Republicans, Cities, and Cruise Ships


States House of Representatives Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who comes
from the suburbs of Houston, wants to minimize contact between Republican
Party delegates and the people of New York City when the Republicans
hold their political convention there next August 30 to September
2. Last November, we learned that he pushed for the Republican National
Committee to lease a 2,240-passenger luxury cruise liner named the

Norwegian Dawn

to function as a “floating hotel” during the convention.
With “15 decks, 14 bars and lounges, and babbling brooks,”

New York Times

reported, the

Norwegian Dawn

have been stocked with “shows, fine works of art, health clubs,
bars, cafes, luxury staterooms, and restaurants serving cuisine
from around the world.” It would have been docked at a pier
on the Hudson River, providing what a DeLay spokesperson called
“an opportunity to stay in one place, in a secure fashion”
(Michael Slackman, “GOP Option at Convention: Luxury Liner,”

New York Times

, December 1, 2003). 

proposal outraged New Yorkers, including many city Republicans—who
hold the mayor’s office, after all. City officials and business
owners were concerned that DeLay’s cruise ship would siphon
millions of dollars from local restaurants, shops, theaters, and
hotels. By one estimate, Delay’s plan would have “cost
the local hospitality industry about $40 million over five days
(Joseph Dolman, “Ahoy, National Republicans Abandon Ship,”


December 3, 2003). New York City, local Republicans
and others noted, has one of the lowest crime rates of any big city
in U.S.—something that Republicans generally attribute to the
militant policing and workfare strategies of the city’s recent
GOP Mayor Rudolph Guliani. At the same time, according to the


many Republicans felt “the cruise ship could undermine one
reason New York was chosen for the first time in the party’s
history as the site of its convention: to help advance the idea
that Republicans are the new big-tent party, trying to embrace all
voters” (Slackman, “GOP Option”). 

these related economic and image concerns, the GOP shelved DeLay’s
“floating fortress” scheme in early December. 

“We’ve Just Got to Work Harder” 


a decision the party deserves to regret. It’s hard, of course,
for any down-on-its-luck city to sneeze at $40 million in one week.
But what, after all, does the party of George Bush II, Karl Rove,
and Grover Norquist really have to offer New York City and other
major urban centers in the bigger and longer term scheme of things?
Last February, as Bush presented his budget for FY 2004, half of
America’s cities reported that they could no longer provide
adequate amounts of food to meet the needs of urban residents applying
for emergency assistance. The hunger was especially great in New
York, where the Bush downturn was severely compounded by the local
impact of the September 2001 terror attacks. Bush responded to the
dire urban indicators with a deficit-generating budget combining
massive military expenditures with even more massive tax cuts that
tilted towards the super-wealthy in what was already the industrialized
world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation. The U.S.
Conference of Mayors pointed out that this budget was nearly $4
billion short of what Bush’s own plan for “educational
reform” required. It even, the mayors noted, cut support for
regular policing, the need for which is rising as states accelerate
the release of prisoners to save money, partly in response to reduced
federal assistance. By slashing taxes on the well-off and diverting
hundreds of billions to an imperial “defense” budget that
dwarfs the combined military expenditures of all possible “enemy”
states, Bush guaranteed that the federal government would not significantly
help the nation’s cities or the rising number of (disproportionately
urban) poor.

was before the Administration requested and received $87 billion
for invasion, reconstruction, and occupation in Afghanistan and
Iraq. According to the National Priorities Project, that imperial
allocation has come at no small cost to the nation’s leading
urban areas: Los Angeles ($937 million), Atlanta ($110 million),
Chicago ($905 million), Detroit ($166 million), Kansas City ($121
million), Las Vegas ($161 million), New York City ($2.73 billion),
Dallas ($352 million), and Houston ($563 million). Bush’s special
imperial assessment extracts $119 million from Baltimore, which
opened the holiday season by laying off 710 education workers as
part of an effort to close a $52 million deficit in the city’s
public schools. “Cities and states,” reporter Tim Wheeler
reports, “are facing similar deficits, to the tune of a combined
$150 billion, thanks to Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, his war
policy, and the economic recession” (“Cities and States
Face Brutal Cutbacks,”


s Weekly


December 6-12, 2003). 

