f you want to view the political decay of American liberalism, look at its
spawning groundthe great cities. In the late 1990s, there simply are no
remaining strongholds of municipal liberalism. In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino
has managed to retain the policies of his predecessor Ray Flynn, the one great
left-populist mayor of the Reagan-Bush years, but he has not expanded them. The
tenure of San Francisco's Willie Brown has been notable only for Brown's
considerable panache. And that about exhausts the list of major city mayors with
pretenses to liberalism. In Chicago, the latest Mayor Daley is a cleaned-up
throwback to machine politics and a close ally of downtown. In Philadelphia,
Mayor Ed Rendell, a nominal Democrat, has become a champion of fiscal
The collapse of vibrant liberal urban politics has come from two directionsthe top and the base. Once, federal funds provided the resources to hold
together an often unwieldy coalition. And once, the grass roots provided an
organized base of supporters. In cities such as Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis,
St. Paul, and Milwaukee, the great urban mayors of a generation ago often came
out of, and spoke for, neighborhood interests. They were a counterweight against
downtown; they fomented continuing grassroots mobilization. The only recent
mayor who truly has fit that description was Boston's Flynn.
Into this liberal vacuum have moved successful Republican mayorstough on
crime, close to organized business, able to make peace with municipal unions,
and representative of the go-it-alone prosperity of the 1990s. It is possible to
imagine a reversal of this depressing trend only by recalling how the great
progressive municipal coalitions arose in the past, blending the interests of
new immigrant groups, civic reformers, trade unionists, poor people, and
neighborhoods. All of these forces exist today, but they are strikingly
quiescent. New York's David Dinkins briefly presided over such a politics, but
could not sustain it. L.A.'s Tom Bradley held on to the liberals, but became
such an establishment fixture that grassroots populist politics withered.
ast year, left-liberal candidates won the Democratic nominations in
New York and Los Angeles, but never really connected with a popular base. In
both cities, a common complaint among liberals was that their standard bearers
had somehow lost their moral and political clarity. The Ruth Messinger who had
spent a decade on the city council dueling with Ed Koch was nowhere in evidence.
The Tom Hayden who had once forcefully challenged the establishment no longer
seemed able to articulate popular discontents.
While each candidate offered a range of proposals, Messinger never settled on
an overarching theme; Hayden's central messageall power to the neighborhoodscame
across as balkanizing rather than unifying. At other times, their arguments
seemed to echo their Republican opponents': They, too, supported stepped-up
policing, though they declined to join their opponents in noting the inability
of previous liberal mayoral administrations to bring down the rate of crime.
They accused business-mayors Richard Riordan and Rudy Giuliani of being
insufficiently pro-businesspro-small business, anyway.
More fundamentally, neither Hayden nor Messinger offered a counter-narrative
to the conservatives' account of how our cities crumbled and how they'll be
rebuilt. Missing was a compelling liberal interpretation of what had gone wrong
with urban America and a plausible liberal program to remedy those wrongs. And,
despite all the obloquy heaped upon them by their fellow liberals, this failure
was hardly unique. Other than to question the causal link between the center-
right ascendancy in city halls and the drop in the crime rate (and there are
good reasons to question it), liberals have had stunningly little to say about
the massive decrease in major crimes.
With the very notion of federal or state aid to the cities fast becoming a
dim memory, the idea that cities must depend on the private sector for any
economic initiatives has effectively become what the French call la
pensée uniquethe sole, however inadequate, scenario for renewed
urban prosperity. And if Hayden and Messinger weren't up to the task of
promoting progressive solutions for urban ills that don't entail major public-
sector commitmentswell, who has been? What body of liberal scholarship and
experience were they supposed to draw upon? When the era of big government was
officially interred, the urban liberal story subsided to a mumble.
Four years earlier, the liberal standard bearers in L.A. and New York,
Michael Woo and David Dinkins, had run up against exactly the same problem.
