Commentary Magazine


The Urban Mood

The numerous mayoralty elections in big cities this year should, some argue, tell us once and for all whether the “backlash” voter now has the upper hand. His arrival has long been predicted but never fully proved. When Barry Goldwater was nominated for the Presidency in 1964, many said, “this is it.” When he was crushingly defeated by Lyndon Johnson, they had to say, “well, maybe this isn’t it.” When Richard Nixon seemed headed to a sure Republican nomination in 1968, we were again told that “this is it.” When Robert F. Kennedy at the same time was carrying white working-class precincts in Indiana and California, we again learned that “maybe this isn’t it.” When Carl Stokes was defeated in his first bid for the Cleveland mayoralty, his supporters assured us that it could only mean that racism was triumphant; when he won on his next try for that office, a lot less was heard about the invincibility of racism. And now with the election of Sam Yorty in Los Angeles and Charles Stenvig in Minneapolis, new grounds for apprehension have been supplied.

Or have they? To be sure, for those who wish blacks and liberals to gain power in the big cities there is little comfort to be found in the Yorty and Stenvig victories. Yorty not only defeated a Negro candidate, Thomas Bradley, but did so with a campaign described as “racist” by the moderate Los Angeles Times, a campaign “calculated to scare the people into voting for him.” Yorty had twice previously won election by cultivating his image as “the little guy” doing battle against the “interests” (such as the LA Times); in 1969 he expanded his definition of the “Establishment” to include not only Communists, as in previous elections, but Black Panthers and campus militants as well—all of whom he linked with his cautious and responsible black opponent, a 20-year police veteran. In a survey taken in February, before Yorty began his fear campaign, 31.6 per cent of the respondents indicated they would not vote for Yorty “under any circumstance,” while only 4.4 per cent named Bradley as a candidate they could not vote for. Yet, after being trounced in the primary, Y’orty was able to win well over 60 per cent of the vote in many middle-class areas of the city, almost 60 per cent in Mexican-American areas, and almost 50 per cent in many Jewish precincts—and win the final election.

And Stenvig, while he in no sense waged a “racist” campaign, ran proudly as a law-and-order candidate, who would not “appease hoodlums,” as he felt his predecessor had done in dealing with black militants and campus disorders. In a city known nationally for its “enlightened” liberalism ever since Hubert Humphrey became mayor in 1945, Stenvig was elected with 62 per cent of the vote as a straight-talking police officer. His campaign, managed by a right-wing Republican and a high-ranking police officer, received much of its publicity from a popular and conservative local “talk show” commentator. The police officer and the radio commentator, both close friends of Stenvig, were reportedly frequent visitors to his office in his first days as mayor, as he grappled with a job for which he had no previous political experience.

And of course, in New York, the defeat in the Republican primary of John Lindsay by a conservative state senator and in the Democratic primary of Herman Badillo and Robert Wagner by the conservative city comptroller seemed to many the last straw. If in New York City, that great storehouse of liberal votes and liberal money, conservatives could win, even in primaries, what hope is there for the rest of the country since (as everyone on the Upper East Side of Manhattan agrees) the remainder of the United States (with the possible exceptions of Cambridge and Berkeley) is a land of Yahoos?

In fact, there is a strong current of popular opinion running against some of the contemporary trends in social change. The polls show conclusively that “crime in the streets” and “Negro riots” are seen both as serious menaces and as the result, in great part, of either official softness or clever agitators. Though the generalized commitment to equal rights for Negroes remains strong, there is a widespread objection to black demands, especially in schools and residential neighborhoods, and a common belief that Negroes are trying to move “too fast” at the taxpayer’s (somehow, always white) expense. Whether one calls these views “backlash” or “racist” depends largely on where one stands on the issues. Strictly speaking, there is nothing “racist” about opposing muggers or disliking riots or even about favoring the maintenance of the neighborhood-school concept. For example, a recent survey of the metropolitan Atlanta area shows an equally high percentage (55) of whites and Negroes “most concerned” about the problem of “police protection and crime prevention.” (Such views become racist if they are founded on or are used to give expression to the conviction that blacks are, as a race, inferior or for other reasons ought to be kept in a subordinate social position.) But whether racist or not, there can be little doubt that the mood of the country has increasingly come to favor a slowing in the rate of social change, a reaffirmation of familial and communal values, and a stronger stance on crime and disorder.

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The question, however, is not what may be the distribution of opinion in the country but what difference that opinion makes in the choice of public officials and the formulation of public policy. Here, the evidence is far from clear. In many cities, including those in which Yorty and Stenvig won, the voters have given support to (or in polls have indicated they would support) candidates very different from the stereotypical law-and-order man. Congressman Don Fraser, a strong liberal whose district coincides almost exactly with the city of Minneapolis, won re-election last November by a comfortable margin against a law-and-order candidate. The black director of one of the nation’s most progressive local Urban Coalitions was elected this spring in a city-wide election to one of the three vacancies on the Minneapolis school board, although Negroes make up less than 5 per cent of the population. Stenvig himself carried one of the two identifiably Negro precincts in the city, as well as the ward where the University of Minnesota is located.

