I recently had an argument with a fellow New Yorker about the merits of Mike Bloomberg. We both agreed his presidential aspirations were too ridiculous to be discussed. But then we began to debate Bloomie's record as Mayor.
"I could never, ever support a former Republican, the man who brought the Republican National Convention to New York City and endorsed George W. Bush," my friend said.
"Okay," I replied. "But what about Bloomberg's reformist record on education, his support for congestion pricing, and his experimental anti-poverty and safe sex programs? Sure, Bloomberg wasted time and money on an ill-fated Olympic bid, and he supports some neo-liberal development projects that New York progressives loathe. But he's been a force for some important positive change in New York City."
Yesterday the New York Times weighed in with an important editorial about the lack of focus on urban issues in the presidential race. The problem, of course, is exacerbated by the front-loading of rural states in the primary schedule, and also by the electoral college, which gives disproportionate weight to the minority of Americans who neither live nor work in a city. By harping endlessly on the challenges of rural areas while hardly ever speaking publicly about cities, Clinton, Obama, and McCain not only cede expertise on urban issues to self-promoters like Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani, but they also ignore crucial solutions to our major policy challenges: For example, what role should public transportation play in solving our global warming crisis? What public health measures should be taken in Washington, D.C., where 1 in 20 adults are estimated to be infected with H.I.V? As a nation, are we comfortable with the ever-increasing racial segregation of our urban and suburban schools, or do we want to promote integration as a social good?
These are some of the toughest, most intractable problems in American politics, so in part, it's no surprise our politicians aren't running to tackle them. Histories upon histories have been written about Americans' love-hate relationship with our cities; there's no doubt that culturally, we still sometimes stereotype cities as dens of crime and drugs, even though they remain the engines of our economy, producing 75 percent of our GDP. Indeed, in conservative politics, the diversity and tolerance of urban life are still pointed to as aberrant and abhorrent -- think of right-wing reactions to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to marry gay couples, or outrage over some cities' decisions to fundamentally ignore unworkable federal immigration statues.
There isn't a domestic political problem in America that can be solved without serious attention being paid to urban issues. If there's a presidential candidate who gets this, it's probably Barack Obama, who once worked as a community organizer on the troubled South Side of Chicago. Especially in the last month, Obama has drawn upon that experience as evidence of his ability to bring people together to solve economic problems such as joblessness. But we haven't heard much more talk of cities from Obama than we've heard from any other candidate. A lot more is needed.