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Urban America's Moment

By David S. Broder
Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Democratic presidential race has developed a different and welcome dynamic -- a sharp competition among the leading candidates to become champions of urban America.

With a batch of big-state primaries looming on Feb. 5, after the preliminaries in four contests where rural, small-town and suburban voters dominate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards are focusing on problems of poverty and programs to help blighted neighborhoods.

Such problems are not unknown in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire or South Carolina, where the primary and caucus trail begins, but they are far larger in California, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey and New York -- all of which vote on Feb. 5. That is one reason urban issues have come to the fore.

Edwards, who launched a center for poverty studies after his vice presidential campaign ended in 2004, completed another tour of blighted areas last week. On the final day of that swing, Obama made a major address on urban problems in Washington. Not to be outdone, Clinton, in a campaign appearance, recycled some of the proposals of her earlier speech on economic inequality.

It has been a long time since the mayors of the country and their constituents received this kind of attention. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has been a forgotten backwater for a decade.

Bill Clinton, whose roots were in tiny Hope, Ark., had little feel for big-city government when he came to Washington. But he had a dynamic first-term HUD secretary in former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros. In his second term, he let Vice President Al Gore and HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo turn the agency mainly into an instrument for Gore's 2000 campaign.

George Bush continued the department's politicization by giving HUD to his brother Jeb's Florida buddy Mel Martinez, who has since moved on to become both a senator and the general chairman of the Republican National Committee. The current HUD secretary, Alphonso Jackson, is the least conspicuous member of a less-than-notable Cabinet -- a man who pleases the president by giving absolutely no visibility to urban issues.

That's why it is welcome news that leading Democratic presidential candidates are treating the cities seriously. Urban America presents a complex picture. Some cities are growing; others are in decline. Some downtowns and neighborhoods flourish; others are seemingly almost beyond hope.

Obama, whose first job after Harvard Law School was as a community organizer in low-income South Side Chicago, spoke from experience about the "overwhelming" impact of concentrated urban poverty. "It's so difficult to escape," he said in his speech last week. "It's isolating and it's everywhere."

"If you are an African American child unlucky enough to be born into one of these neighborhoods," he said, "you are most likely to start life hungry or malnourished. You are less likely to start with a father in your household, and, if he is there, there's a 50-50 chance that he never finished high school and the same chance he doesn't have a job. Your school isn't likely to have the right books or the best teachers. You're more likely to encounter gang activities than after-school activities. And if you can't find a job because the most successful businessman in your neighborhood is a drug dealer, you're more likely to join that gang yourself. Opportunity is scarce, role models are few and there is little contact with the normalcy of life outside those streets."

As a senator, Hillary Clinton has helped the revival of Harlem and the recovery efforts of Lower Manhattan after Sept. 11, 2001, but she also understands the struggles of the old industrial cities of Upstate New York, where longtime manufacturers have succumbed to foreign competition or joined the exodus to overseas locations.

John Edwards has made perhaps the most serious effort of anyone to understand the pathology and psychology of poverty, drawing on both academic studies and the firsthand experiences of his own walking tours.

They offer similar proposals -- raising the minimum wage, expanding the earned-income tax credit, new subsidies for housing, easier access to college and job training, and a health-care system that insures every family.

What counts most, though, are not the specific items they are offering but the awareness they show of the constituency and the problems -- and the commitment to make urban America a serious part of the governing agenda.

The cities have been waiting a long time for such attention.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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