PHILADELPHIA--It's an excellent time to be a mayor. Just ask Richard M. Daley, re-elected last week in a smashing landslide in Chicago. Or ask this city's popular outgoing mayor, Ed Rendell.
Two events have made cities much better places: the growing economy and the sharp drop in the use of crack cocaine. The second, Rendell says, "is as responsible as anything for the decline in homicides."
Then there's the new mayoral style. "In the 1990s, we saw a new breed of mayors who were pragmatic and direct in their approach," he says. "It didn't matter if they were black or white, Republican or Democratic. We did the things we had to do to get our cities under control."
Daley, who won with more than 70 percent of the vote this week, "may be the best of the breed," says Rendell. State Sen. Barack Obama, a Chicago Democrat, says Daley profited from the economy and "this aversion to ideology and an emphasis on management that plays well to an executive."
But other shifts in city politics may, paradoxically, help mayors and yet reduce the overall influence of cities. It's said that the current Mayor Daley got re-elected despite the decay in the legendary Democratic machine that was the power base of his late father, Richard J. Daley. Obama's view is different: The end of the machine has immensely strengthened the power of the mayor.
The decline of patronage and political organizations that delivered voters to the polls has reduced the power of local ward leaders to challenge .mayoral authority. "It's harder for folks to build their own independent organizations."
Money and television advertising rule now. That leads to a new urban politics, built on what Obama calls "pinstripe patronage." It includes not only city contracts but also work that's parceled out to law firms, and the fees that go to the brokerage houses that float city bond issues. "They do well, and you get a $5 million to $10 million war chest."
The trend toward privatizing city services is a new source of pinstripe patronage. What the mayors lose (public jobs to give away) they make up for with something more important (campaign contributions). Gross rating points purchased on TV can be more valuable than the legions of precinct captains …