Racial Politics Subside in Cities ; Votes Today in Philadelphia, Baltimore May Deepen Trend

Article excerpt

Martin O'Malley is fond of saying his campaign is proof that the days of racial politics here are fading. After all, the Irish- American mayoral hopeful won the Democratic primary in this predominantly African-American and overwhelmingly Democratic city with 53 percent of the vote.

Gone are the days of 1995, when Mayor Kurt Schmoke won reelection using a bumper sticker with the African nationalist colors that read: "Schmoke makes us proud."

As voters in cities and towns across America head to the polls today, mayoral elections here and elsewhere will help define how big of a role race now plays in local politics. And increasingly, say experts, the rules have changed.

To be sure, race is still a factor, but black candidates can no longer depend on the solidarity of ethnicity to get in office. Cities where minority voters make up the majority, such as Oakland, Calif., and Gary, Ind., have elected a new breed of white mayors who promise to deliver services faster and cheaper.

"[African-Americans] want to have their lives free of discrimination and racism, but they want the services delivered that suburbanites takes for granted," says Keith Reeves, a political scientist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

As a result, the overall culture of elections is revolving around mayors who function like municipal managers, focusing more on efficiency than ideology.

Jerry Brown, for instance, touted his experience as governor of California in his campaign in Oakland. Meanwhile, the steel town of Gary - one of two cities to elect the nation's first black mayor in 1967 - has turned to white Mayor Scott King to help draw new industry.

"[It's] a political gold mine," says Claudine Gay, a political scientist at Stanford University in California, of the emerging approach.

And the efficiency message resonates whether the candidate is black or white. Washington's new mayor, Anthony Williams, got elected on the promise to clean up the city's notoriously inefficient bureaucracy. Black moderates such as Dennis Archer in Detroit and Michael White in Cleveland are in the mayor's office because they focused mostly on the business of delivering goods and services, says Professor Reeves.

In this year's election, meanwhile, the power of practical politics is threatening to unhinge traditional party lines in Philadelphia, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 4 to 1.

Sam Katz, a white Republican, is in a tough battle with Democrat John Street, an African-American. While Mr. Street was relying on African-American allegiances, Reeves says, Mr. …