A Mayor for All Seasons

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Like his big-city colleagues, Ed Koch practices the politics of survival

If a stiff upper lip could make a sound, say a nerve-racking hum, it would now emit from the offices of the nation's mayors and eventually fill the air.

Mayors are a brave lot generally, but until the advent of the Reagan Administration, their courage was merely tested on sozzly hecklers, dim-witted Governors, intransigent state legislatures and the normal range of external terrors that attend their work. Now Ronald Reagan has made them look inward. When he told the National League of Cities last December that his "first responsibility as President will be to reverse our nation's economic decline," no one in the crowd mistook his meaning. The cities were going to be on their own. The federal purse would be snatched away. From now on the mayors would have to replace dependency with invention.

Conceivably such a threat may be read as a challenge, but the problems of American cities are vast and acute: superannuated industries, disintegrating schools, highways that look like war zones, streets without lights or policemen, vanishing jobs, vanishing people except for the huddled masses waiting for trains that do not arrive.

The woes that beset the aging industrial Northeast and Middle West are not those of the Sunbelt, nor are all cities equally aggrieved. But the essential situation is the same. To put the case in numbers: Jimmy Carter had proposed $117 billion in state and local aid for fiscal 1982.

Under Reagan, the U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates, state and local aid will be reduced to $77 billion. Compare that with the $95 billion to be received in fiscal 1981—a difference that makes no allowance for inflation. The localities are responding predictably. Looking toward 1982 with trepidation, 68% of the 100 American cities surveyed by the Conference of Mayors indicated that they will cut essential services; 58% intend to lay off employees; 41% expect to raise taxes.

What such decisions will do to and for the leaders of these cities will be fascinating to watch. For a long time mayors have not been masters in their domains, and soon they will have no choice but to rule. The battles that were formerly fought with state legislatures and the Federal Government will grow intensely intramural. The mayors themselves may become wholly changed politicians, developing their own politics. One who is already doing that is the ruler of the nation's most powerful city-state—Mayor Edward Koch of New York.

"The fortunes of cities, as well as of men," said Plutarch, "have their certain periods of time prefixed, which may be collected and foreknown from the position of the stars." America's mayors may be forgiven for looking skyward.

By the time the mayor got to the wolf, most of the chicken was bones. The ball-shape French fries had disappeared, as had the string beans. The people were attentive. Under nine huge chandeliers sat the Greater Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, convened in Regency House, Jamaica, Borough of Queens, for their annual "Forecast Luncheon." They were happy with their mayor, who was running late. He would have to step on it if he was going to make Shea Stadium in time to toss out the Opening Day ball for the Mets. But not before getting to the wolf:

Now I have a little story [in

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