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West Side Story for the '90s

From Broadway to Brentwood, it's become clear that--in local politics, at least--liberal voters are saying quality of life is more important than ideological labels.


As a little girl, Anne Reingold remembers gaping at newly demolished slums on Manhattan's Upper West Side and burning with questions: Where would all the poor people go, now that their apartments had been leveled? Who would help them?

Today, 31 years after Lincoln Center replaced those aging tenements, Reingold pushes her child in a stroller through the same neighborhood, and she has markedly different concerns.

"I'm glad they got most of the hookers and drug dealers out of the area now and that the community is safer," she says. "I grew up here in a very liberal, very progressive world, but the whole West Side is changing--and I've changed too."

Once, Reingold handed out anti-Vietnam War leaflets on her block. She joined Democratic clubs and vowed never to marry a Republican. Yet last month, she and most of her neighbors voted for GOP Mayor Rudy Giuliani over Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, the political queen bee of New York's deeply liberal Upper West Side.

Giuliani whipped Messinger citywide--in a race in which she tried to run from her political past. The outcome had been widely expected, but his winning 60% of the West Side vote was not. Some New York liberals are still reeling from the novelty of it all, yet in backing a moderate Republican they were repeating the performance of Democrats in West Los Angeles a few months earlier.

Just ask Peter Bemis, a longtime liberal Democrat from Beverly-Fairfax. He too broke with tradition and in April helped reelect Mayor Richard Riordan, spurning state Sen. Tom Hayden, a veteran organizer on the left.

"At first I asked myself: 'What the hell are you doing?' " Bemis says. "But I wanted the city to be managed and run better, and somehow the standard leftist ideas just didn't connect with me. I think a lot of Westsiders felt the same."

Welcome to West Side Story--an urban political melodrama updated for the '90s and set in two neighborhoods nationally known as bastions of liberal politics.

In the Broadway musical, two lovers from feuding street gangs rise above hatred and embrace. In the latest version, Democrats who once had no use for Republicans rise above party labels and help elect them to City Hall. As the curtain falls, "there's a place for us" takes on a whole new meaning.

Are liberals searching for a new home? Few believe that they will desert the Democratic Party en masse. But in talking to west siders on both coasts about their defections, it becomes clear that--in local politics, at least--quality of life has become a more potent issue than ideological correctness.

Local Examples of Larger Trends

In some respects, Los Angeles and New York voters are simply reflecting electoral trends. Earlier contests in Philadelphia, St. Paul, Minn., Atlanta and other cities showed that many liberal Democrats are marching to a different drummer, voting for centrist candidates regardless of party labels.

"There is no great ideological crusade going on in America's cities, especially for Democrats," says Bill Carrick, a political consultant who ran President Clinton's 1996 California campaign and has worked for Riordan.

"If you talk to liberals on the Westside of Los Angeles, you'll find that the things which concern them most are really no different from conservatives in the San Fernando Valley."

"We're seeing a real evolution among these folks on the left," adds veteran Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. "I call them bread and butter liberals--a new, emerging group."

It's a long way from Broadway to Brentwood, but in key respects the two west sides are quite similar. Both have long traditions of political activism. Both have a large number of upper-middle income white voters, particularly Jewish residents, who historically vote for Democratic candidates.

How did Republicans carry both communities?

Some west siders say they simply voted for the better candidate, calling the switch a one-time aberration. Others note that their neighborhoods have gentrified in recent years, attracting a swarm of more affluent, less liberal voters.

Still others say they have grown up since the 1960s and '70s, and that the task of raising children, paying mortgages and making a living has tempered their earlier liberal views.

"It's what I used to hear years ago, and it turns out to be true," says Rick Taylor, a Los Angeles political consultant who since 1982 has handled candidates of all stripes. "When you get older and grayer, you get more conservative."

To be sure, the liberal flame has not died in New York and Los Angeles. West siders still elect left-of-center Democrats to Congress and state offices, and they voted heavily for Clinton. For some, the old verities remain.

"I still believe what my political godfather, Abbie Hoffman, told me," says Robert Greenwald, a Venice movie producer who strongly backed Hayden. "Most liberals can be untrustworthy, but real progressives are not.

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