In Detroit, a city that for years has seemed to be deeply divided along racial lines, with constant agitation over whether the police are “too soft” or “too tough” and who is responsible for giving them orders to “go easy” or “crack down,” there is no possibility for the election of a hard-line law-and-order mayor this year. The odds-on favorite, Roman Gribbs, a white, is, although county sheriff, a moderate, well regarded in many quarters, including liberal ones. His opponent, Richard Austin, the first black CPA in the state of Michigan, is no firebrand and has served commendably on the County Board of Auditors. Although the field of 32 candidates in the primary included a number of right-wingers, the only significant conservative candidate was Councilwoman Mary Beck, running on a platform of localism, law-and-order, and opposition to the big interests (her supporters boasted that “Mary Beck’s Busy Broom Brigade” would sweep the city clean of dirt and corruption). While she received strong backing from white homeowner groups,, the police endorsed her more moderate opponent Gribbs, largely because of her reputation for frugality at contract time—and she got less than a quarter of the city-wide vote in the primary. The Detroit Police Officers’ Association might well have supported incumbent Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, had he chosen to run, because of the way he delivered on bread-and-butter issues. And some polls show that Cavanagh would have had a fifty-fifty chance of winning this year despite the scars of the 1967 riot and his own family problems.

In Atlanta, George Wallace got over a quarter of the vote, a far higher percentage than he received in any large northern city, and yet the city has continued to follow the leadership of the widely admired Southern liberal, Mayor Ivan Allen. If he had chosen to run, Allen would easily have been re-elected, in the opinion of most Atlanta observers, even though he is the utter opposite of Wallace in every respect. And the candidates who are running are hardly virulent racists-one is a black PhD who is a member of the Board of Education; another is a liberal Jew; a third is a moderate Republican alderman who while a state legislator voted to seat militant Negro leader Julian Bond; even the law-and-order candidate stood virtually alone in the state legislature during the integration crisis of the 1950’s when he voted against closing the schools.

With Negroes and Mexican-Americans making up only about 25 per cent of the registered voters in Los Angeles, and with a strong majority of the brown vote going against him, Thomas Bradley, a Negro, still was able to get almost 47 per cent of the overall final vote. He himself told an interviewer after the election, “relatively speaking, it was a great accomplishment.” Six months earlier few political experts thought Bradley had a chance, even though the city had just overwhelmingly rejected conservative Max Rafferty’s attempt for the Senate. Today, in Bradley’s words, “We’ve created an attitude. People will accept a black man running for high office now as a regular thing.”

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These anomalies in the “year of the backlash” may only indicate that the reaction against the compound problems of crime, riots, and black and student militancy has set in unevenly and that exceptional personalities have been able to survive the general change in the mood of the nation. Only much later, and after many more elections, will we know for certain. But a different conjecture seems to us at least as plausible—namely, that the American political system does not quickly or accurately mirror changes in opinion, especially at the local level, because between popular attitudes and public action (again, especially at the local level) a number of institutional and organizational factors intervene. To see urban politics as the media see them—as a “popular mood” producing a “fundamental change”—is to miss the extraordinary variety in local political systems and the complex implications of a candidacy or a policy. Just as the media were misled by their “discovery” a few years ago of the “angry black” producing a “seething ghetto” that demanded “urgent action,” they are probably misled now by their “discovery” of the “indignant white workers” who intend to “fight back” because their “working-class values” have been outraged or ignored. Make no mistake—there are such persons, just as there are enraged blacks, and their possible confrontation is no pleasant prospect. Yet a vision of American urban politics that consisted solely in portraying hand-to-hand combat between these antagonists would be not only inaccurate but dangerous.

One factor that powerfully affects the ways in which attitudes get translated into political action is the nature of the local electoral system, and especially the role (if any) of the political parties. One reason why liberal congressmen can get elected from cities that are choosing conservative mayors is that congressmen run in partisan elections (that is, their party affiliation appears on the ballot next to their names); one reason why black mayors can get elected in Cleveland and Gary is that these elections are also partisan. Party loyalties change slowly; the party label carries nuances and reinforces wavering commitments long past the time when a voter may be prepared to reject any particular candidate wearing that label. In Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Detroit, and Atlanta, nonpartisan mayoral elections permit voters to express their immediate feelings more directly, while tending to limit mayoral fields either to candidates heavily financed by the “establishment” or to “protest” candidates, who, lacking party funds and party discipline, are necessarily “anti-establishment.” In a city where the sense of urban growth and racial progress is predominant, as in Atlanta, this may lead to a responsible, moderate mayor, more liberal than many of his constituents. Most often, however, the nonpartisan mayoral election allows voters to express conservatism in local affairs.

And the feelings that are expressed do not simply arise out of the wellsprings of the voter’s private conscience. It is reasonable to suppose that voters are aware that they are choosing a mayor, and not simply registering a mood; what the mayor does—indeed, what mayors generally can do—probably makes a difference. For one thing, mayors are supposed to tend to the communal and service interests of the urban electorate; not, as with congressmen, to cast a vote on large national issues or, as with a President, to embody a conception of the national interest. And though the evidence on this point is scanty, voters probably see the mayoralty in different cities in quite different terms. A person voting in Chicago, for example, probably thinks of himself as voting for a man who “is going to run the city,” for that is exactly what the mayor for the last ten years or so has done. But what does a mayor in Los Angeles or Minneapolis do? By the common and repeated testimony of the incumbents of those jobs, not much. By law and charter, the highest offices in these two cities are lacking in authority; by custom and circumstance, the men holding these offices have not tried too hard to enlarge informally on their limited formal powers.