Dinkins, a one-term incumbent, had had his own array of small-scale programs
(Beacon Schools, in which a select group of schools stayed open late as
community centers; Fields of Dreams, which converted vacant lots to Little
League diamonds), while Woo, a progressive councilman who was the son of a
banker, proposed establishing a number of revolving funds to come up with the
money that the government wouldn't provide.
But Woo and Dinkins at least had an overarching themethe same theme, in
fact. Woo ran as the champion of L.A.'s diversity, Dinkins as the tribune for
the "gorgeous mosaic" that was New York. It says a good deal about the urban
mood todayat least in our largest, most polyglot citiesthat four years later,
neither Messinger nor Hayden invoked that pillar of urban liberalism. By 1997
the claims of race and ethnicity suggested not unity in diversity, but profound
and growing division and fragmentation within the coalition.
No one felt these tensions more acutely than Messinger. At the level of the
ridiculous, she found herself caught between two supportive constituencies,
blacks and gays, each insisting that she endorse their particular candidate for
the Manhattan borough presidency, which she was vacating. More seriously, she
could neither rhetorically embrace Giuliani's "one city, one standard"
sloganeering, nor distance herself from nationalist demagogue Al Sharpton, the
black candidate in the Democratic primary, without risking the alienation of
many African-American voters. In fact, campaigning alongside Sharpton, she held
on to those votersand lost nearly everybody else.
In 1993, Woo and Dinkins lost their contests narrowly, but the basic elements
of their vote were still those of the classic urban progressive coalition: white
liberal, Latino, black. Not so in 1997: Hayden and Messinger not only lost, but
lost within constituencies that have been the very core of the urban liberal
alliance. In Los Angeles, Latino voters, who had given Riordan just 43 percent
support in 1993, gave him 60 percent backing in 1997. Among Jews, Riordan's vote
total rose from 49 percent in 1993 to 71 percent in last year's election.
In New York, Giuliani defeated Messinger (who is Jewish) among Jewish voters
by a similar 72-27 percent margina 9 percent increase over his 68-32 percent
margin over David Dinkins in 1993. Among white liberals, his margin also grew.
In 1993, Giuliani had lost that group to Dinkins by a 50-48 percent margin.
Against Messinger, though, Giuliani prevailed, 54 percent to 43 percenta 13
percent turnaround in the liberal vote.
n both cities, the final numbers are a testament to African-American
exceptionalism. Where once blacks had been the starting point of a bi- or tri-racial
coalition that had put John Lindsay, David Dinkins, and Tom Bradleyand
for that matter, Chicago's Harold Washingtoninto their respective city halls,
by 1997 they had become liberalism's lonesome end. In L.A., Hayden's rainbow had
only one hue: He won 75 percent support among blacksand 35 percent among
Asians, 33 percent among Latinos, and 26 percent among whites. In New York,
Messinger won 79 percent black backingagainst 57 percent Hispanic and 21
percent white. (And New York's Puerto Ricans are by every measure the most left
grouping among U.S. Hispanics.)
Exceptional politics arise from exceptional conditions, and since the early
1980s, the experience of the inner-city black poor has grown increasingly remote
from that of the rest of urban America. The disappearance of traditional factory
and public-sector jobs, of two-parent families, and of large quadrants of the
safety net, coupled with the coming of the crack epidemic, has devastated the
black urban corewhich has responded in correspondingly devastating ways.
Written off by the corporate and financial sectors, the black urban community
has long entertained two distinct ideological responsesroughly, the social-democratic
and the nationalist-separatist. But the social-democratic faith has
proven hard to sustain absent an active government, and as federal aid to urban
areas declined from $64 per city resident in 1980 to $29 in 1993, social-democratic
politics dwindled correspondingly.
That left the nationalist-separatist tendency, and a distinct range of non-solution
solutionsjury nullification, Ebonics, and race conspiracy theories, to
name just threeto some very real problems. Not that the entire spectrum of
American politics today doesn't teem with non-solution solutions. But the
policies of black nationalism are not merely symbolic; they are symbolic in ways
that only estrange potential progressive urban allies, and that block any
possibility of linking up with increasingly powerful suburbs.
