Competence overrides race in St. Louis election

Mayoral primary this week shows color of candidates isn't voters' top consideration.

Warning to mayors of America's racially polarized cities: Competence matters.

Don't deliver on campaign promises, and voters will eventually throw you out, no matter what the color of your skin.

That's the lesson, at least, from this week's primary election in St. Louis, where the incumbent mayor, who is black, received a paltry 5 percent of the vote.

It also appears that St. Louis, where blacks and whites are almost evenly divided, is poised to join the list of places that freely swing between electing black mayors and electing white mayors. Having won the Democratic primary in a heavily Democratic city, Francis Slay, who is white, is widely expected to govern city hall after next month's general election.

While racial divisions in the United States remain in a glacial state, some optimists see in city politics the signs of a thaw. As more voters become willing to forgo race as the biggest factor in a local election, they say, that new pragmatism could begin to affect state and national contests too.

Here in St. Louis, Clarence Harmon, the city's second black mayor, was overwhelmingly rejected Tuesday because voters evidently viewed him as ineffective. He was challenged by two major candidates: a former mayor, Freeman Bosley Jr., who is black, and the president of the board of aldermen, Mr. Slay. Slay won handily, with 54 percent of the vote to Mr. Bosley's 41 percent.

If Slay wins next month, he would join white mayors who have taken over from blacks in a slew of cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

"The first time there's a black mayoral candidate, a lot of mobilization goes on," says Wilbur Rich, a political scientist at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., and author of several books on black urban politics. "People say: 'It's our time.' But the black mayor himself has to make the case for reelection."

If those mayors can't, then they're eventually replaced. In some cities, even predominantly black ones such as Gary, Ind., and Oakland, Calif., white challengers made convincing cases they could get things done better. Both men won, helped by their political pedigrees (former California Gov. Jerry Brown in Oakland in 1998) and their ties to the black community (lawyer Scott King in Gary in 1995).

"It's a leap of faith, but it's a leap black people can make because they realize the political power they hold," Professor Rich says. "Let's face it. Black people have been voting for white people for a long, long time. The big deal is getting white voters to vote for blacks."

In many predominantly white cities, this is not a problem. Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Denver, Minneapolis, and Des Moines all have elected black mayors. Half of the nation's big-city black mayors govern cities that don't have a black majority, says David Bositis, senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank dealing with African-American issues. In all, nearly 500 US cities have black mayors.

But in urban centers where whites fear that "blacks are taking over," the equation doesn't look so rosy, political scientists say.

In Philadelphia, after white Mayor Ed Rendell replaced the city's first black mayor, he became immensely popular by turning the city around. When term limits ended his mayoral tenure, he endorsed John Street, the black president of the city council. Even with that endorsement, however, whites turned out in droves for his opponent, Sam Katz, who won 49 percent of the vote and nearly became the city's first Republican mayor in five decades.

In this week's St. Louis primary, exit polls revealed a similar racial divide. An overwhelming majority of blacks (85 percent) supported the black candidate, while virtually the same percentage of white voters (86 percent) picked Slay. Mayor Harmon drew only 8 percent of white voters and 2 percent of blacks.

"The issues related to race are very deep," says John Logan, a sociologist at the University at Albany (N.Y.). "And ... there's been almost no change in the dimensions of the problem. What changed was the willingness of white candidates to be accountable for what they do on race issues and look for black support."

After Rudolph Giuliani, a white Republican, took over from the city's first black mayor, he managed to govern despite virtually ignoring local black leaders.

But most mayors - white and black - have eschewed that model. Instead, they're following the example of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. Elected two years after the death of the city's first black mayor, Harold Washington, Mr. Daley reached out to blacks and Hispanics. During his tenure, for example, the city has paid $9.8 million to help 14 of Chicago's largest black churches run social and day-care programs, according to the Chicago Reporter. In his last reelection bid two years ago, Daley won better than 4 in 10 voters in the city's 20 predominantly black wards.

Already, cities such as Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles are seeing a rise of other ethnic minorities, which complicate the balancing act all mayors perform. Professor Logan says this fragmentation will influence racial politics more than the move to judge candidates by competence.

St. Louis has yet to feel that impact. But because the mayor shares budget power with the city comptroller and the president of the board of aldermen, coalition-building is a hallmark of local politics.

"It's been clear since the '80s that any effective governing coalition ... is a biracial coalition," says Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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