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Mayoral races illustrate urban trends

From CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider

LOS ANGELES, California -- Most Americans live in the suburbs. But this year, with nearly 500 major cities electing mayors, it's the cities that are likely to get attention.

This is a big year for mayoral elections. Five of the nation's 10 largest cities are electing mayors in 2001 -- New York, Los Angeles, Houston, San Antonio and Detroit. So are other big cities such as Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Miami, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and Seattle.

The urban agenda has changed over the last 10 years. Look at New York and Los Angeles, the nation's two largest cities -- they both have Republican mayors with high job ratings who cannot run for another term.

Eight years ago, racial tension after the Crown Heights protests had a lot to do with getting Rudy Giuliani elected in New York. And, Richard Riordan was elected in Los Angeles after the Rodney King violence.

But racial tension is lower this year. The front-runner in next month's nonpartisan mayoral primary in Los Angeles, city attorney James Hahn, is a white man whose strongest support comes from African-American voters.

In New York, the front-runner right now for the September Democratic primary is public advocate Mark Green, a liberal who draws strongly from both white and black voters.

Look at what happened in St. Louis this week: For the second election in a row, Democrats defeated their own mayor in the Democratic primary. Talk about rejection -- Mayor Clarence Harmon ended up with just 5 percent of the vote.

But here's what was truly remarkable: The campaign in St. Louis this year, where one mayoral candidate was black and the other white, was less racially divisive than the campaign four years ago -- between two black candidates. The white man who won this year, board of alderman president Francis Slay, ran a non-racial campaign.

With crime rates down in most cities, including New York and Los Angeles, the agenda has shifted to police behavior. Under the microscope is the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles -- a massive cover-up of police corruption, and shocking episodes in New York such as the Abner Louima case and the Amadou Diallou tragedy.

This year's mayoral elections could mark the arrival of Hispanics as a political force. Two candidates are vying to become Los Angeles' first Hispanic mayor. In New York, a Hispanic candidate is running second in the Democratic primary and could get into the runoff.

And with no major black candidate so far in either city, African-American voters are poised to play a role they've rarely played before -- the role of swing voters.

What we're likely to find out in this year's mayoral elections is that urban politics has changed. It is no longer a matter of black and white.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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