This dismissal of potential allies, moreover, comes at a time when the
shrinking black share of the urban electorate would seem to make the search for
coalition partners all the more urgent. In 1997, the great Latino and Asian
immigration of the past 15 years finally began to alter the voting patterns of
Los Angeles and New York. In L.A., the Latino share of the voting public was
larger than the black share for the first time this century. In New York, the
black percentage of the voting publicwhich stood at 28 percent in 1989 and
1993shrunk to 21 percent, while the Latino share rose from 13 percent to 20
percent. (The absence of Dinkins from the 1997 ballot certainly played a role in
the diminution of the black vote, but it fails to account for the increase in
the Latino vote.)
Rather than prodding the black political class to search for allies, however,
the declining relative black turnout, along with the declining capacity of
government to address urban problems, has largely intensified the black
community's sense of isolation and of the futility of coalition politics. In Los
Angeles and other cities, the growing insularity of the black elite is often
exacerbated by the prospect of currently black-represented districts opting for
Latino representation as the immigrant influx reaches the polling place.
Within black urban politics, two kinds of leaders are largely supplanting the
social-democratic coalition leaders of the past generation. There are
nationalist-charlatans like Sharpton, or Councilman Nate Holden in Los Angeles,
who view as an idle distraction or a dangerous chimera the idea of building a
progressive cross-racial coalition in the manner of Dinkins in 1989, Tom Bradley
in 1973, or Harold Washington in 1983. There are also pro-business mayors in
majority-black cities, like Detroit's Dennis Archer or Cleveland's Mike White,
whose dependence on major corporations and banks leaves them equally
uninterested in any progressive alliance.
None of this is to say that the day of the black mayor outside majority-black
cities is done. African Americans preside over such predominantly white cities
as Denver, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. What's collapsing, however, are the
black-led liberal coalitions of our multiracial metropolisesNew York, L.A.,
Chicago. These cities remain reliably Democratic in state and national
elections, but they are no longer strongholds of municipal liberalism. (The
municipal liberal era in Chicago, of course, lasted about a millisecond.)
The final element in the collapse of urban liberalism has been the
disappearance of an organized base of supporters. Although the labor movement
has become an election day dynamo in a number of cities since the advent of the
Sweeney regime, the unions of L.A. and New York smelled disaster in the Hayden
and Messinger candidacies and thought it prudent to cut the best deals they
could with Riordan and Giuliani. Nor was there much popular participation in the
Messinger and Hayden campaigns from outside labor. "This is the first mayoral
campaign I've seen," said one longtime activist of Messinger's effort, "where
you have to call to reserve a slot to work her phone bank: She's only got one."
And in L.A., where Tom Bradley's early campaigns had mobilized 15,000
volunteers, Tom Hayden rejected out of hand a proposal to assemble a field
operation. The liberal trumpet was far too uncertain, he reasonably concluded,
to build a crowd.
Ever since Fiorello LaGuardia struck up a political-programmatic alliance
with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Washington and the unions of Sidney Hillman
and David Dubinsky in his own hometown, our major cities have provided the
ideas, the troops, and the programmatic proving grounds for American liberalism.
At century's end, though, with the federal connection severed, the size and
clout of cities diminished, the progressive coalition splintered, its component
parts deactivated, and the center-right's credibility on issues of crime and
disorder plainly soaring, the very words liberal mayor have become an
THE NEW ORDER AND ITS DISCONTENTS
It is the reduction in crime, of course, that justifies the tenure of the new
"pragmatic" generation of mayors who have supplanted their liberal predecessors
in city halls across Americaor so they tell us. With Rudy Giuliani in the lead,
they have put more cops on the beat, made station house commanders answerable
for the crime rates in their neighborhoods, and expanded the mission of cops
from solving crimes to preserving order. Which is why, they conclude, crime has
The smell of fish, however, rises from this final claim. Crime has
dramatically declined in Giuliani's New Yorkas it has also declined in cities
where none of these policies were in place. Its biggest drop in Los Angeles came
in the first six months of 1997which, coincidentally, were the last six months
of the term of Willie Williams, chief of L.A.'s police department, who was being
forced from his post precisely because he had failed to institute any of these
practices, and in fact, because the department was adrift with no defined
mission at all. If cities have prescribed new remedies for crime reduction over
the past four years, we have to conclude that both the pill and the placeboand
taking nothing at allhave each worked admirably.
