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Gore Must Score Points With Cities, Suburbs for Shot at the Presidency

The vice president has played a central role in the administration's drive to bring investment back into blighted neighborhoods.

April 12, 1999|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

MIAMI — When Vice President Al Gore was darting back and forth across Northwest 20th Street here one sunny afternoon last month--shaking hands outside the Little Karina clothing store, stopping in for Cuban coffee at the El Girasol cafeteria--the well-tailored man at his elbow, step-for-step, was Miami-Dade's energetic young mayor, Alex Penelas.

It's the same story with Mayor Richard M. Daley when Gore visits Chicago. And in Philadelphia with Ed Rendell. And in Detroit with Dennis Archer.

As a Tennessee senator absorbed in abstruse technology and defense issues during the 1980s, Gore had little contact with big-city issues--and few relationships with big-city mayors. That was painfully apparent when he ran for president in 1988 and saw his urban support confined almost entirely to New York City's then-Mayor Ed Koch--who proved more anchor than sail.

Quietly, however, Gore has rewritten that equation through his role in President Clinton's urban agenda. In the last few weeks, the vice president has been justifiably needled for claiming credit for a host of relatively peripheral administration initiatives and somewhat overzealously (that would be the charitable description) describing his role in the development of the Internet. But, ironically, he's received almost no attention for his part in one of the administration's major innovations: its effort to reorient urban policy toward encouraging more private investment in inner cities.

As chairman of Clinton's Community Empowerment Board since 1993, Gore has played a central role in the administration's drive to bring investment back into blighted neighborhoods through empowerment zones and related initiatives, such as an innovative program he's pioneered to link big corporations with inner-city entrepreneurs. Starting from that platform, Gore has made himself an ombudsman for key mayors on a broad range of issues.

"Gore has had a terrific learning curve in the past six years," says Rendell, who's hardly a Clinton apologist. "He is our point of entry into the administration on everything."

This urban orientation has been good politics for Gore. With Republicans dominating the governorships, mayors are often the most powerful elected Democrats in a given state. Most leading mayors--including all four named above--are supporting Gore's bid for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination. That will help Gore guard his liberal flank against challenger Bill Bradley, who's been running at him from the left.

Now, Gore is trying to build a beachhead in the suburbs. Since last fall he's led the way in defining an administration agenda to combat suburban sprawl--the endless march of the strip mall and the subdivision.

This new agenda could offer an outside game to bracket Gore's inside-game urban focus. Politically, it allows him to court suburban elected officials--such as King County, Wash., executive Ron Sims. It also gives him a calling card with suburban voters who are flush economically, but frustrated by traffic and congestion.

"It's a huge market of voters," says independent California pollster Mark Baldassare. "There is just enormous discontent with the way things are in the suburbs."

More important, these agendas fit together as policy. Suburbanites can feel overrun by new growth; many urban neighborhoods are starved for it. Both might benefit if cities attracted a larger share of new investment.

If implemented the right way, that insight could produce tangible benefits. One undernoticed example: a deal the administration midwifed earlier this year between the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Assn. of Home Builders in which the mayors agreed to clear away red tape and the home builders committed to building 1 million market-rate new homes in core city neighborhoods over the next decade.

Yet in campaigning to change decades-old patterns of development, Gore may be walking on a surprisingly narrow ledge. No one likes sprawl. But sprawl occurs because so many people like suburban living. If Gore is perceived as trying to restrict that choice, the backlash could be sharp.

"If they push the high-density living--you must live in a city--it is going to be devastating to Gore," says Charlie Ruma, president of the home builders association. "He has to be very, very careful about elitism."

So far, the administration's anti-sprawl agenda--tax subsidies to help local governments buy open space, more money for mass transit, car pool lanes and regional planning--has been too modest to inspire a counterattack. But for the same reason, it may not have a massive effect on the phenomenon it's meant to combat. Making a dent on sprawl--without provoking a backlash--won't be easy from the federal level, especially since voters have zealously guarded local control on the issue.

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