DALLAS -- During his eight years in Congress, then-Rep. Steve Bartlett was a vote lobbyists for the nation's cities knew they shouldn't count on.

Mr. Bartlett, a conservative Republican from Dallas, was known for opposing pro-city legislation because of its cost.

"He tended to look at us as someone coming in with a tin cup rather than someone looking at programs and regulations," recalls Frank Shafroth, lobbyist for the National League of Cities.

While Congress has never been considered a consistent friend of local government, what makes Mr. Bartlett stand out is his job since leaving Washington earlier this year: Last month, he was elected mayor of Dallas, the nation's eighth-largest city.

Mr. Bartlett, a city councilman before going to Congress in 1982, says he has no regrets about his record on city issues while in the Capitol, even though the league consistently rated him poorly on issues it considers important.

During an interview before taking office earlier this month, Mr. Bartlett said his triple-A rated city faces the financial, racial, and other pressures that cities nationwide must confront in the 1990s.

He said his four terms in Congress have left him certain that cities must solve their own problems and should expect little help from Congress.

"Cities that are successful rely on their own abilities and their own citizens," he said. "I can't think of many issues on which Congress is the solution. I can think of a fair number where they are the problem."

The new mayor said he opposed new mandates, favored better federal housing policies, and supported continuing general revenue for cities.

At the same time, he noted, he rejected what he called ideological pursuits of the National League of Cities that he says would accomplish little more than increase federal spending.

He charged that cities are being poorly served by groups like the league.

"Had I voted for all the bills the National League of Cities rated me on, I would have put the federal government, had they passed, an additional $1 trillion in debt," he said. "I think the National League of Cities was working contrary to the interests of cities. They were advocating goofball stuff.

"They wanted a tax increase to fund the recapitalization of the sayings and loans," he said. "They were advocating stuff that I couldn't figure out what it had to do with cities, like a nuclear freeze. It was bizarre."

Also, he said cities were seldom heard on other critical issues, nothing, "I consistently voted against the creation of new mandates for cities. The National League of Cities was never heard from on those issues."

While city officials across the nation have long believed that Congress views local government as just another special interest, Mr. Bartlett disagrees.

How Congress Fits In

"I think the members of Congress perceive cities as a layer of government to work with and to llisten to and to represent," he said. "The National League of Cities, on the other hand, tends to represent that very narrow ideological view of higher taxes and higher spending. It's kind of a throwback to the Great Society, and that didn't work."

Still, during the race for the Dallas mayor's office this fall, his challengers questioned Mr. Bartlett's commitment in Washington to cities.

Noting that he opposed nearly every measure supported by the league, his opponents said bills he fought included measures to give local government more block grants for crime fighting, economic development plans, and housing programs.

For instance, when the league successfully opposed an amendment in June 1991 that would have cut 5% from a federal anticrime block grant program, Mr. Bartlett supported House Resolution 5021.

For Dallas and other large cities, costly crime fighting is rated by voters as a top priority.

Was the future mayor voting against local interests? He doesn't think so.

"I think there was some pork barrel in it, but that may not have been the issue," he said. "There was more to it than the nice title of the bill."

As Mr. Bartlett and the new city council begin to address the challenges facing Dallas, his history as a coalition builder will be his most important record from Congress in addressing local problems.

Like many cities, Dallas is a diverse place where minorities have long have denied representation in local decisions.

That changed Nov. 5, when voters chose a new city council under a controversial plan which, for the first time, allowed citizens to elect council membeers in districts and not at large.

The result was a more diverse council giving a stronger voice to Hispanics and blacks, which constitute nearly a majority of the city's population of one million.

"The problem has been that we have had two or three years of turmoil in city government," he said. "That turmoil is now behind us."

Mr. Bartlett said that as the city tries to end the turmoil, it can again focus on its economic troubles.

"The decline will no doubt continue for a couple of years," he added. "The worst is behind us. We are on the upswing. Our central city is in the process of rebuilding."

Curtailing Debt Programs

Mr. Bartlett said the city is not likely to seek a major bond referendum until later in his first term. He believes that by then the property tax base will have begun a permanent rebound.

Until then, he said, Dallas will issue no more debt that it retires annually -- a policy implemented under his predeccesor, Mayor Annette Strauss.

The mayor says he is committed to curtailing debt programs unless they can be funded without higher taxes, even as Dallas has been criticized for too closely guarding its prized triple-A rating.

By contrast, Houston lost its top rating int he last decade even as city officials continued to sell more than $1 billion in debt during the oil and real estate busts of the 1980s.

"We can issue additional debt in 1992, but only issue it in such a way that will keep our triple-A rating," said Mr. Bartlett, who estimated that as much as $75 million in new general obligation debt could be sold early next year. "We will let our financial criteria dictate how fast we will issue the debt."

For bondholders, Mr. Bartlett's tenure will mean more of the same city management style. Besides vowing to keep the triple-A rating, he offers investors this vow: "They can expect with absolute certainty that the people of Dallas and its leadership will never default on its bonds under any circumstance."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.