To be fair, crime has declined in New York faster than in most large cities.
And, even if Giuliani's claims are inflated, he can legitimately claim two
significant achievements in his war on crimeachievements on which liberals no
less than conservatives can build. The first is the revalidation of government
itself. At the same time that the Gingrich-Armey wing of Republicanism was
proclaiming the public sector dumb and ineffective, and the left was contending
that the problem of crime, absent a near-utopian full employment policy, was
intractable, Giuliani said that, with the right set of policies and oversight,
government could address even a monumental problem and make a difference. More
pointedly, in setting up his precinct-responsibility program, he established a
model for bureaucratic accountability to an elected officiala model that any
principled Democrat should embrace.
In fact, Ruth Messinger did more than embrace it. Calling for an end to
tenure for high school principals, and for rewarding successful ones while
terminating the dregs, she proposed to extend Giuliani's system of performance-based
accountability to the schools. To the extent that the public's
disenchantment with government comes from a sense that there is no agency of
popular control over vast bureaucracies, and no consequences for success or
failure within those bureaucracies, Giuliani's take-charge approach points the
way toward a rehabilitation of the public sphere.
Giuliani's second achievement has been the reclamation of public space.
Whatever effects his "broken window" policies may have had on crime rates, their
effect on the restoration of public order is salutary. By choosing to police
such minor infractions as defacing property, aggressive panhandling, and the
unsolicited squeegeeing-cum-shakedown of drivers stuck in traffic, the police
department during his tenure has returned a good number of streets, sidewalks,
parks, and other public places to the public.
Historically, the creation of public space was an achievement of
progressives, and one defended by left urbanists against the encroachments of
corporate sprawl or privatized enclaves. The parks and libraries in a city like
New York are a remarkable universal entitlement, no less a triumph of
progressivism than the free city colleges and the public hospital system were in
their heyday. And from Jane Jacobs to Mike Davis (author of City of
Quartz, a noirish meditation on L.A.), a clear theme of left-populist
urbanism has been the defense of sidewalk culturein Jacobs's case, against the
soullessness of corporate mausoleums towering over Sixth Avenue; in Davis's,
against the enclosed, sanitized, and altogether ersatz experience of the
INDIVIDUAL AND COMMUNITY
The creation and defense of public space is a distinctly liberal achievement,
as is the creation and defense of untrammeled civil liberties. In practice,
however, these two values have clashed repeatedly on the sidewalks and streets
of America's cities over the past 15 years, as urban poverty and disorder have
both grown more virulent. On the whole, urban liberal regimes have tended to
defend civil liberties at the expense of public space, just as conservatives
have tended to defend market forces at the expense of community stability. (On
both the left and the right, the individualistic strain in America has been
running amok for several decades now.) Liberal urban policy has sent many city
dwellers, especially in poorer neighborhoods, scurrying indoorsor to the ersatz
malls, or the suburbs. It is the center-right that has risen to the defense of
public space in cities, and it is the center-right that is reaping the political
And yet, the usual liberal cautions against police crackdowns on minor crimes
and disorder are often entirely well founded. In a large number of cities,
police still tend to criminalize nonwhite young men as such. Here, the
imposition of order merely leads to rage and greater disorder. Only a community-based
force that is broadly representative of the city it polices can plausibly
set about the restoration of public space. But until liberals can talk
comfortably about the importance of restoring public space, they are not likely
to be in a position of power to ensure that the preservation of order isn't a
cloak for racially discriminatory law enforcement.
