. You have to work smarter. What's the product, what are the new ideas?"

So far, few are arguing with him.

The Quest for Control of Big-City Mayorships

Thirty-three cities with a population of more than 200,000 are holding mayoral elections in 1997.

Among the largest are New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, Detroit, Seattle, Houston, and San Antonio.

Incumbents are expected to do well this year. Crime is at its lowest level in years, and many urban economies are rebounding.

Cities where there could be close races: St. Petersburg, Fla., St. Louis; and San Diego.

Of the 33 mayoral seats up for grabs:

13 are currently held by Democrats

7 are held by Republicans

2 are held by Independents

11 are held by individuals not aligned with a political party

Source: US Conference of Mayors

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