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New Primary Creates Urban Focus

Have you ever hurried up the steps of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in a teeming rain and then let out a sigh of wonder and contentment as soon as you got inside, the weather and everything else forgotten in the excitement and comfort of the splendor that surrounded you?

Have you ever spent the day with Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art or listened as the voice of Luciano Pavarotti soared through the sweetness of a summer night in Central Park?

Do you know anything about the greatness of a city?

Have you ever taken a perfect pass beneath the basket on a court in Greenwich Village and listened to the howls of laughter as you blew the layup, and then marveled, as you tried to trot nonchalantly back up the court, “Cheez, this really is a tough town”?

Have you ever seen a jazz dance rehearsal?

Somehow, it has become an article of faith among millions of Americans that cities are vile places, the natural habitat of lesser Americans, foreigners and people of dangerous sexual persuasions; cities are places to recoil from, and their residents are not fellow Americans but rather, people to be mocked and despised.

Once the urban populace has been demonized, it is easy to take the next step: seeing very serious problems such as crime, poverty, homelessness and deteriorating schools as not only insoluble but also inevitable. When even the mayor of New York breaks faith with his constituents and decides that the best way to deal with poor New Yorkers is to chase them out of town, when that sort of thing happens, cities really are in trouble.

Out of this darkness comes a small beam of light. It’s called CityVote.

On Nov. 7, a non-binding presidential preference primary will be held in more than a dozen cities, including Spokane; Boston; Baltimore; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Pasadena, Calif.; and Tucson, Ariz. The idea is to get presidential candidates, who stumble and crawl all over themselves in their eagerness to get to places such as Iowa and New Hampshire, to spend at least a little time talking seriously about urban issues.

“This is the first national urban primary, and it is three months before New Hampshire,” said Larry Agran, who is heading the CityVote project. “It will be held in conjunction with municipal elections, and it will give candidates an opportunity to refocus and address issues that are important to cities, big and small.”

At least three televised debates prior to the primary are being planned. When asked what would happen if the major candidates decline to debate and simply ignore CityVote, Agran, a former mayor of Irvine, Calif., replied: “I don’t think that will be a problem; the early response has been favorable.”

He added, however, that the candidates’ names will be on the ballots whether they wish to participate or not. His message was clear: There will be winners and losers, and there will be press coverage.

Osborn Elliott, chairman of the Citizens Committee for New York City and a strong supporter of CityVote, said: “The attitude toward our cities is absurd. The cities are the engines of our society; they are where the business is done and the arts and culture are advanced; they are the centers from which medicine and science are delivered. And yet we ignore them. They are not paid attention to by either political party.”

There will be no CityVote primary in New York. State officials have argued that the city cannot hold a presidential primary without enabling state legislation. Agran disagrees, but it is an argument he is unlikely to win. New York City residents will, of course, be the real losers.

I think the biggest potential benefit to come from CityVote will have nothing to do with this or that politician mouthing some irrelevance or downright lie in front of the TV cameras at a debate. The real potential will be where it has always been: with the voters themselves.

For years, I have listened to men and women in cities across the country complain about the state of politics and the quality of their lives. For years, I have asked them the same question: Did you vote? For years, from the vast majority, I have received the same answer: No.

Refusing to vote has serious consequences. CityVote is a step toward a remedy.

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