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It may be important that the two law-and-order victors were chosen in cities where the mayor is weakest. The only important formal power of the Minneapolis mayor is to choose the police chief; the Los Angeles mayor cannot even do that (though he can appoint a commission that in turn will select—usually by competitive examination—the chief). The city councils in both cities are considerably more “liberal” (or at least more aligned with the traditional sources of urban activism) than their current mayor. Bradley supporters, for example, control the three most important council committee chairmanships in Los Angeles.

Though Bradley himself vigorously denied that the mayoralty need be a weak office, citing in particular the opportunity for opinion leadership, other liberals, including Arthur Naftalin, the outgoing mayor of Minneapolis, disagree. After the election, Naftalin told an interviewer that “I don’t think that much will be different under Stenvig. . . . There won’t be any resources available, even for the expansion of the police force.” Long before the election, Naftalin—a liberal with a PhD degree and wide connections among national “urbanologists”—had been speaking exactly like Yorty on this score: the mayor is “powerless” to solve the urban problems. (Of course, only Yorty, not Naftalin, was taken to task by a Senate subcommittee for such views.) The voters, we may conjecture, got the message. As one Minneapolis Democrat remarked, “Naftalin walked around for eight years saying he had no power except to appoint a police chief. The people started listening to him.”

Furthermore, the “best” mayors had always emphasized the need for federal or state solutions to urban problems—massive monetary aid, new programs, progressive experiments. While there may have been good reason for this, especially if one saw “urban problems” chiefly in terms of the problems of the poor and the black, it had the effect of making it appear that the President of the United States ought to be the “mayor” and the Congress the “city council” for all large cities. Similarly, it had the effect of wiping out the crucial distinctions between one city and another. Mayor Naftalin was quoted at a national mayor’s gathering: “Everything you read about New York, Detroit, and Chicago happens in Minneapolis also. The climate is the same.” Such statements, while they may encourage more federal attention, create their own “credibility gap” in a city which 92 per cent of the residents in a recent survey rated “good” or “great.” In fact, the residents of Minneapolis appear to be highly conscious (and proud) of the uniqueness of their political situation: their low proportion of blacks and their northern European heritage of obedience to the law, clean government, and civic participation. They don’t want to be told that their city has all the problems of other cities, and they don’t want to be told that they can’t solve most of their own problems.

If the most urgent problems of the cities, conventionally defined, were the proper business of “Mayor Nixon” and the “City Council” in Washington, what was left for the mayors and councils of Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Detroit, and other places to do? One thing they could do was tend to the neighborhood and communal problems of the cities—street cleaning, garbage collection, and, of course, street crime. The mayors who were oriented to the national view of urban affairs did not act (in the eyes of local voters) as if they cared about these things. In fact they may have cared a great deal, but having made it clear they were powerless to do anything and having failed to focus their public statements on these matters, they seemed indifferent or impotent or both. As a result, they became vulnerable to attack by candidates who seemed to take these things seriously.

In every major city this year, the law-and-order candidate has also tended to be the “local” candidate. For example, a veteran Detroit reporter states: “If there’s a community problem, the only councilman you see out there is Mary Beck.” The publicly shrill Miss Beck can talk privately and movingly about the fate of elderly residents on fixed incomes who are assessed by the city for the removal of trees afflicted with dutch elm disease from their property. “Why don’t we have a fund for that?” she asks. Though localism and law-and-order often seem to go hand-in-hand, they don’t have to. The most liberal member of the Minneapolis City Council was re-elected with well over two-thirds of the vote in a ward that gave Stenvig almost four-fifths of its vote. Asked to explain the success of this man who had voted for gun control and open housing in an all-white, working-class ward (known as “little Europe” in the city), a prominent labor leader replied: “He listens to his people. If you got a problem, you can always get him.” Even Sam Yorty, despite his much discussed world travels, always appeared to pay attention to these “local” problems, with some success. In a private poll taken in the spring of 1969, 67 per cent of those surveyed indicated a “favorable” response to Los Angeles city services. An incumbent who always acted as if he took city services and local problems seriously—a Yorty—could make much mileage out of this against a challenger who was made out to appear to be running as much for national approval and attention as for victory in the city.

Atlanta is a curious but important exception to all this. The mayor’s office is weak there, too, but because of Allen’s skill and his connections with the city’s business community, he could make things happen anyway—even if he had to call up his business friends and get them to donate the money. (A story, perhaps apocryphal but nonetheless illustrative, concerns a recent “long, hot summer,” when Allen reportedly called eight friends to get each to finance a portable swimming pool for ghetto areas. He got seven pools. The eighth person was out.) And Allen, though a national figure, has emphasized repeatedly his preoccupation with the growth and good order of Atlanta. The fact that Allen appeared to have absolutely no higher political ambitions made this local preoccupation all the more credible. Furthermore, though Allen and Naftalin, for example, spent equally large amounts of their time worrying about ghetto problems—and backed up this commitment with courageous appearances in the ghetto in the time of crisis—in Atlanta, where 45 per cent of the population is black, this struck the voters as sensible; but in Minneapolis, where only 5 per cent is black, it seemed like “coddling.”