Beyond the reclamation of public space, however, the achievements of the new
pragmatists in city hall are something less than epochal. Neoconservative
urbanists like Fred Siegel and Joel Kotkin rightly note that, despite the hype,
neither Giuliani nor Riordan has done very much to promote accountability among
city workers excepting the police, much less privatize municipal work.
bove all, the current generation of pragmatic mayors has been all but
silent on the greatest social problem our cities now face: the persistence of
poverty and the stunning levels of economic inequality. New York's poverty rate
stands at 27 percent, almost twice the national average; L.A.'s is at 19
percent. We do not have comparative inequality figures for cities, but among the
states, California and New York ranked forty-eighth and forty-ninth,
respectively, in equality of income distribution in 1997a sharp increase from
1989, when, according to the Corporation for Enterprise Development, they ranked
thirty-fifth and forty-third. Within these states, it is L.A. and New York City
that have led this race to the bottom. Home to the third wave of immigrants and
the nouvelle sweatshop; abandoned by unionized durable-goods manufacturing and
the middle-range jobs that came, and went, with it; and the site of the nation's
two greatest concentrations of wealth, America's two largest cities are
boomtowns and bust-towns at the same time.
Both cities have suffered tremendous losses in decent-paying manufacturing
jobs. While New York has generated jobs at the bottom of the pay scale (the
average hourly manufacturing wage in the city is two dollars under the national
average), unemployment remains persistently high. Los Angeles has seen its
unemployment rate finally subside, but has also become the nation's capital city
for low-wage work. A recent study of the 1960 and 1990 census reports by L.A.
demographers, for instance, concludes that native-born Mexican Americans living
in Los Angeles made a lower percentage of the median white income in 1989 than
they did in 1959, as whole industries lowered wages to exploit the immigrant
influx. Still another recent survey concluded that there were between 50,000 and
100,000 family-home garages within the city limits that were home, quite
illegally, to a household (garagehold?) of people. It's quite likely that a city
council district (which in L.A. comprises 230,000 residents) could be cobbled
together entirely from garage people.
And, but for the occasional homily, our new and pragmatic mayors have been as
silent on the persistence of urban poverty as liberals have been on the question
of urban crime. Actually, the new mayors have been worse than silent. Giuliani,
Riordan, and Chicago's Richard Daley (the younger) all sought to block the
proposed living-wage ordinances that came before their respective city councils.
(Giuliani and Daley succeeded; Riordan failed, and surprisingly, has recently
supported the city's low-wage hotel workers in their negotiations with
management.) These ordinances would have mandated that city contractors pay
their low-dollar workers (janitors, airport fast-food workers, and the like)
about two dollars an hour over the minimum wage, and offer them health
insurance. They were, that is, rather modest policy statements that the
respective cities did not believe anyone doing low-end city work should live in
poverty. No matter, said the new pragmo-mayors, the very idea is bad for
business and taxpayers.
hroughout campaign 1997, both Hayden and Messinger struggled toward a
more plausible liberal synthesis. While hammering Giuliani for defunding New
York's schools (he had cut their operating budget by $1 billion and their
capital budget by $4.7 billion), Messinger also proposed reducing teachers'
sabbaticals and giving principals authority over budgeting and hiring for their
schoolsand rewarding or discharging the principals based on their schools'
performance. While blasting Giuliani for granting tax abatements to large
corporations threatening to leave the city, she proposed eliminating New York's
commercial rental tax and reducing the city sales tax, the better to improve the
city's small-business climate and boost its anemic rate of job generation.
For his part, Hayden called for the elimination of L.A.'s business start-up
levy ($600), and echoed the cry of Britain's New Labour that he'd be tough on
crime and tough on the causes of crimetougher than Riordan, anyway. He
favorably contrasted Giuliani's management of the New York police with Riordan's
inability to get performance-based policing up and running in Los Angeles.
Hayden also offered more conventionally left-liberal proposals, such as beefing
up L.A.'s community development bank and negotiating more gang truces.
Messinger, campaigning with an earnestness quite at odds with Hayden's
characteristic insouciance (she polled, he didn't), offered few conventionally
liberal proposals at all.
