Media Beat, Oct. 18, 1995
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

After 'Million Man March,' Still No Urban Policy

However you view the recent Million Man March, it's time to consider the powerful messages sent by the multitudes of African-Americans who converged on the troubled city of Washington -- most of them traveling from other troubled cities.

A major theme of the daylong rally was personal atonement, as religious leaders exhorted the assemblage to take greater responsibility for their families and communities. This message was widely applauded in mass media -- even by white commentators who've long stood against civil rights.

But another theme also resounded from the steps of the Capitol: a call for a new urban policy and opposition to current attacks on federal programs that benefit workers, minorities, the elderly and the poor.

Unlike the personal redemption message, this rally refrain won little praise -- or notice -- from media pundits.

After the massive demonstration, Jesse Jackson urged President Clinton to convene a White House conference on urban policy and economic development.

But devising programs to confront urban problems -- like high unemployment, inferior schools and inadequate housing -- seems to be the last thing on Clinton's mind. On the day of the march, Clinton delivered an eloquent call for racial harmony, but he offered no agenda to rebuild our cities.

Unfortunately, atonement and eloquence alone will not bridge the racial gap, nor the gap between inner cities and well-off suburbs. Public policy and resources are needed to address the underlying conditions that breed crime and broken homes.

But in today's body politic, attacking symptoms (by getting ''tough'' on crime and welfare) is how we avoid confronting the disease: central cities devoid of capital, credit, jobs and well-functioning educational institutions.

It's not just Bill Clinton who evades serious discussion of urban policy. So do Republicans and mass media -- although the Los Angeles riots of 1992 (now seen as ancient history) sparked a brief flurry of intense news coverage.

One person who's spent years trying to generate political debate about our cities is Larry Agran, formerly a liberal mayor in conservative Orange County, Calif. In 1992, Agran campaigned for president -- with little press attention -- on a platform of redirecting billions from military spending to America's cities, towns and school districts.

Agran saw up close that the presidential campaign focused more on suburbs than cities and that largely rural states, like Iowa and New Hampshire, exerted undue influence over the process.

So, with the help of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Agran developed CityVote, a cost-effective way to prod presidential candidates to debate the issues of concern to city dwellers.

It's a simple plan: When voters in participating cities go to the polls for local elections this November, they also get to vote in a presidential preference poll (with Democrats, Republicans and independents all on one ballot). For taxpayers, the cost of the piggy-backed balloting is negligible -- and the potential benefits are appreciable.

By early 1995, many cities had expressed interest in joining the ''national urban primary.'' Televised candidate debates on urban policy were scheduled, with broadcasters like Bill Moyers and Sander Vanocur agreeing to moderate.

But recently, CityVote has encountered some big obstacles: namely, Democrats, Republicans and national media.

In September, the Democratic National Committee began pressuring cities to either delete Bill Clinton's name from the CityVote ballot or cancel the polling altogether. Why? The DNC seems to fear that Clinton won't do well enough with city voters -- especially compared to Colin Powell and Jesse Jackson.

Several leading Republicans -- perhaps unwilling to defend their cuts in social programs popular with urban voters -- have shunned CityVote. Sen. Bob Dole refused to submit a 500-word statement on urban policy requested by CityVote. He did, however, authorize a 12-word statement on fixing the cities through ''conservative, pro-growth ideas of lower taxes, reduced regulation and greater economic opportunity.''

The plight of the urban primary has received scant attention from national media -- even from news outlets that took seriously the recent Iowa straw poll where candidates could virtually buy votes.

But CityVote won't be stopped. An estimated 200,000 voters will cast presidential preference ballots on Nov. 7 in more than 15 cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.; Tucson, Ariz.; Rochester, N.Y.; Tacoma, Wash.; and Spokane, Wash. A gran remains undaunted about CityVote's future: ''The goal in November 1999,'' he told us, ''is to be on ballots in 25 major cities, preceded by three nationally televised debates.''

Let's hope we won't be waiting until the next millennium for a thorough debate on reviving our ailing cities.

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