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The result of nonpartisanship, of the perceived weakness of city hall, and of the national orientation of some mayors or mayoral candidates, may have been to induce voters to see the local campaign more in symbolic than in practical terms—as an opportunity to tell their mayors to “pay attention to us for a change” and as a chance to register their concern about law-and-order under circumstances that made it unlikely anything drastic would be done.

Reinforcing this tendency is the fact that, ironically, the “new politics” has really caught on. The political amateurs who began in New York and California to “take over the party” from the bottom up have succeeded in making the parties, there and elsewhere, genuinely open to grassroots influence. Students and others who organized and manned the McCarthy campaign and infused it with earnest sincerity displayed door-to-door, extended the work already begun, on behalf of very different causes, by the Goldwater enthusiasts of 1964. The “new politics” of participation, direct personal contact, and right motives is no longer the province of the reformist or intellectual elite; it is the style of the middle classes generally. What was once avant garde is now available at the corner drugstore. Because of this, the “new politics” no longer leads inevitably to the support of very liberal candidates. Coupled with increased Republican involvement in city politics, this development is of crucial importance-in understanding whatever conservative upsurge has taken place.

Stenvig and Yorty mobilized hundreds upon hundreds of middle-class Americans to work door-to-door for them. By doing this, and doing it well, they were able to solve the problem that has beleaguered other conservative candidates—how to avoid the media-inflicted stigma of being a “racist,” a “reactionary,” or a “charlatan.” They avoid it not by getting their volunteer army to convince strangers that such notions are wrong, but by getting those volunteers simply to call on their own friends and neighbors and say, in effect, “You know me; I’m the nice guy (or lady) next door. You and I are pretty much alike. I like Yorty. If I like him, you know he couldn’t be a racist, because you know I’m not a racist. So you can vote for him with a clear conscience. You secretly want to vote for him anyway; I’m here to assure you that it’s all right.”

In Los Angeles, Yorty got 26 per cent of the votes in the primary after almost a nonexistent campaign. He seemed headed for oblivion. Then an organization was put together, drawing on the Republican amateurs and semipros who had just elected Barry Goldwater, Jr. to Congress; several hundred police and police-related volunteers; long-time members of neighborhood associations; and, most importantly, middle-class Republican housewives in the San Fernando Valley. Yorty appeared on television night after night to raise, subtly or bluntly, fears connected with crime, police demoralization, militants, and subversives; the volunteers, supplemented by an extensive use of personalized mailings (done by computer), fanned out to assure the people-they knew that it was all right for Yorty to say this and for them to act on the basis of it. The campaign was carefully planned. The results were dramatic. In the populous San Fernando Valley, where Yorty got less than a third of the vote in the primary, he got over two thirds in the runoff. This was not a “blue-collar revolt,” it was the clear choice of “respectable,” solidly middle-class voters.

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In Minneapolis, too, volunteers, many of them middle-aged or elderly, were important. (Stenvig workers proudly tell the story of the man with two canes who came in and asked to hand out literature. He was back the next day for more.) Although the Republican organization backed Stenvig’s opponent (who had been director of “Mayors for Nixon-Agnew”), some dissident Republicans helped to organize Stenvig’s effort They were joined by many newcomers to politics, as well as by people with a variety of organized political experience, ranging from leadership in anti-urban renewal groups to work in a successful anti-pornography lobby at the state legislature. The volunteers’ activity on behalf of Stenvig included such innovations as mailing out campaign literature to people on their family Christmas card lists, as well as ringing doorbells. It would be a mistake, however, to see this volunteer effort as the only thing Stenvig had going for him. Equally significant were the weaknesses of the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party in the city, the weaknesses of labor itself, and the weaknesses of Stenvig’s Republican opponent in the runoff. In the spring of 1968, the. DFL, divided by earlier intraparty squabbles, was “captured” by youthful backers of Eugene McCarthy. For much of the year they thumbed their noses at labor, traditionally the backbone of the local party. Added to earlier divisions, the result was a weak, compromise candidate for mayor who received no labor endorsement and lost in the primary—in a normally strong DFL town.

In addition, labor itself was divided. Some of the union locals had been hit by an unprecedented turnover of business agents in the past few years, indicating rank-and-file discontent and making stable leadership virtually impossible. Labor leadership itself was split into three organizations, one of which endorsed the Republican candidate before the primary. A prominent labor and party leader stated flatly to an interviewer that, “If labor and the DFL were as strong as they once were there would have been no Stenvig.” An important final aspect of Stenvig’s victory was the fact that he was running against a Republican in a “nonpartisan” race, a Republican who had received President Nixon’s endorsement, who was identified with “the establishment,” and who refused to take Stenvig’s candidacy seriously. Stenvig, an ex-DFLer running as an independent and an anti-establishment candidate, was a more palatable choice to lifelong Democrats in this strong union town. His “just plain folks” image was reinforced by the activities of his volunteers, who were quick to point out to neighbors and friends the difference between his opponent’s elaborate ads on TV, in the newspapers, and on billboards all over town and “Chuck’s” humble, $20,000 “people-to-people” campaign.

