The End of Urban Reform
Apr 16, 2001
By Joel Kotkin
Publisher: The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal

In the early 1990s, America's major cities were on life‑support, suffocating under socialistic policies that left them looking like Soviet‑bloc relics. But due largely to the efforts of a new set of mayors ‑‑ notably two pragmatic Republicans, Rudolph Giuliani of New York and Richard Riordan of Los Angeles ‑‑ urban America has made a dramatic return to life.

Now, first in Los Angeles, and perhaps soon in New York, the reformist trend seems certain to be reversed. Last Tuesday, L.A. voted in the first round of its mayoral election for a left‑wing Democrat, former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa. A onetime Chicano radical and teachers' union organizer, the charismatic Mr. Villaraigosa came in first with 30% of the vote. He is widely expected to win in the June run‑off against City Attorney James Hahn, a colorless but more conventional liberal with strong support among African‑Americans. Mr. Riordan's handpicked successor, the developer Steve Soboroff, limped in third.

A similar dynamic is set to occur in New York, where liberal Democrats ‑‑ such as the Naderite Mark Green ‑‑ seem likely to dominate the field. By the end of this year, the centrist resurgence in America's cities will be largely over.

Events in L.A. represent more than a restoration of pre‑riot liberalism and promise a possible move even further to the left. Mr. Villaraigosa's core support comes from the city's militant labor council, led by Miguel Contreras, whose goal is to turn L.A. into a laboratory for redistributive social democracy. The rest of his funding comes from the other activist elements in the city ‑‑ the National Organization for Women, the Sierra Club, the Hollywood left and their political bagman of choice, the California Democratic Party.

Mr. Villaraigosa has already indicated that L.A.'s welfare state will be expanded if he is elected. He recently promised city backing not only for more low‑cost housing but also for stricter environmental controls that will make such construction prohibitively expensive. Police "reform" under Mr. Villaraigosa, a former head of the American Civil Liberties Union in L.A., is likely to eviscerate the city's police force at a time when crime is creeping back up.

Several factors lie behind this shift in the political dynamic. For one thing, the very success of the reform mayors, epitomized by resurgent economies and reduced crime, undermined the concerns that led traditionally liberal urbanites to vote for reformist Republicans. Today, the business community in L.A., New York and elsewhere seems almost unaware that they have a real interest in who governs downtown. In this week's election, some local moguls, such as SunAmerica founder Eli Broad, actually backed Mr. Villaraigosa. More, including Mayor Riordan and Mr. Soboroff himself, will likely follow.

Things were strikingly different in 1993. Urban America seemed to be disintegrating. Strong leaders from outside the liberal convention suddenly seemed appealing. L.A.'s faction‑ridden business and homeowner groups united around Mr. Riordan, a venture capitalist who vowed to be "tough enough" to turn the City of Angels around. The city, still recovering from the 1992 shock, was in a shambles, with firms and residents fleeing at unprecedented rates. The police force was demoralized, and the bureaucracy, grown bloated during nearly two decades under Tom Bradley, was virtually unmanageable.

Mr. Riordan, although perhaps less decisively than Mr. Giuliani in New York, quickly made a difference. He added thousands of officers to the police force, cut crime and red tape, and restored confidence to shell‑shocked business leaders. After years of torpor, L.A. saw a flurry of construction, from the Staples Center and cathedral downtown, to redevelopment along the decayed Hollywood Boulevard.

But the real "miracle" of the Riordan years took place near the grassroots. Not only did the region's entertainment, new media and technology industries experience heady growth, but a whole series of less glitzy old economy industries ‑‑ from garments and textiles to food‑processing and toys ‑‑ returned from the doldrums, turning the area into America's top industrial, warehouse and wholesale trade center. By this year, unemployment in L.A. was lower than at any time in a generation.

Initially, voters warmed to the new order. In 1997, Mr. Riordan, running against the retread radical Tom Hayden, won easy re‑election, scoring majorities among Jews, Latinos and Asians. There was talk of an emerging centerright majority that could take hold for a generation.

Yet, as in Mr. Giuliani's New York, the renaissance masked disenchantment. L.A.'s liberal elites ‑‑ public employee unions, academics, the media ‑ never accepted the avuncular Mr. Riordan, much as their eastern counterparts never ceased to detest the more bombastic (and decidedly non‑avuncular) Mr. Giuliani. Liberal‑dominated city councils in both metros delayed, and sometimes stopped cold, efforts to streamline bureaucracy, and killed any thought of privatizing services.

More importantly, on the grassroots level of politics, such as getting out the vote and influencing the media, the center‑right never gained its footing. Other problems, notably the Ramparts police scandal, further undermined the Riordan legacy. As with New York, where police brutality also became a liberal cause celebre, reductions in crime made law and order a less compelling issue.

Perhaps even more important, demographics undermined the electoral base for reform. As the 2000 Census confirms, L.A. became increasingly minority, especially Latino. Meanwhile the middle class, particularly families, continue to head for the suburbs, albeit at a rate less rapid than a decade ago. As a result of these shifts, Republicans and moderate Democrats lost their share of the vote, with GOP turnout dropping dramatically from nearly 30% to 23% of the votes cast.

Similarly, in a development seen also in Manhattan, San Francisco and Seattle, the remaining Anglo middle class consists increasingly of childless couples, singles and gays. These "new urbanites" tend to be very socially liberal. While they enjoyed the good times and safe streets under the reform mayors, they still tend to identify with the likes of the "progressive" Mr. Villaraigosa.

What is in store for L.A. and other cities in the new urban politics? Perhaps you can look to the loony bin of San Francisco, where longtime liberal Mayor Willie Brown has become the last bastion of reasonableness against a farleft majority on the Board of Supervisors, led by furiously anti‑growth, "enviro‑nimby," gay and leftist activists. And in the ultra‑left Bay Area, the most rational urban voice around is now the former governor and current Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.

This does not mean that things will get tough immediately for the affluent Anglos whose support is critical to the new "progressive'' politics. They tend to work in white‑collar jobs that are largely insulated from City Hall tinkering. The real loser will be the grassroots economy, which, in L.A., is epitomized by the warehousing, textile, toys, jewelry and garment industries.

The vast majority of those who work in these industries are immigrants, many of them Latinos, the very people with whom Mr. Villaraigosa identifies. The resurgence in these industries helped reduce income disparities, which rose in the early years of the recovery, as the broadening recovery began to lift thousands of Angelenos out of poverty.

Yet these industries are of little concern to Mr. Villaraigosa's labor backers, who have repeatedly failed to organize them, and are often viewed with contempt as low‑wage polluters by his "enviro‑nimby" allies. Also likely to be hurt is another blue‑collar bastion, construction, including thousands of union members, who, for good reason, still back Mr. Hahn.

The best thing to hope for in L.A., New York and other cities is that, in regaining power, the emerging left will have learned a little from the reform years. Even "progressives" such as Messrs. Green and Villaraigosa admit that they have imbibed something of the importance of a competitive economy. And their core constituencies, notably in the minority neighborhoods, are not likely to embrace permanently a regime that allows a revival of '80s‑style criminality.

America's great cities have managed, after decades of liberal mismanagement, to enjoy a renaissance. But the question remains: Will they still thrive -- or even survive -- if the architects of their former decline regain control of City Hall?

Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow with the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University and at the Milken Institute, is author of "The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape" (Random House, 2000).