budgetary priorities are bad news for the 20 percent of Chicago’s
population that lived beneath the federal government’s notoriously
inadequate poverty level in 2000. Half of that group, heavily concentrated
in predominantly black neighborhoods on the city’s south and
west sides, was actually mired in “deep poverty,” living
at less than half the official poverty measure. Things have certainly
worsened in these and other impoverished urban communities since
the time these percentages were recorded, at the peak of the longest
period of continuous U.S. economic expansion since the 1960s. 

budget is bad news also for the more than 100,000 16- to 24-year-old
Chicago residents who are disconnected from both the labor market
and the educational system, according to a recent study released
by the Alternative Schools Network (“Giving Up the Race: Jobless
Youth in Chicago,” 2003). Also very disproportionately black
and Latino/a, these “unattached youth”—increasingly
ubiquitous across the ghettos and barrios of U.S. cities—are
a core recruiting ground for the nation’s swelling army of
prisoners, detainees, felons, probationers, ex-offenders, and recidivists—a
permanently marked criminal class that cycles in and out of courts,
jails, and squad cars, providing the essential raw material for
one of the predominantly white rural U.S. sector’s few growth
industries—mass incarceration. This “criminal element”
is fed by the remarkable one in five black Chicago students who
drop out from that city’s overcrowded and under-funded public
school system, which is being stretched fiscally and otherwise to
meet the punitive and unfunded mandates of Bush’s No Child
Left Behind Act (recently described in a

Baltimore Sun

as a “weapon of educational mass destruction”). Meanwhile
Chicago city government is preparing to lay off as many as 1,000
workers, as it squeezes to fill gaps left by cuts in federal and
state spending.  

all very consistent with the vapid emptiness of Bush II’s comments
at a church-sponsored community development center during an event
marking the ten-year anniversary of the 1992 Rodney King riot at
that memorable urban conflagration’s epicenter in South Los
Angeles. According to Peter Drier, director of the Urban and Environmental
Policy Program at Occidental College in Los Angeles, “reporters
might have expected” Bush to use this poignant anniversary
“to announce a new initiative to address the nation’s
serious urban problems.” Instead, Bush used the occasion “simply,”
as Dreier notes, to “tout his most visible urban program—encouraging
urban churches to sponsor programs such as homeless shelters, food
shelters, and drug counseling. His proposal added no funds for these
worthy, though Band-Aid efforts, but called for redirecting existing
money. George W. Bush came to Los Angeles bearing only rhetoric.
‘You know, we live in a great country,’ he said. ‘I’m
proud of America. I’m proud of what we stand for. Oh, I know
there’s pockets of despair. That just means we’ve got
to work harder. It means you can’t quit. It means you’ve
got to rout it out with love and compassion and decency. But this
is the greatest country on the face of the earth. And it is such
an honor to be a resident of such a great land…. Out of violence
and ugliness came new hope,’ he said, in the middle of a neighborhood
where only 23 percent of the commercial buildings destroyed by the
riots are back in business, where there are 43,800 fewer jobs than
there were in 1992, and where more than one-third of the residents
live in poverty” (Peter Dreier, “America’s Urban
Crisis A Decade After the Los Angeles Riots,”

National Civic

 Spring 2003).

