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So Many Presidential Debates, So Little Concern Shown for Cities

In mid-October, I noted that the Democrats and Republicans had held 17 or so presidential debates (the number can vary, depending on who’s counting), but that with all the gabbing they managed not to focus on America’s cities.

Well, two months have passed, and that observation is no longer valid.

The candidates have now held 25 or so debates without talking about urban issues.

Someone ought to alert the Guinness people. For sidestepping matters of direct concern to more than 80 percent of the population — people living in urban and suburban areas — this has to be some kind of record.

The grievance is hardly new. But it is glaring this time around because of the large number of candidates who you’d think would have cities and their suburbs high in their minds. Look at them: former mayors of New York City and Cleveland, a senator from New York, a former community organizer out of Chicago.

Sure, they have discussed terrorism, health care, the economy, immigration and other matters that affect cities as much as the rest of the country. But what about basic urban and suburban concerns like housing, transportation, crime, education, Medicaid costs, homelessness, crumbling infrastructure?

There has been barely a word, though blame no doubt lies not only with the candidates but also with debate M.C.’s who ignore these topics.

The silence has not gone unnoticed by the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan, though decidedly liberal, New York think tank. (Its name, in case you wondered, is rooted in a sermon by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said two months before his assassination in 1968 that he wanted to be remembered as “a drum major for justice.”)

Over the last few weeks, together with The Nation magazine, the institute asked mayors from Miami to Boston, from Baltimore to Los Angeles, for the issues they thought should be on the candidates’ plates.

Ten mayors were interviewed — Atlanta, Buffalo, Denver, Minneapolis, Rochester and Salt Lake City round out the list — and the number may grow. Their comments were videotaped and excerpts posted on a Web site,, which the institute hopes to have up and running on Friday.

“Instead of writing a report or issuing a critique or counting the number of times that the presidential candidates have talked about cities, we decided that the voices that really need to be heard are the mayors’ themselves,” said Andrea Batista Schlesinger, Drum Major’s executive director.

All 10 mayors are Democrats or independents, reflecting political realities in many cities. Republican mayors were approached, too, and some expressed interest, Ms. Schlesinger said, but the timing didn’t work out. Maybe later.

One obvious choice would have been Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, a man for all parties (Democrat, born-again Republican, reborn-again independent). “But alas,” Ms. Schlesinger said, his possible involvement “fell through some kind of scheduling black hole.”

Not surprisingly, the mayors’ issues are essentially those mentioned above: housing, infrastructure, economic development, public safety and so on. Loud and clear is their frustration with what they perceive as Washington’s lack of interest in their troubles.