The rumor that won't go away.

A MOUNTING BUZZ around Washington and Minnesota alike has Paul Wellstone examining seriously the prospect of running for president in 2000. The possibility reportedly informed his otherwise curious decision to join Jesse Helms's Senate Foreign Relations Committee; what remains of the left-leaning element of the national Democratic Party is said to be enthusiastic.

On the surface, nothing could be easier than to mock the notion of Wellstone's running for president. Pick your grounds: He's short, he's liberal, he suggested '96 would be his last campaign. But the ground is more fertile than ever for a left-populist campaign that pushes forward from the successes of Jesse Jackson, Jerry Brown, and--so far as trade issues and American jobs go--Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan in elections past. Every one of those campaigns had its salutary aspects, and every one failed to build an organization that survived the campaign as more than a PR machine for its standard-bearer. That's where a Wellstone candidacy holds the most potential, seeing as how grassroots organizing is the specialty of Wellstone and a number of his most intimate political acquaintances.

That's assuming a couple of things--first, that whatever organization Wellstone might build would have an existence independent of the Democratic Party; second, and more basically, that Wellstone runs as Wellstone. He has to reclaim the kind of fire we briefly glimpsed once again in his victory speech on election night. He has to talk about fairness and opportunity, right and wrong, as they are understood down at the street level. Because if it's true that the era stretching from Reagan to Clinton has made it permissible to flaunt the fact one doesn't give a damn about anyone else, it is also true that it's spawned a lot of contrary energies that have no place to go. God knows that the American public at large is susceptible to all manner of manipulations, especially where race comes into play, but it is not apathetic or unconcerned with equity. Wellstone is as well-positioned to leap into the breach as anyone on the putative national left. He should go for it full-bore or not at all. If he mutes himself or tacks right to "legitimize" his candidacy, then he will indeed be too short and too liberal to draw any notice.

IF IT WEREN'T for the demands of patronage (per papa Cuomo) and Clinton-style tokenism (there was, it turns out, already another black woman tabbed for the cabinet), Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton would have been an eminently sensible pick for secretary of Housing and Urban Development. And that's no compliment. She could have been counted on to sit by while the national public housing stock further eroded, and to add a soundbite or two of tough love for those poor pathological black folk when necessary. One of the city's chief distinctions during her tenure as council president and subsequently as mayor is the adoption of punitive measures to restrict the access of low-income people to housing and ultimately to do away with that housing stock altogether. It would not be fair to characterize Sayles Belton as the architect of that policy--or any other, for that matter--but she has been entirely complicit in it, along with the more general criminalizing of the poor that the city has undertaken. One can only imagine the scene in Clinton's limo, as reported in the AP account:

"Clinton asked her a question about the people who were waving from the front of a downtown shelter while they were riding in a motorcade through Minneapolis.

"Sayles Belton explained that they were homeless people who had come to Minneapolis 'searching for opportunity.'"

Then, no doubt, she poked him in the ribs and they both had a good laugh.

LAST WEEK THE Star Tribune uncorked another of its what-is-to-be-done packages about crime in Minneapolis. The second and final installment consisted of stories about the response of the police department. It was buttressed by companion pieces about Seattle's successes and Memphis's failures in fighting crime, which were duly put down to the relative zeal of the cops in both towns. There you go. The fact that the average household income in Seattle was 25 percent greater than in Memphis is purely incidental.

There is an altogether obvious point here--where there's more wealth, there's less crime--and a less obvious one. The latter has to do with housing and development policy, which has as least as much to do with "stabilizing the urban core" as police programs. Seattle's triumph is more than a tribute to its regional economy; it also owes to the city's aggressive gentrification and to geography, which made it easier for the area to contain sprawling development and keep capital in the city.

In urban centers around the country, metro planning is increasingly becoming a desperate shell game in which each municipality is pitted against the others in trying to drive out or keep out the growing multitudes of the poor. Central cities are obviously under the most duress, since they harbor the most poverty. The eradication of slums, or simply low-income neighborhoods, is a first order of business, as is the encouragement of gentrification. Hence all the talk of green space in north and south Minneapolis that has sprung up in recent planning documents; likewise the talk of deconcentrating poverty, which really means blowing the poor out like so many dead leaves to fall wherever they will. None of it does anything to solve crime or poverty; it just seeks to nudge them past the city limits, and if possible the state line. In a nutshell, that is what ending federal welfare grants and "empowering states to go their own way" means.

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