The Republican War on Cities 


truth is, the federal government, under the lead of what urban-ecological
writer Mike Davis calls “the Republican war on the cities,”
has been disinvesting in cities for more than two decades. This
anti-urban civil “war” has created massive shortfalls
in the municipal monies available for subsidized housing, job training,
public education, welfare, and much else of pressing need in the
nation’s abandoned urban core. Between 1977 and 1985, under
the influence of “Reagan revolution in urban finance,”
the federal government’s contribution to the budget of New
York City fell from 19 percent to 9 percent. For Los Angeles, the
comparative decline was from 18 to 2 percent. “For cities with
more than 300,000 inhabitants,” Davis notes, “the average
federal share of the municipal income stream…plummeted from
22 percent in 1980 to a mere 6 percent in 1989.” The consequences
were especially harsh for impoverished inner-city neighborhoods,
particularly reliant on federal assistance and already reeling from
the savage, policy-enabled deindustrialization of central metropolitan

were exacerbated by the federal government’s determination
to “shift the costs of many national problems onto Democrat-dominated
localities,” including immigration regulation and the noxious,
racist Republican-led War on Drugs. The latter has led to an expensive
militarization of the cities, provided a steady stream of black
and brown bodies to the prison industrial complex, deepened many
minorities’ already extreme labor market disadvantages with
mass, racially disparate felony marking (one in three black adult
males now possesses a felony record), and done nothing to stem the
ravages of substance abuse. 

“Reagan-Bush era’s various anti-urban policies,”
Davis found, “combined with huge tax subsidies to suburban
retail and office development” to create a spectacular “new
Spatial Apartheid” between fiscally starved and disproportionately
black and Latino/a urban centers and very disproportionately white,
affluent, and over-funded suburban rings. Reaganite policy “subsidized
white flight and metropolitan re-segregation” by “exiling
core cities into the wilderness” and “smothering commercial
suburban developers and renegade industrialists with tax breaks
and subsidies”—a process that reapportioned away cities’
“once-decisive political clout in national elections”
and entrenched “suburban voters and their representatives as
the political majority in the United States” (Mike Davis,


New York, NY: the New Press, 2003).


No More European Vacations 


days after Bush II landed on the Abraham Lincoln to declare victory
in Iraq, Michael Powell, chief of the



New York bureau, provided an interesting
perspective on the current White House’s response to the fiscal
and social crises of urban America. “The traditional conversation
heard during national recessions—in which the federal government,
Republican or Democratic, talks of rescuing state and local governments,
had,” Powell noted, “been turned on its head” by
the Bush team. “While cities and states slash budgets for public
hospitals, firehouses, and schools even as they raise [regressive
sales] taxes to make ends meet, the Bush administration talks of
cutting more taxes. Federal tax cuts enacted under Bush have led
to a $10 billion drop in total revenue for the states, many of which
link their taxes to those of the federal government.” “The
Bush administration,” a leading urban policy expert (Bruce
Katz of the Brookings Institution) told Powell, “is fundamentally
indifferent to the fiscal crisis of the states.” 

however, Republican “conservatives” within and outside
the White House openly and honestly endorse that crisis. “They
say,” Powell observed, that “squeezing states and cities
will produce better services for less—or force them to turn
to the private sector.” Powell cited a recent study produced
for the radically regressive Republican think-tank the Heritage
Foundation—a White House favorite second in influence only
to the American Enterprise Institute—by Ohio University professor
Richard Veeder. Veeder compares hard-pressed states and cities slashing
human services programs needed by children and families to an affluent
family that needs to “tighten its belt.” “Instead
of eating out three days a week, the family eats out once. Instead
of taking European vacations, the family goes to Florida.”
It’s fine advice for the millions of U.S. citizens who lack
the time and money for any kind of vacation or for dining out and
who depend on government simply to keep their heads above water.
The insult and injury are compounded by the Bush administration’s
unfunded urban mandates around education, immigration, and homeland

“is wearing a wartime halo,” notes Richard Schrader, a
New York City labor and political consultant, “but someone
needs to ask him why we can rebuild Baghdad but we can’t rebuild…our
cities and states” (Michael Powell, “Rescue’s Just
Not Part of the Plan,”

Washington Post

, May 4, 2003).
As Schrader spoke, Tom DeLay was seeking to alter the formula for
the distribution of federal transportation money in a way that would
have cost New York $300 million a year (Timothy Williams, “Mayor
Slams RNC Cruise Plans,”