Taken together, the two campaigns often seemed an uneasy combination of left
baggage with policies of nascent urban neoliberalismaiding small business,
demanding more of city workers, and acknowledging the importance of good law
enforcement. At the same time, however, neither candidate was prepared to break
with the politics of racial and ethnic entitlements (as symbolized by
Messinger's courtship of Sharpton), or to acknowledge the shortcomingson crime
and disorder, particularlyof past liberal regimes, or to offer any larger
vision to rally the party base.
"She's never answered the question: What is her attitude to Dinkins's
mayoralty," historian Jim Chapin noted of Messinger a few days before the New
York vote. "She's too smart to run an Old Democrat campaign, like Mondale in
'84, and the urban Democratic Party isn't ready for the equivalent of a '92
campaign yet. This gives a peculiarly midair quality to Ruth's campaign."
Messinger ran as Dukakis to Giuliani's George Bush: The race, she said, was
about competence, not values.
But the emerging urban version of the New Democrats may not be quite what the
national New Democrats have bargained for.
THE URBAN LIBERAL PROSPECT
The history of American cities is above all the history of racial and ethnic
succession. The modern urban liberal regimes, which first began to take shape in
the 1960s, owe their existence to the great postwar migration of southern blacks
to the cities of the North and West, just as urban machine politics had been
based on earlier waves of immigrants. Only rarely, as in Fiorello LaGuardia's
New York, did reformism and economic uplift fuse into a common politics.
Today, of course, America's major cities are experiencing yet another mass
migration, this time of Latino and, in far lesser numbers, Asian, Caribbean, and
African immigrants. Some urban commentators see this transformation as bringing
down the curtain on urban liberalism altogether. The new-age nativism of the
Pete Wilson Republicans may have driven Latinos into the Democrats' ranks at the
level of state and national voting, they note. But in municipal voting and
attitudinal polling, commentators say, Latinos and other new immigrant groups
are not so reliably liberal. Latinos, writes Peter Beinart in the New
Republic, "are far more economically conservative than African-Americans,
and by far more conservative on crime."
Well, yesbut only up to a point. In fact, on some economic issues, Latinos
are actually to the left of African Americansand it's around those issues, of
decent-paying jobs and better-funded schools, that they have linked up with a
renascent labor movement in Los Angeles in an alliance that may be a model for a
new, more viable urban liberal coalition. Within the past year alone, that
alliance has begun to transform much of L.A.'s politics. And whatever the
peculiarities of the L.A. experience, it is rooted in conditionsthe
concentration of immigrants in the low-wage jobs of the service and
manufacturing sectors, the focus of the Sweeney-led union movement on organizing
those jobs, and the waves of naturalization and political participation sweeping
the immigrant communitythat are common to many American cities.
Beinart is certainly right that Latinos, like almost every new immigrant
group, tend to be conservative on cultural questions. In 1996, while
Californians were approving the medical marijuana initiative, Latinos voted
against it by a 51-49 percent margin. In one study of California Latinos by the
Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, 58 percent believed there was widespread police
brutality targeted to Latinosbut 88 percent agreed that stricter curfew laws
would help reduce juvenile and gang violence. Nor has family structure decayed
in Latino communities as seriously as in black ones. A recent survey of Chicago
shows that 60 percent of African-American households with children are headed by
single mothers; the figure for Latinos is 23 percent.
Still, there have been precious few new immigrant groups in America in any
period that haven't tilted toward traditionalism on questions of culture and
upholding the public order. Except for some of the refugees from Germany's
failed revolutions of 1848, and a portion of the eastern European Jews at the
turn of the century, the immigrants who built the twentieth-century American
citiesthe Irish, the Italians, the Slavs and Poleswere steeped in old-country
values. This did not deter them from becoming a vital part of the New Deal
coalition, once the Democrats found a way to address their economic concerns.
