Race Conquers All: In New York as in L.A., Racial Politics Thwarts a Rebirth of Urban Liberalism

Article excerpt

NEW YORK, LIKE LOS ANGELES, NOW HAS ITS new mayor; that's the bad news. Seldom has a city elected a leader about whom it knew less or who seemed to know less about his city. Their mutual ignorance--New York s of Michael Bloomberg, Michael Bloomberg's of New York--seems almost total. In the course of his campaign, Bloomberg said nothing whatever to indicate how he'd govern, save that he'd try to follow in Rudy Giuliani's footsteps. And in Los Angeles, new Mayor James Hahn most certainly knows L.A., but L.A. knows less about him now than when he was a candidate. Five months into his term, ducking decisions and staying largely out of public view, Hahn has done virtually nothing to indicate how he's governing--or even that he's governing. Two blank slates now preside over America's two megacities.

The news goes from bad to worse. New York and Los Angeles had major opportunities in this year's mayoral elections to inaugurate a new era of urban progressivism in America, and both cities came up short. For much of the past century, cities have been a spawning ground of liberal policies and pols; but business-oriented centrist mayors have dominated the urban scene for the last decade--presiding over a restoration of law and order and the revival of downtown life, as well as a heightening of economic inequality and, in some instances, an increase in racial tensions. This year, however, Republicans Rudy Giuliani and Richard Riordan were termed out of their respective city halls, and with the candidacies of Democrats Mark Green in New York and Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, two smart, tested liberals seemed poised to take power and reinvent a vibrant center-left urban politics. Only, they lost.

And--the worst news of all--they lost in no small part because of the racial tensions within their own coalitions, because leading Democrats in both cities played the race card against them precisely to keep this new generation of non-nationalist liberals from coming to power. As a liberal activist for the past quarter-century, Green had long been a champion of civil rights, and as New York's elected public advocate for the past eight years, a constant critic of Giuliani's tolerance of racist police practices. Nonetheless, in the run-up to the general election, four leading Democrats--Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, Bronx party head Roberto Ramirez, union local leader Dennis Rivera of the Service Employees International Union, and the ineffable Al Sharpton--had sought to portray Green as the new-age version of a white-backlash pol. Although Green had, in fact, aired one racially suggestive attack ad against Ferrer, who'd been his opponent in the primary, the charge was ridiculous. But by depressing nonwhite turnout and helping steer half the Latino vote to Bloomberg, it played just well enough to make him mayor. Even more ludicrous, some African-American leaders in Los Angeles--California Representative Maxine Waters, most particularly--accused former Assembly Speaker Villaraigosa, who'd founded the city's Black-Latino Roundtable and headed up the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, of posing a menace to blacks. Villaraigosa would have lost the black vote to Hahn in any event, but this scurrilous charge certainly widened Hahn's margin and helped to ensure his victory.

LOS ANGELES AND NEW YORK, I NEED HARDLY POINT out, are vastly different cities, but for the past dozen years, they have marched in woeful political lockstep. In 1993, following terms in office marred by racial violence, the cities' African-American Democratic mayors, Tom Bradley and David Dinkins, were succeeded by white Republicans Riordan and Giuliani. Emphasizing public order and a renewal of business confidence, both new mayors won wide backing, at least in their first terms. They were handily re-elected in 1997; only African-Americans supported their white liberal challengers--Tom Hayden in Los Angeles, Ruth Messinger in New York. …


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