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The New Urban Republican : Riordan and other big-city Republican mayors know that anti-tax, anti-government policies won't solve urban problems.

August 22, 1993|JOEL KOTKIN | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Center for the New West and an international fellow at the Pepperdine University School of Business. He is also business-trends analyst for KTTV Fox News

Within the traditionally Democratic urban core a new kind of Republican may be emerging. Fueled by mayoral victories in such Democratic bastions as Los Angeles and Jersey City, neo-Republicanism offers an approach to big-city problems that transcends the anti-tax, anti-government religion popularized by Ronald Reagan.

Less willing to merrily sing the less-government-the-better hymn, the neo-Republicans are more inclined toward a pragmatism that values efficiency. Governmental action, they recognize, can at times be the most efficient solution. To this extent, they are carriers of a strain of Progressive Republicanism, especially strong in the West during the early 20th Century, that sought not only to apply business methods to government, but also to use the public sector as a means of assisting market forces.

The emergence of such big-city Republican mayors as Richard Riordan also promises to reverse a decade-long party habit of neglecting cities and ethnic minorities. Once the representative of the ascendant industrial America of the late 19th Century and the standard bearer of minority rights, the Grand Old Party has chiefly evolved into a party of Anglo nostalgia, with its strongest support coming from the most culturally conservative and homogeneous parts of the population.

Riordan, by contrast, received more than 40% of L.A.'s Latino vote and greater than 50% of the city's Jewish vote on his way to City Hall. Bret Schundler, Jersey City's new mayor, was elected by a population that is better than two-thirds minority. And Rudolph W. Giuliani, the GOP mayoral candidate in New York City, is assembling a coalition composed of Jewish, Latino and Asian voters, plus the city's small conservative core.

But voter appeal across racial and ethnic lines alone does not make a neo-Republican. The necessity of dealing with the often brutal and grinding reality of city life allows urban Republicans no refuge in conservative dogma. The facile anti-government homilies that resonate so well in Newport Beach, or among country clubbers in Kansas, are meaningless in the face of the pressing problems of a Harlem or a South Los Angeles.

As custodians of the cities, neo-Republicans must break with the protect-the-haves conservatism of Sen. Robert Dole. In the big cities, improving the lot of the have-nots is critical not only to the poor, but also to the middle class and business community.

This often means that neo-Republicans must form alliances with urban liberals. For example, Riordan and Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) have joined forces to bring more federal resources to the city. Similarly, Giuliani has lined up with Herman Badillo, a well-known Latino politician, in his drive to unseat Mayor David M. Dinkins.

This does not mean that neo-Republicans condone huge tax increases. They well know that high taxation and overregulation are strangling the urban economy. To them, lowering taxes is primarily a means to a socially beneficial end, not an end in itself or some form of secular religion.

Taxes aren't the only area in which neo-Republicans are more than conventional Democrats in elephantine garb. Both Riordan and Schundler, for example, are quite open about their strong religious orientations. They do not see their spiritual moorings as fundamentally hostile to others and have learned that such themes as family, self-help and order have broad voter appeal.

Still, Riordan cannot afford to even wink and nod at the politics of the Christian right. He may quietly accept such support, but would be unlikely to publicly rally under its banner. For any neo-Republican running in multiethnic, urban America, overt links to the Christian right would weaken ties to those groups--gays, Jews and cultural liberals--crucial to urban success.

Another clear sign of Riordan's more inclusive Republicanism is the variety of people he has appointed to run his administration. Gays, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans--groups on the margin, at best, of traditional Republicanism--hold powerful positions at City Hall.

Indeed, neo-Republicans' approaches to race and immigration issues serve to distinguish them from the more mainstream GOP. Riordan has refused to engage in the kind of immigrant-bashing that has become the stock and trade of suburban-based Republicans such as Gov. Pete Wilson. "They're human beings," Riordan recently told a crowd of L.A. community leaders at a local synagogue. "I don't care if they are legal or illegal." The mayor of the quintessential city of immigrants could not have said much else and still be an effective leader.

In terms of programs, neo-Republicans do not differ substantially from those Democrats who embrace the New Democrat philosophy that Bill Clinton once professed. Yet, the apparent inability of these Democrats to gain strong influence, if not control, of their party has helped to create a opening for the neo-Republicans--especially at the level of big-city politics.

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