The Bradley campaign in Los Angeles, of course, attracted volunteers also—probably more than supported Yorty and Stenvig put together. But there was a difference: these were volunteers in the early, avant-garde sense—young, college-educated, cosmopolitan, sometimes long-haired. Above all, with the possible exception of the large group of black volunteers, they were not “locals” who could by their presence and manner reassure voters—less than 18 per cent of whom were black—that their candidate was respectable, interested in local affairs, and legitimate. Indeed, it is possible that population changes have made it even harder for the cosmopolitan or liberal volunteer to be as effective as he once was. The home-owning upper-middle classes have increasingly moved out of the central city and therefore the liberal but locally-known lawyer, professor, or advertising executive is increasingly concentrated in the suburbs. Except in places such as Manhattan, the central-city cosmopolitan tends more and more to be a student with no local ties and thus little local effectiveness.

To be sure, the Bradley campaign had one asset that was lacking in the Minneapolis DFL—unity. Almost all trade-union and California Democratic Council liberals were for Bradley. The otherwise bitterly quarrelsome ex-Kennedy and ex-McCarthy factions could unite, along with labor leaders, behind a black man. But apparently there is even such a thing as too much unity—one Bradley supporter complained to an interviewer of the “orgiastic euphoria” of “various dissident groups, black and white, Kennedy and McCarthy, once again holding hands.” The criticism was echoed by an experienced Democratic politician who stated: “I always felt that Bradley was a better candidate than the campaign that was supporting him.” The Bradley campaign suffered from a variety of ills which affect most political organizations staffed by amateurs (or at least, Democratic amateurs, who are much more inclined to “do their own thing” than more conventionally-minded Republican amateurs). Among these were an obsession with ideological purity and with adhering to the symbols of media liberalism (“law and order” was not to be mentioned in literature); fragmented, if not anarchistic control (“law and order” was used in some literature despite the prohibition); a too easy reliance on polls rather than the word from the grass-roots pros (Bradley did not dwell on his “law and order” background because it was not apparent on the basis of the polls that such moves were necessary). While such criticisms tend to obscure the virulence of the Yorty campaign, or to neglect the many successes of the Bradley effort—most notably, the well-disciplined and exceptionally high black voter turnout—they do point to some of the difficulties facing Democratic political organization in nonpartisan cities, especially now that voluntarism is the order of the day.

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Political organization in Atlanta is comparably weak, although perhaps for different reasons. The Negro who for years led the skillfull and effective Negro Voter’s League is dead; the Coca Cola executive who for years worked to unite the higher echelons of the business community is now inactive; campaigns are managed by professional public-relations firms; a great deal depends on the personal skill of the mayor or would-be mayor in working out alliances, projecting the right image, and having access to business money (campaigns in Atlanta are expensive, beginning with the filing fee, which is $5000). For the past thirty years, the “white power structure” has chosen the candidate who became mayor, although that candidate has not always acted as they would have liked. For the past twenty years, Negroes have aligned themselves with the power structure’s choice, in what has been described as an “unholy alliance.” This year, with the first major black candidate in history, the first major Republican candidate in modern times, an exceptionally liberal Vice-Mayor under Ivan Allen, and a law-and-order candidate, both the business community and the black community may be split. But unlike other cities with weak political organization, Atlanta still seems to be on the rising curve of civic pride and optimism bolstered by a vigorous local economy and protected by a demographic pattern that has kept much of the upper middle class living within the city limits, even while many of the diehard Wallace supporters have moved out. Although 1969 may herald the decline of the traditional alliance between Bourbons and blacks, it does not appear that Atlanta will soon have to face the grim prospects of a politics of scarcity, fear, and retrenchment. That will only come when the optimism of the city falters, or the economy turns stagnant, or the affluent depart.

Detroit is already in that state, and the weakness of political organization there only makes matters worse. The business leadership of the community has never been able to revitalize the economy and of late hardly seems to be trying. Many firms have moved or are considering moving out of the city; J. L. Hudson’s, the department store, has been purchased by out-of-town interests; crime is rising dramatically; and the scars of the riot are still very much apparent, psychologically as well as physically. At the focal point of the division are the police, who have been involved in a number of ugly incidents in the past few years, most notably the Algiers Motel shootings and the New Bethel Church shoot-out. The New Detroit Committee, created in the wake of the riot and affiliated with the Urban Coalition, has had some success, with the aid of the auto companies, in cutting unemployment, but has hurt its limited effectiveness by acting more as a lightning rod for the criticism of black militants than as a way-station where white and black moderates could work out common goals.

The United Auto Workers has always had a poor record insofar as Detroit elections go, partly as the result of nonpartisanship and partly also because union members seem more willing to accept the union’s liberal posture on state and national issues, involving things far from home, than to accept it on local matters. Furthermore, whereas once there were many local “labor” issues, such as how the police would treat striking picketers, with the advent of national labor legislation, union members perceive their “labor” interests as most at stake in national elections—a fact made clear by the unions’ success last year in holding down the Wallace vote (labor leaders indicate that this feat would be “impossible” to duplicate in local elections). This year the UAW has endorsed Richard Austin, the moderate black candidate for mayor, although privately union leaders give Austin little chance of winning. Austin, after Cavanagh pulled out, was the candidate closest to the UAW in his political views. However, another factor also entered in. About 40 per cent of the UAW members are black, and in the past year a small but threatening black separatist Revolutionary Union Movement has provoked a number of wildcat strikes on behalf of its demands. “Better to endorse a losing black man than a losing white man,” said one UAW official.

The weaknesses of traditional political organization in Detroit and Atlanta, one might suppose, would make their mayoral politics as volatile and symbol-laden as politics in Los Angeles or Minneapolis. But one factor intervenes to complicate the comparison. In both Detroit and Atlanta, Negroes are now sufficiently numerous to make the prospect of black control of the mayoralty real. In Detroit blacks are over 40 per cent of the population, and make up at least 25 per cent of the registered voters; in Atlanta, they are 45 per cent of the population (and will be over 50 per cent in 1973 if city boundaries remain the same) and over 38 per cent of the registered voters. Race is no longer a matter of symbolic politics (“are you for or against civil rights and Negroes?”) but is about to become a matter of practical politics (“Which Negro will be the man who gets the first serious crack at city hall?”). It is unlikely, though not impossible, that Horace Tate in Atlanta or Austin in Detroit could win the mayor’s office; in any case, the day is not far off. It will be an uphill fight, owing to the nonpartisan system, and (in Detroit) to the low Negro registration rate; it will also be an abrasive one, owing to divisions within the black community. Bradley had no serious Negro opponent in Los Angeles, but then when he began few Negroes thought he had a serious chance of winning. Moreover, he mended fences early and had strong black support at the time he announced. Neither Tate nor Austin was the clear first choice of the many Negro factions in their respective cities and neither had done all the necessary preliminary organizing. Austin’s chances were further weakened by the attempt of some of his political foes to get a tough civilian review board proposal onto the November ballot. The result was to force Austin, reluctantly, to back it early and thus hurt whatever chances he had to win white votes. (The proposal failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot.)

The “new politics” of Los Angeles and Minneapolis, at least as practiced by the middle classes, cannot have the same significance in Detroit or Atlanta—partly because the persons who are becoming involved in politics are different and partly because the stakes are different. As the prospects of real power draw closer, the style of black politics will change. The pattern of many different and sometimes competing “leaders” (often, only individuals who are spokesmen for points of view) engaging in rhetorical politics aimed at creating or maintaining a small constituency will give way, to some degree,, to a pattern of coalition politics in which a candidate is chosen and supported. Already elements of this may be seen in Atlanta and Detroit, where neither candidate faced a Negro challenger of prominence even though many better-known Negroes in those towns have important political and ideological differences with the candidates. In Detroit, where most black leaders did not figure “this was the year” for a black candidate, popular outcries in the black community after the New Bethel shoot-out changed their mind. A broad coalition of Negro political leaders decided on a candidate, the black president of New Detroit, only to have him refuse to run. The more conservative and less well-known Austin stepped in to fill the breach, and black leaders found they had little choice but to get behind him (although they could, and did, force him to make gestures to the black community which might well cost him the election).

The civil-rights revolution, and later the rise of militant black nationalism, produced an explosive increase in the number and variety of black leaders unconstrained by the prospects of substantial political power (and thus substantial political responsibilities). In some large cities—Detroit and Atlanta are two, Newark is a third—the constraints will increase as the probability of winning increases. Already the moderate quality of avowed black mayoralty candidates is impressive, indicating that however great ghetto turmoil may be, many realities of urban politics have not changed fundamentally. While black mayoral candidates will not and cannot be “Toms,” neither are they likely to be “extremists,” representing one faction in the many-faceted black community and unable to work with white power at the local, state, or national level.

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Whatever importance may be attached to the institutional and organizational features of urban politics, there can be no denying the importance of voter attitudes. Even here, however, the notion of a simple “backlash” against blacks or the poor or crime is too simple an account of current voting trends. In no way is this better illustrated than in the case of the Jewish voter.

When James Roosevelt ran against Mayor Yorty four years ago, the Jewish precincts of Los Angeles supported Roosevelt by majorities of 80 or 90 per cent. This year they gave Bradley only half, or slightly more, of their votes. Moreover, the Jewish turnout, normally far higher than any other group, was this time no more than the city-wide average. Though no exact data are available, a preliminary examination of election results suggests that it was among the middle-class and lower-middle-class Jews, especially those who were elderly or Orthodox or both, that the greatest switch to Yorty occurred. Sample precincts in black-Jewish border areas, and in an area where there had been a fierce debate in the community over a bussing issue, show the highest turnout and the highest pro-Yorty sentiment.

A man in charge of getting out the Jewish vote for Bradley placed the blame for the switch on one issue: “school unrest.” His door-to-door canvassers heard about little else from the voters, who apparently often linked local disturbances with what they had heard from the media nationally concerning black anti-Semitism and the “community control” controversy in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Jews, traditionally sensitive to school issues anyway, also had a number of local incidents to build their fears upon—incidents which were often virtually ignored in the Los Angeles Times, but which brought eight-column frontpage headlines in the community newspapers. These stories were carefully reproduced along with articles concerning Ocean Hill-Brownsville in flyers sent out on Yorty’s behalf. Yorty’s campaign devoted substantial effort to the Jewish vote, concentrating on those Jewish areas that were not high-income and were close to and sensitive to the onrushing black “threat.” Needless to say, Bradley did nothing to encourage Jewish fears, and indeed, made a strong speech condemning black anti-Semitism. But just as obviously, no Jewish voter would consider himself a “racist” for voting against candidates identified, however vaguely or indirectly, with groups who were attacking the schools in general or those schools in particular in which such a disproportionate number of Jews work as teachers and administrators. The endorsement of Yorty by a small group of Conservative rabbis helped to legitimize this vote further, and probably was in no way offset by the vigorous efforts of a group of liberal rabbis to condemn Yorty’s scare tactics, for these men could be, and were, dismissed as “the establishment.”

Nor did Yorty leave his courting of the Jewish vote to the conflicts mentioned in the press. Yorty has, within the limits of a weak mayoral system, done his best to make positive and particularistic appeals to the various ethnic groups within the city. In the older Jewish areas, his frequent mention of the high number of Jews he had appointed to posts in his administration, and his casual references to one of Los Angeles’s “sister cities,” Eilat, Israel, gave voters still moved by such appeals another good reason to support him.

The other ethnic group Yorty courted with even greater success was the Mexican-Americans. He did better in the primary in Spanish-speaking precincts than in almost any other area of the city and in the runoff he got an estimated 60 per cent of the Mexican-American vote. He used the traditional techniques of ethnic politics—techniques rejected by many California politicians either because they are not supposed to work or because they are “immoral.” Another “sister city” was Mexico City. “Amigo Sam” raised the Mexican Flag on the anniversary of Mexico’s independence. Prominent Mexican-Americans were made city commissioners. Though Bradley had the support of Cesar Chavez, though he offered a position paper calling for a change in the city council to insure Mexican-American representation, Yorty had the support of the voters.

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Of greater importance in the election was the fact that polls showed Mexican-Americans to be more concerned about “crime in the streets” than any other group in the city—and with reason. Crime rates in their neighborhoods tend to be high, but unlike Negroes, they feel free to complain publicly about it. Because “crime in the streets” has been used by some as an anti-black slogan, and because many blacks believe (wrongly) that whoever uses that phrase is a racist, black leaders speak out against crime at their peril. Bradley, who issued position papers on “law enforcement with justice,” was affected by these constraints. Because Mexican-Americans are a low-visibility, highly localized minority group, they have been spared the popular connection afflicting Negroes between the mugger and the black face, and thus they have been spared the necessity of being defensive about the crime issue. They make no bones about their concern over it and they respond favorably to a candidate, like Yorty, who echoes their fears. Moreover, they are sensitive to the attention given to the “Negro plight” in the media and by the federal government, and concerned that they are not getting their “fair share,” a situation seemingly not likely to improve under a black mayor (a popular Yorty theme).

The aged are another group that played an important part in the Los Angeles and Minneapolis elections, and may well make the difference in the race in Detroit. In Minneapolis, which has the highest percentage of elderly of any major city in the country with the exception of St. Petersburg, Florida, the aged not only voted in record numbers, but provided much of the manpower for the Stenvig volunteer effort. The plight of the elderly in cities, while frequently described, has been all too easily dismissed in the past. Restricted, often, by fixed incomes, hurt by high property taxes, forced to move or make expensive renovations when urban renewal enters an area, and trapped by their lack of resources from escaping to the suburbs, they see themselves, not surprisingly, threatened by liberal mayors and expanding black settlements. Most importantly, while the chief victims of black crime are black, in cities where much housing is integrated, as in Minneapolis and Detroit, the white victim of street crime is almost invariably an old person, vulnerable because of his age and because of where he lives. More than for any other group, “crime in the streets” is a legitimate issue for the aged. Together with their generally “localistic” orientation and concern with other problems, this makes the aged a potent, conservative, unified voting bloc in cities.

Finally, a group widely believed to have increased its influence in the cities as other, organized, liberal elements have declined in significance is the police. The “Skolnick Report” to the National Commission on Violence states, for example: “. . . recent events point to a new and far more significant politicization of the police.” While police involvement in mayoral campaigns this year has made their political activity and viewpoints more visible, it has also made more clear some of the constraints that operate on that activity. The Minneapolis Police Officers Federation, in an unprecedented move, endorsed the candidacy of their president, Charles Stenvig, but few policemen took an active part in the campaign (although members of their families may have). They were wary of the effect a too active involvement would have on their promotions and salaries if Stenvig did not win. Furthermore, their political strength was down from what it had been a few years earlier, when they had organized to back candidates who Supported their salary demands. This decline was largely the result of a recently-passed ordinance allowing police officers to live outside the city. The ordinance, which was opposed by black groups, has evidently led to a rapid migration of policemen to the suburbs, and, therefore, to less political influence and less interest on their part in the city. The political climate of a city seemingly so susceptible to a law-and-order appeal may also produce constraints. A high police officer who took an active leadership role in the Stenvig campaign commented to an interviewer: “Basically I’m opposed to policemen being involved in politics. Stenvig’s opposed to it.” The statement, while perhaps not quite an accurate reflection of his personal attitude, was an accurate reflection of his perception of what it was necessary to say in Minneapolis.

In Detroit, the police entered into a pre-primary coalition with a group of conservative homeowners’ associations, and leaders of the Detroit Police Officers Association talked publicly of vigorous political activism in the future. It was an uneasy and perhaps impossible alliance, however, given the salary demands of the police and the reluctance of the homeowner groups to support increases in wages paid for out of higher taxes. In many cities, referenda elections indicate that the poor and the black are more likely to support higher police salaries than are white homeowners.

Perhaps the most significant phenomenon involving the police is the increasing political visibility of the police chief. Surveys in Los Angeles showed that a candidate endorsement by Chief Tom Reddin, who retired in the midst of the election to take a job as a TV newscaster, would have had more influence with voters than that of any other man. Political pros in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Atlanta refer to the police chiefs in those cities as “easily the most popular public figure in the city,” yet all three chiefs (including the retired Reddin) have moderate, if not liberal, reputations. Once a relatively anonymous public servant, the police chief has come to possess an “image” as important as that of the mayor, and the most successful chiefs are those practiced in the art of public relations. Detroit’s Mayor Cavanagh indicates that “an administration is viewed not just through its mayor—but also through its police commissioner.” The mayor who appoints a “smooth” police chief, interested in community relations but also endowed with a strong, manly image, may be able to take much of the law-and-order heat off himself, as has been the case in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Atlanta.

In 1961 a number of “young Turks” were swept into the mayor’s office around the country, in a great “year of the liberals.” Among them were Ivan Allen, Jerome Cavanagh, Arthur Naftalin, and, yes, even Sam Yorty. The elections, particularly Cavanagh’s and Yorty’s, represented a “backlash” against the “established” powers and the thrust of their rhetoric and programs was optimistic and forward-looking. Eight years later, only Yorty chose to run again. The energy and accomplishments of the early 60’s had seemingly been replaced by despair, exhaustion, and fear. Mayor Naftalin said in an interview in the New York Times, “The work of mayor has become increasingly difficult and demanding . . . we have a weak mayoral system, which increases the frustrations of the job, which are plenty already.” Mayor Cavanagh put it more succinctly: “If you win, what have you won?”

To some degree the 1961 generation of mayors fell victim to forces beyond its control—although by their actions the mayors may have speeded up tendencies that were already present. Out-migration took many liberal voters into the suburbs, while increasingly restive blacks acquired a new significance. A generation trained by the New Deal to look to Washington for old-age benefits and meaningful labor legislation, found mayoral elections a good place to mount a “protest” vote to assert the primacy of local concerns. Party, labor, and other interests which had traditionally worked to assure the election of liberals or at least “good government” types, found their organizations weakened by the emergence of new groups and by the increasingly clear distinctions which many of their stalwarts drew between national and local questions. The liberal mayors, who were able to capitalize on their “national” approach during the vigor of the Kennedy and early Johnson years, found with the advent of the Vietnam war that little more could be expected from Washington. Caught between the “massive urban problems” which they had helped to define so clearly to the nation, and their inability to come up with new sources of revenue for dealing with these problems, the mayors clearly were in a position to be not only “backlashed,” but “front-lashed” as well.

There can be no doubting the conservative mood of much of today’s urban electorate. How it will be expressed, however, cannot be inferred simply from the mood itself. Institutions and organizations and personalities will complicate, and perhaps ultimately change completely, that expression. Even “conservative” and localistic mayors will find preserving that stance not as easy as it looks. They are dependent on Washington for money and thus they must look to their reputation in Washington circles. If they have higher political ambitions, they must worry about their image with the affluent suburban voters. And if they want to please their own constituents, they will have to do something more than just talk about service and virtue—and to do more than talk places one immediately in the tangled politics of “pilot programs,” the search for new revenues, and hard bargaining with organized police officers, school teachers, and the like. Indeed, perhaps the men who will be most successful as constituency-oriented, law-and-order mayors will be those who explicitly renounce higher ambitions or ignore what others think of their image. Cavanagh and Naftalin had a wonderful (though at times wonderfully fickle) popularity in the national media; Yorty had a terrible national press. Today, only Yorty remains.

The bright young men who would like to be mayor but who dislike courting what they think is a “backlash” or “reactionary” vote had better think twice. The dilemma is less serious than it appears—or more accurately, the dilemma arises because the bright young men tend to take too seriously the media definition of both their own image and the nature of the urban mood. In principle, one should be able to be both liberal and localistic, concerned about crime but not enamored of purely rhetorical solutions for crime, desirous of more federal aid without mistakenly arguing that “all big cities are alike” or that all face identical crises which only Washington can solve. The corollary to the “New Federalism” is a “New Localism”—a renewed interest in the urgent concerns of constituents, and especially those many concerns that blacks and whites share alike.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.




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