, November 19, 2003). 

make matters worse in New York City, the Bush administration pressed
the Environmental Protection Agency to “omit cautionary language
about the possible hazard from air pollutants such as asbestos,
cadmium, and lead after the World Trade Center towers fell.”
This is according to the EPA’s Inspector General, who also
noted that the EPA’s early statements failed to include proper
guidance for cleaning indoor spaces, leading lower Manhattanites
to return to their homes before they were completely safe. Large
numbers of emergency and construction workers spent weeks at the
center of destruction, most without respirators, falsely encouraged
by the EPA’s September 18 declaration that the air was “safe”
(Mark Kaufman, “Details on 9/11 Air Quality Questioned,”

Washington Post

, August 27, 2003).

thousands who worked in lower Manhattan during and after the terror
attacks “have seen their lives turned upside down by illness
without access to care.” This is according to Dr. Stephen Levin,
who heads a program at Mt. Sinai Hospital that screens people with
Ground-Zero-related illnesses. Levin recently told

New York Magazine

writer Greg Sargent, “Many of the people who spent months in
the pit at ground zero,” Sargent learned, “have respiratory
ailments. And no health insurance. And no help from the government.”

is a patchwork, at best,” Levin reports, “of treatment”
for those who have breathed in the “hydrochloric-acid mist
released by plastics smoldering in the wreckage” and/or the
“huge amounts of concrete” that was “ground into
powder so fine that it could be inhaled deep into the lungs.” 

a rich history to the conflict between the urban U.S. and the Republican
Party. It’s not for nothing that Republican presidential candidates
have long written off the nation’s largest cities, whose voters
naturally tend to shun “the more reactionary of the two business
parties” (as Noam Chomsky aptly describes the Republicans),
which is hardly to say that the Democratic Party has earned its
urban dominance with genuinely progressive and city-friendly policies
and positions. 

white America’s main policy initiatives for what its sees as
the Enemy Territory of U.S. cities are two-fold: (1) right-statist
mass surveillance, arrest, incarceration and felony-marking and
(2) neo-liberal “privatization.” The two initiatives are
intimately linked to each other in a toxic relationship of dialectical
inseparability that is symbolized by the rise of massive private
prison firms like the Correctional Corporation of America (CCA).
The more the state retreats from meaningful commitment to urban
social welfare and the management of balanced, equitable development,
the deeper grows the chaos of inner-city life and the more public
officials rely on scandalously expensive and ineffective means of
urban militarization implemented under the aegis of the “War
on Drugs” to pretend to address the urban crisis. The “left
hand of the state” (as the late French sociologist Pierre Bordieu
called public programs and services that serve the social and democratic
needs of the non-affluent and embody the victories won by past struggles
for justice and equality) withers but the at-once regressive and
repressive “right hand” is strengthened, consistent with
Republican doctrine —falsely sold as “laissez-faire”—calling
for policy- makers to “starve the beast of government.” 

Why Come To New York? 


of which raises the interesting question of why the city-impaired
Republicans want to hold their convention in the nation’s quintessential
urban setting in the first place. Moderate Republicans can say all
they want about the party’s desire to refashion itself as a
“big tent” organization open to all voters, i.e., even
urban blacks. The deeper truth, of course, is that the Republicans
have chosen New York City for their quadrennial theme show to wrap
Bush II’s re-nomination in the nationalistic, media-choreographed,
and obedience-inducing aura of 9/11, which—the Republican PR
story runs—sparked Bush II to move swiftly and heroically to
“rid the world of evildoers” and advance the cause of
“freedom.” This, it should be noted, is why they took
the unusual step of pushing their convention into September. 

goal is crass exploitation and no self-respecting U.S. city-dweller
should want to encourage the Republican Party to seem like anything
other than what it really is: a racist, regressive, and rightist
enemy of urban America. A luxurious and city-“safe” offshore
cruise ship? It’s where they belong.

Paul Street is
an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois.