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Clinton Duscks Urban Reform in N.Y. : Campaign: The candidate has muted a key portion of his message in a bastion of public employee unions. Some fear he is playing it too safe.

April 05, 1992|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

NEW YORK — Has Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton lost just his voice in New York--or also part of his message?

That's what some advocates of government reform--including several in the orbit of Clinton's Democratic presidential campaign--say they are wondering after listening to his discussion of urban issues here this week.

Since the start of his campaign last year, Clinton has maintained that government must "reinvent" itself by developing non-bureaucratic and market-oriented approaches--from encouraging tenant management of public housing to reducing administrative bureaucracies and decentralizing the delivery of social services.

Such proposals, as Clinton was once eager to point out, cut against the grain of traditional Democratic thought.

But of late, Clinton has downplayed this issue to the point where it has virtually disappeared from his rhetoric in New York--a city that many analysts say they believe epitomizes the need for the types of reforms he had been touting.

Instead, Clinton has used his most visible public appearances--particularly a summit with urban officials last Tuesday--to advance a more traditional liberal agenda: increased federal spending on housing, education, health care and other needs.

While not embracing new federal assistance as unreservedly as his rival in Tuesday's presidential primary, former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., neither has Clinton publicly suggested that dealing with New York's plethora of problems may require reform at home even more than help from Washington--an omission he said he regretted in an interview with The Times Saturday night.

In the interview, Clinton acknowledged that he had not projected his belief that New York City municipal government, like government at all levels, must substantially reform its operations. "I think I do need to probably collect the examples that represent what I think has to be done and talk about it," he said.

Clinton's public silence on these questions during his New York campaign speaks volumes about the precarious balancing act he faces in reconciling his urge to move the Democratic Party in new directions with his political reliance on some of the party's most traditional elements--including public employee unions and minorities.

Referring to Clinton's dilemma, Will Marshall, one of his advisers and president of the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute, said: "There is a real opportunity in the citadel of the failures of the old bureaucratic approaches to talk about new ideas. On the other hand, he's got a lot of support from public employee unions, he's fighting for his (political) life and he needs support wherever he can get it."

The closest Clinton has come to hinting at the need for reform was a vague reference Saturday in an appearance before District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees--the bargaining unit for more than half of all New York City employees.

"In the years to come, we'll have to change what we do," Clinton told the members of the union, which is among his most significant supporters in New York. "We'll have to always be looking for ways to be more productive and more efficient."

But he offered no specifics concerning the changes or productivity gains he expected from the union, which many reformers here criticize for protecting inefficient work rules and bloated payrolls.

This cautious strategy probably helped Clinton minimize explosions as he navigated through the minefield of the New York primary campaign, analysts say. But it could carry the long-term cost of portraying him to crucial swing voters here--whose backing he would need in a general election campaign--as just another Democrat willing to open the checkbook for a city many consider mismanaged and wasteful of tax dollars.

"I think he missed an opportunity," said New York City Council President Andrew Stein, a leading local advocate of new approaches to confronting urban ills. "I don't want to be second-guessing, but I think if he would have come in right away and said it's just not a matter of money but you need major changes and (then) work off of that, I think he would have presented himself as somebody new, instead of somebody who hasn't defined himself."

Clinton's interest in government reform placed him squarely in a movement now gaining influence in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Phoenix. Inspired largely by the writings of David Osborne--co-author of the new book "Reinventing Government" and a Clinton adviser--reformist mayors have pressed municipal unions to revise rigid work rules, allowed private contractors to bid for providing various city services and endorsed programs that would give parents more flexibility in choosing the schools their children attend.

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