At the outset of the Democratic primary campaign, advocates for urban America had high hopes for a substantive discussion about the issues confronting the cities.
Between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who represents New York City, and Sen. Barack Obama, a former community organizer who hails from Chicago — not to mention Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, a former Cleveland mayor — urban policy experts and mayors expected a vigorous debate about the cities, the kind of conversation that hasn’t occurred in recent presidential elections.
But as the nomination fight shifts to Pennsylvania, home to the sixth-largest city in the country, they are still waiting.
Clinton and Obama both give prominent billing to rural issues on their campaign websites, reflecting their importance to early primary states. To find any discussion on urban issues, visitors must go searching.
For Obama, a plan can be found within the poverty section. For Clinton, her urban “vision” was added just Tuesday as the last of 22 bullet points in a section titled “Strengthening the Middle Class.”
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This lopsided treatment is not simply happenstance. Rather, it underscores a broad shift in voting patterns from the 1960s and 70s. Back then, the Democratic and Republican platforms went on at great length about urban issues. Now that more voters live in suburbs and exurbs — and since big cities have become almost monolithically Democratic — the more competitive and vote-rich areas miles outside urban cores reap the lion’s share of attention from candidates.
Philadelphia is a case in point. The city is expected to go overwhelmingly for Obama, so political observers say the battleground in the April 22 primary is populous suburban Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley, a mix of older communities, dwindling farmland and sprawling subdivisions. General elections follow the same pattern.
“Cities are reliably Democratic, so it is not really a territory that needs to be fought over,” said Andrea Batista Schlesinger, executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a liberal New York-based think tank. “Why align yourself when pollsters tell you this is about suburban voters?”
Schlesinger, of course, wishes that weren’t the case. Drum Major posted interviews late last year with 11 mayors, a mix of Democrats and independents, as part of a program aimed at refocusing candidates — who by “pandering to rural voters,” ignore the “bread and butter issues that most Americans deal with every day” — on American cities.
Bruce Katz, founding director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, said the attention comes in “dribs and drabs.”
“They may talk infrastructure one day and talk about human capital on another,” he said. “They are not talking about it in tandem or as a road map. ... I thought the campaigns would put forth more of a uniform philosophy on how to address these issues. They don’t seem yet to add up to a governing philosophy.”
By the time the campaign hit Ohio in mid-February, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson was so desperate to draw attention to urban issues that he predicated his endorsement on who would agree to a $6.3 billion wish list for his city and the surrounding county.
He sought written commitments from the candidates, going so far as to dash off a 14-page memo titled, “A Proposed Urban Agenda for Presidential Candidates,” which detailed wide-ranging needs including early childhood education, community development, wastewater and sewage treatment, mortgage counseling and law enforcement.
“It was a great opportunity to prioritize and put it No. 1 on the radar,” Jackson said Tuesday in an intervew.
After eight years of disinvestment under President Bush, the memo stated, the next president must “invest dollars in urban areas. An increase in funding to existing programs that target urban centers is needed.”
“By investing in the basic, yet crucial, needs of urban centers, the federal government will create an environment in which cities and their residents can thrive. If cities and their residents can thrive, so will their regions and our nation.”
Both candidates responded to the proposal within days. Obama won the endorsement.
“Both were pretty close if not similar — greatly similar — on what they believe needed to be done,” Jackson said. “So after considering all of that, and considering how close they were in what they were proposing to do, I believed in the end that Sen. Obama was the one who talked about the future.”
Philadelphia’s mayor rendered a different verdict.
Mayor Michael Nutter wrote an op-ed Tuesday in the Philadelphia Daily News laying out the case for why the city needs Clinton in the White House.
“Under her leadership our American cities will rise again,” wrote Nutter, who leads a city that is hemorrhaging population and recently lost its status as the fifth-largest in the nation to Phoenix.
But echoing the frustrations of mayors across the country, Nutter wants more attention. He is seeking commitments for the candidates to appear at a forum dedicated to urban issues, said his spokesman, Douglas Oliver.
“The key point being that the urban agenda should [get] and deserves specific attention in this national debate,” Oliver said.
Naturally, the candidates dispute any suggestion of giving short shrift to urban issues.
“Sen. Clinton has made urban policy an important part of her career and her campaign because she knows that when our cities and those living in cities suffer, the country suffers,” spokesman Jay Carson said Wednesday.
Obama and Clinton have each given speeches and put forward plans that would reinvest in the cities through community development grants, green energy, job training, housing and responsible fatherhood programs.
Obama would establish a White House Office on Urban Policy, which would coordinate strategy across federal agencies and report directly to the president.
Still, Schlesinger singled out Obama for criticism for presenting his urban plan through the lens of poverty.
“That perpetuates the notion that cities are only really centers of entrenched poverty that need handouts from the federal government as opposed to being economic engines for their regions,” Schlesinger said. “Frankly, that perpetuates what the right wing wants to see about urban America: cities as problems.”
John Bouman, a Chicago anti-poverty advocate who advises the Obama campaign on urban issues, said Schlesinger’s criticism was “fair enough,” but the committee that developed Obama’s urban plan reflects much broader interests.
“The core focus of Obama is on revitalizing the cities and on the role that cities play in the nation’s economic health,” Bouman said. “That is where his district was. That is where his career was before he was a lawyer, he taught at the University of Chicago. He is not a suburban guy. He lives right smack in the city.”