WASHINGTON--The notion that suburbs are the key battlegrounds of American politics has become so accepted it is almost a cliche. But the anatomy of suburban life and suburban elections remains much harder to define.
No one has done more to explore that mystery than a Minnesotan named Myron Orfield, who was in Washington last week discussing his latest book, "American Metropolitics: The New Suburban Reality," just published by the Brookings Institution.
Orfield has the right combination of talents to tackle the job. A lawyer by training, he has immersed himself deeply in academic studies of urban affairs, as executive director of the foundation-funded Metropolitan Area Research Corporation. But he is also a hands-on political practitioner, having served for years in the Minnesota Legislature, currently as a Minneapolis state senator.
Five years ago, he opened many eyes with his first book, "Metropolitics," which used computer-generated mapping to lay bare the fiscal, social, racial, economic and educational structure of his home area. He now applies the same technique to the 25 largest metropolitan areas, where 46 percent of the U.S. population resides. The book contains the mapping for Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco. Maps for all 25 metro areas are available at www.metroresearch.org.
To examine any one of them is to see even a familiar landscape in a stunningly fresh perspective. For practitioners and students of politics and for anyone seeking to gauge the threats and opportunities in the growing population heart of this nation, Orfield offers a platform from which to operate.
The first thing his maps demonstrate is the folly of considering suburbs as a single species, easily differentiated from center cities or rural areas, but pretty much all alike themselves. Measured by growth patterns, affluence, age, race, economic base and fiscal capacity, they fall into five very distinct categories. The at-risk, older suburbs, often in the center ring, are totally unlike the affluent job centers, frequently miles further out. The "bedroom-developing suburbs," as he terms the familiar tract-house communities with crowded schools and low tax bases, face challenges of their own.
The distinctions Orfield draws among suburbs, and the way the varieties show up on his maps in shades from dark red to orange to bright blue, explain why the battle for suburban votes is so challenging--and why cliches about "soccer moms" or "New Economy voters" are often so misleading. They fail to capture the complexity of today's suburban reality.
How competitive are the suburbs? Orfield offers a startling answer. Contrary to the common assumption that the suburbs are basically Republican, he found that in 1998, state legislative seats in the suburbs of these 25 metropolitan areas split 50-50 between the parties.
Almost one-third of the "swing" districts in the country, those which split their tickets or go back and forth between the parties, are in these suburbs. They have no permanent allegiance to Republicans or Democrats, and in Minnesota were largely responsible for the 1998 victory of Gov. Jesse Ventura. Orfield says, and I think proves, that the party that can win both the at-risk suburbs and the bedroom-developing communities "will control legislatures, governors, Congress and the White House."
Orfield, who is a Democrat, is also a passionate advocate of stronger metropolitan government as the answer to the challenges facing central cities and all varieties of suburbs. His agenda calls for tax-sharing, stronger land-use planning, campaigns for affordable housing, and other measures he says would halt the decline in some parts of the region and relieve the growth pressures being experienced in others.
As a scholar, he acknowledges that in the scattered examples of this kind of policy, much of the leadership has come from Republicans, ranging from the late Gov. Tom McCall of Oregon, to Sen. Richard Lugar and his successors in the Indianapolis mayoralty and Christine Todd Whitman, when she was governor of New Jersey. More recently, conservative Republican governors such as Michigan's John Engler and Utah's Mike Leavitt have taken up the cause.
Whether you agree with his policy prescriptions or not, Orfield has found a way to illuminate the most critical--and, often, most baffling--battlefield in American politics. That is no small achievement.
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