A bipartisan dialogue in this election year? In New York City? During the Republican convention?! We always knew those folks at The New School were a little nutty. The subject wasn’t terrorism, Iraq or gay marriage, but the substantially less sexy topic of urban policy. For a refreshingly sober three-panel “urban conversation,” The New School brought together moderate Republican legislators, progressive organizers and leading media commentators under the guise of red (Republican) meets blue (Democrat). They even passed out Altoids cases with Elephants and Donkeys on the cover.
Turns out, urban issues, housing and immigration are three topics the Bush and Kerry campaigns are not eager to discuss. They want the votes, just not the problems that go with the votes. Urban areas are rapidly transforming, marked by increasing poverty, skyrocketing immigration, dwindling affordable housing, rising property taxes and expanding suburbs. Stephen Goldsmith, President Bush’s chief domestic policy adviser in 2000, explained that “international defense and war overwhelmed everything else.” Public opinion experts Stan Greenberg and Andrew Kohut concurred. “This is a foreign policy, defense election,” said Kohut. “The focus is not on domestic issues.” Worries about security are at a level not seen since the cold war, remarked Greenberg. This week, Bush and Kerry spoke before the American Legion Convention in Nashville. Eager to appear tough and attentive, both promised increased benefits for veterans. No such pledge for affordable housing, New School President and 9/11 Commissioner Bob Kerrey predicted.
There’s also the problem of access. Many urban problems revolve around poor people, who don’t have lobbyists and don’t vote in significant numbers. “Under our system, squeaky wheels get the grease,” said former Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo. (The morning’s collegial atmosphere evaporated during the second panel on housing when Cuomo accused the Bush Administration and Governor George Pataki of not prioritizing and funding urban programs like Section 8 housing assistance. “They say Section 8 is too expensive; that the cost is going up,” Cuomo said. “Well, the cost of tanks is also going up. Can you not buy them anymore?” Republican Representative James Walsh and New York Secretary of State Randy Daniels took umbrage at Cuomo’s comments. Finger-pointing and shouting ensued as the panel came to a close.)
Then there’s Washington. Ohio Republican Representative Michael Turner, a two-term mayor of Dayton, emphasized how local governance necessitates bipartisan cooperation. Local constituents don’t care what you think about potholes; they want them fixed. “Pragmatic solutions across party lines are required when running an urban government,” said Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis. Washington doesn’t create deadlines to solve problems, and party committees, mixed with special interests, discourage bipartisan alliances, said Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander. Even governors bend over backward to learn about one another, Alexander and Kerrey said. In the Senate they try to beat one another.
Politicians also face consequences for bucking the party line. Republican Representatives Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe of Arizona now confront far-right primary opponents after advocating a temporary guest-worker program for illegal immigrants. “Immigration is the third rail of electoral politics,” remarked Flake. George Stephanopoulos, who moderated the first panel on the urban electorate, described how a focus group in Columbus, Ohio, exploded in anger when the topic of immigration came up (the Washington Post‘s Colbert King and the Los Angeles Times‘s Ron Brownstein moderated panels two and three).
Americans may worry about terrorism or the situation in Iraq, but it’s issues like jobs, healthcare, immigration and housing that affect them on a daily basis. The Census Bureau’s annual economic report, released last week, showed poverty rising, the number of Americans without healthcare increasing and the median household income declining. Nearly 80 percent of the nation’s poor live in cities or suburbs. But as Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy at NYU, told the LA Times, “These numbers are only powerful if John Kerry uses them.”