And a similar dynamic now places Latinos at the center of any future urban
liberal formationswhich will, however, emphasize different issues than the
liberal formations past.
f black-led urban coalitions have placed special emphasis on social
welfare policy, Latino-led urban coalitions, and immigrant-labor coalitions
generally, are likely to put special emphasis on issues of low-wage work. The
kind of chronic joblessness, or withdrawal from the labor market, that dogs the
black community in good times as well as bad is far less characteristic of
Latinos. The latest (December 1997) unemployment figures show the jobless rate
among African Americans to be 9.6 percent; for Latinos it's 6.9 percent.
Nationally, the level of labor force participation for blacks stands at 64.7
percent. For Hispanics, the level is 67.8 percent-higher than the overall U.S.
total of 67.1 percent.
Among Latinos, then, a return to welfare-as-we-knew-it is not only not a
priority; it is generally opposed. In Tomas Rivera polling of Texas Latinos, 62
percent opposed increasing welfare benefits for mothers who had additional
children while still on welfare. In the institute's polling of California
Latinos, fully 78 percent supported two-year limits on all welfare recipients
able to work; 73 percent said these limits should specifically apply to parents
with small children. A further 61 percent said that most welfare recipients just
didn't want to work.
Once inside the workplace or schoolhouse door, however, Latinos quickstep to
the left. By an 86-14 percent margin, they supported the 1996 initiative raising
the California minimum wage, while it was passing statewide by 61-39 percent. In
the spring of 1997, Los Angeles Latinos supported a bond measure to build new
schools by an 82-18 percent margin. (It was the school bond, not the mayoral
race, that drew Latinos to the polls in record numbers.) Blacks gave it 76
percent support, and it passed citywide with 70 percent support. On these
issues, Latinos find themselves in the same position that blacks occupied in the
heyday of urban liberalism: They are the most supportive constituency within an
alliance that has cross-racial majority support.
great deal of the current wave of naturalization and voter
mobilization going on within the Latino community is taking place under the
aegis of the labor movement. In Los Angeles, though, the alliance reflects more
than just labor's new strategic emphasis on the immigrant poor. Increasingly,
L.A. laborboth the rank and file and the top leadershipis Latino. And
since November of 1996, the labor-Latino alliance has racked up a string of
In the alliance's initial outing, labor flooded L.A.-area swing state
legislative districts with volunteers, targeting in particular Latino voters
outraged at Pete Wilson and the anti-immigrant provisions in the federal welfare
bill. On election day, longtime Republican districts that had experienced recent
Latino immigration landed in the Democratic column (one for the first time since
1916) after precinct operations that saw as many as 2,000 labor volunteers
walking in a single district on the campaign's final weekend. It was the victory
in these districts that enabled the Democrats to recapture the California
In the spring of 1997, the proposed living-wage ordinance, supported by a
labor-financed coalition and championed by low-wage Latino workers from across
the city, was enacted by a unanimous city council despite the mayor's
opposition. (Another instance of Latinos spearheading a popular cause: Los
Angeles Times polling showed the ordinance winning 70 percent support from
Finally, in November 1997, a special election in downtown L.A. to fill a
vacated state assembly seat led to a contest within the Latino community that
was decided overwhelmingly in favor of the labor-backed candidate. The pre-election
favorite, a Latina L.A. school board member, had been instrumental in
awarding a massive school district contract to a contractor involved in a labor
dispute with the (largely Latino) hotel workers union. One of the more
nationalist figures in the local Latino firmament, the board member was opposed
by the Latino former head of SEIU's county employees union. Local unions waged
an independent campaign on his behalf, targeting union members and thousands of
newly registered Latino voters. On election day, the union-backed candidate beat
the school board member two to one, with a voter turnout 25 percent larger than
anyone had anticipated.
Los Angeles's Latinos are hardly the first cluster of immigrants to be
politically mobilized by labor. What labor is doing in L.A. today looks a good
deal like what the CIO did in places like western Pennsylvania and northern
Indiana in 1936, where Slavic and Polish steelworkers came out to cast their
first votes for FDRat the prompting of all those union organizers. More
importantly, now as then the first-time voters are mobilizing behind causes and
candidates with a wide spectrum of progressive support.
