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Redefining liberalism

National | With his insistence on fiscal leanness, liberal mayor shakes up Democratic politics

Issue: "Rethinking divorce," June 13, 1998

in Milwaukee - John Norquist is a bundle of contradictions. He dresses like a poet but talks like an accountant. He likes FDR but admires Paul Weyrich. He preaches free trade, school choice, and limited government, but continues to be a card-carrying Democrat. No one seems to know quite what to make of Mr. Norquist. Except the residents of Milwaukee, that is; they've made him mayor three times. Mr. Norquist may be the future of Democratic politics. He still sees himself as the champion of social justice and "the little guy," but he has defined that role differently than most Democrats from LBJ onward. He believes the little guy would prosper if freed from government regulation and taxation. "People are more likely to add value to their lives than we politicians are," he says, explaining his drive to keep government small and choices in the hands of the people. That means supporting school choice against "the government school monopoly," which Mr. Norquist sees as dumbing down the urban labor force and dulling the natural economic advantage of cities. "I believe that cutting waste from government is an act of social justice," he says, again redefining the traditional Democratic mantra. To that end, he has held the city's budget increases below the rate of inflation every year that he has been mayor. One way he has saved money is by refusing to pander to the urban poor by spending ever-increasing amounts on public housing. His reasoning is simple and market-based: "Why artificially hold down housing values in the city? No one will invest in a house if the price is held down. Everyone wants appreciation." His philosophy seems to be working. By keeping government small, Milwaukee has kept taxes low. And that, in turn, has contributed to an extra 3 percent rise in city housing values, according to the mayor's office. Not surprisingly, Mr. Norquist's self-help, small-government approach has alienated some of the special-interest groups most Democrats take for granted. "I wouldn't be the first choice of the NEA," the mayor says, his watery blue eyes smiling behind rimless glasses at the extent of the understatement. Indeed, the education establishment from all over the state campaigned mightily against his reelection, based on his support for school choice. Public employees also tend to resent his efforts toward privatization and common-sense delivery of services. Mr. Norquist, for instance, took on the public health bureaucracy when it declared that only the city should immunize children. By forcing health care providers to refuse private insurance, public-health workers protected their monopoly even as immunization rates dropped to dangerously low levels. When Mr. Norquist reversed that policy, immunization rates among Milwaukee's children soared from 23 percent to better than 80 percent. Likewise, Mr. Norquist lost votes among public maintenance workers when he allowed Milwaukee fire stations to contract with private firms for painting services. The problem, he says, was that city painters insisted on painting the stations during the winter in order to protect their summer vacation time. But fire chiefs needed painting services performed in the summer so that engines could be left outside while the work was in progress. With unions refusing to budge on vacation time, Mr. Norquist simply turned to more flexible service providers in the private sector. Though such policies may look suspiciously Republican, Mr. Norquist paints them in traditionally Democratic terms. "Republicans tend to be the party of privilege," he says, "and public employees now tend to be part of the privileged class. That should be troubling to real conservatives." The mayor's attractive fiscal policy is countered, however, by his social positions, which include strong support for abortion. Given that combination-conservative on economic issues, liberal on social ones-is Mr. Norquist the poster boy for the so-called New Democrats? The mayor would make an imposing figure on any poster. But he doesn't like the New Democrat label, which he sees as merely a euphemism for a bland, government-by-the-polls philosophy. "I'm not anti-extremist," he insists. "I respect people like Paul Weyrich. The trouble with New Democrats is their obsession with centrism. You have to be non-controversial, take a poll before you do anything. That saps the strength of the party." Few would accuse Mr. Norquist of being non-controversial. But in Milwaukee, at least, his results-oriented, quality-of-life approach (for those already born) has won him legions of followers. Like other big-city mayors-New York's Rudolph Guiliani and Los Angeles' Richard Riordan in particular-he has cobbled together a coalition that transcends party lines by emphasizing the self-interests of many voters. For voters who care about principles-like the sanctity of life-that are hard to justify in purely economic terms, Mr. Norquist is problematic. But he may also represent the future of American politics, so they had best not ignore him.

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