Indeed, the gap in the levels of public support for this new coalition's core
issues and the core issues of the black-led coalition are huge. It was in the
same two-month period that Congress both repealed welfare and raised the minimum
wage. In yet another two-month period this year, the Los Angeles City Council
banned aggressive panhandling and unanimously passed the living-wage ordinance.
And in its support for various living-wage ordinances and even the UPS strikers,
the public has clearly identified itself with the cause of low-wage workers. In
tandem with increased support for education, here is a national agenda of
particular importance for cities that also plays in the suburbs.
Other items on the wish list of a Latino-immigrant-labor coalition have
crossover appeal as well. In the city of garage people and throughout urban
America, affordable housing is at a premium. (In 1993, according to Robert
Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the shortfall came to
roughly five million units.) With an infusion of Latino-labor energy, a
revitalized affordable housing movement could pressure a mayor elected with its
support to revive the policies of linkage, which once compelled developers in
progressive cities to construct new housing in return for the right to throw up
yet another downtown high rise. Since the new Latino and immigrant poverty has
often expanded to inner-ring suburbs from its traditional inner-city haunts,
some support for such programs beyond the urban core is certainly possible.
orging alliances with the players essential to cobbling together
progressive majorities requires a community of interest, not just goodwill.
Fiorello LaGuardia came to power with a coalition of Italians and Jews both
largely excluded from Tammany's municipal order. Tom Bradley reached city hall
with the backing of blacks and Jews both kept far from power by a WASP
The hurdle of mutual empowerment is a dauntingly high one. White liberalsthe
key swing vote in New York, L.A., Chicago, and other citiescould split from
Latinos and other immigrants over questions of growth and environmentalism, or
the conflict between the patronage and reform models of local governance.
African Americans could be estranged by the immigrant influx into their
neighborhoods, and the downward pressure that immigration exerts on low-end
wages. If a Latino-labor coalition is to broaden its appeal, it will likely have
to affirm the importance of the policing of public space and prick the liberal
conscience on income-equity issues to win the support of whites. It will have to
affirm the rights and the jobs of unionized city workers (who tend to be
disproportionately black), stress such class-based issues as affordable housing,
and promote a non-nationalist civil rights agenda to win the support of African
Historically, the electoral challenge before a LaGuardia, a Bradley, a
Dinkins, or a Harold Washington was to excite his own ethnic or racial base
without estranging the other voters he needed to win. That may prove an even
trickier challenge for the first serious Latino mayoral candidates of Latino-led
urban coalitions, coming in the wake of black-led coalitions that collapsed
under the weight of identity-based politics. But outside a city with
demographics like San Antonio's, nationalist politics will only thwart the
emergence of the coalitionand make regional metropolitan alliances all but
impossible as well. For its part, labor, as we learn from the history of Detroit
from the 1930s through the 1950s, cannot often smooth over bitter racial
divisions in its own membership to ensure the election of progressive municipal
regimes. But it can, as we learn from labor's current endeavors in Los Angeles,
help shape a progressive municipal agenda in ways that emphasize class
commonalities over racial divides.
There's no doubt that a Latino- or immigrant-led urban coalition would in
many particulars have an agenda more conservative, or at least more chastened,
than the black-led coalitions of the past 30 years. On some of its likely
issues, as in its affirmation of policing, this could be a useful corrective; on
others, such as its support for terminating welfare, this is a dangerous roll of
the dice. But it is not as if progressives have a choice between these
coalitions in any case: The urban coalitions of the 1960s through the 1980s,
based on social welfare and antipoverty policies, are already a historic
artifact. The choice will be between a business-led alliance largely indifferent
to the economic polarization of cities, and this latter-day, largely immigrant-led
cluster with greater economic justice as its core demand. For as long as
cities are economic magnets to upwardly striving and marginalized peoples, the
forces that can energize municipal liberalism remain with us.
The urban liberal coalition is dead. Long live, let us hope, the urban
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