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Early Aspirations 

City attorney seeks to pre-empt mayoral field

Wednesday, May 5 1999
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

These days, every day begins and ends the same way for City Attorney James Hahn: campaigning. At breakfast, then at lunch, then after work, Hahn is spending all his available time meeting with potential contributors and attending community events, from Pacoima to Long Beach. No matter that the 2001 mayoral election is nearly two years away.

Hahn is the first candidate in the field to declare, and he’s determined to make his early start count. "His commitment is to bang it out every day," said Bill Carrick, Hahn’s media consultant, in an interview. "He is, without a doubt, a full-time candidate."

Heir to the political legacy of his father, longtime County Supervisor Kenny Hahn, and with a substantial jump on fund-raising, Hahn hopes to become the candidate to beat before the race is seriously contested. As one City Hall insider, assessing the conventional wisdom, put it, "The mayor’s job is his to lose." Already, according to Carrick, Hahn has pledges totaling $200,000 in campaign contributions.

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Yet nobody expects Hahn to breeze into Mayor Richard Riordan’s term-limited seat. Across the city (and, for that matter, the state and country), five other prospective challengers are weighing serious bids for the mayor’s job. Another half-dozen, primarily members of the City Council, are testing the political winds and plumbing their desire to spend the next 24 months in a grueling political marathon. Candidates who wait risk falling hopelessly behind in the considerable effort required to raise the $2 million to $5 million the campaign will likely require.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is considered Hahn’s most formidable potential rival, but Yaroslavsky is notoriously timorous about taking political risks. Many well-placed downtown sources, in fact, believe Yaroslavsky will stay out. Sources close to the supervisor, however, say he is still mulling over his options. Yaroslavsky certainly wants to avoid repeating his performance of 1989, when he entered the mayoral race and then backed out, leaving supporters in the lurch. At a forum of the Tarzana Property Owners Association last week, the supervisor was noncommittal about his future. Asked whether he plans to run for mayor, he delivered a five-minute ramble emphasizing his commitment to projects on the table and his love for his current job.

Political consultant Rick Taylor believes Yaroslavsky has plenty of time to make up his mind because he enjoys name recognition and a strong constituent base. "Anyone who thinks this race is going to be won or lost in 1999 is fooling themselves. This race is going to run in 2001," Taylor said in an interview. "Zev will be in a better position if he doesn’t announce until next year. He won’t use up all his energy and effort, and could stay out of the firing line."

Candidates without an electoral base or name identification, however, may feel more pressure to decide. Steve Soboroff, a senior adviser to the mayor, is a case in point. Soboroff was still undeclared this week, but sounding more and more like a candidate. "I think [mayor of Los Angeles] is the greatest job in the world," Soboroff said. "I have the momentum, and I have the support to win."

First he’ll have to shore up his own base. Though Soboroff is the only Republican in the field, Bill Wardlaw, Riordan’s top political strategist, dismissed Soboroff’s candidacy last fall. The mayor is said to be taking a direct role, however, reportedly pressing Wardlaw to reconsider his opposition.

Even so, Soboroff must overcome considerable obstacles. A behind-the-scenes operator who shepherded the Staples Arena and $2 billion Alameda Corridor projects, Soboroff has no base, having never run for office. That means he will likely have to spend top dollar to get his image on television and get out his message. "Soboroff will probably need to put in over $1 million of his own money," says a downtown campaign consultant. "There are only so many $1,000 contributions in Los Angeles to go around." What’s more, Soboroff lost his cool in contentious public meetings over the downtown arena, and insiders question his temperamental suitability for the job. "If he thought that was bad, he hasn’t seen anything yet," says one consultant. "The mayor’s race will get personal. It’s a nasty business."

The liveliest jockeying in the early going is taking place on the city’s Eastside. The rise of Latino voters and the growing clout of organized labor convince some observers that the next election could produce the city’s first Latino mayor. And with Council Members Richard Alatorre and Mike Hernandez retreating from politics because of scandal, two out-of-towners, state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Congressman Xavier Becerra, are the most likely candidates. County Supervisor Gloria Molina has also been mentioned.

Villaraigosa is viewed as the Latino candidate best able to reach out beyond the confines of the Eastside to create a citywide coalition. And as one Eastside politico describes it, "He’s attending every quinceañera, bar mitzvah and birthday party in town." The L.A. County Federation of Labor, a reliable ally in the past, is said to be pushing Villaraigosa to run. The unions have demonstrated their effectiveness in a series of recent campaigns, and would like to flex their political muscle in a citywide contest.

Still, of all the likely candidates, Villaraigosa’s decision to run may be the toughest. As speaker, Villaraigosa is the leading fund-raiser for the state Democratic Party, leaving little time to tend his own coffers. Not only would he have to run from Sacramento, where he would rarely make L.A. television news, but any early move toward his hometown could cost him politically. "If he made any overtures, the sharks would circle," said consultant Joe Cerrell, noting that since the days when legendary Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh announced a bid for governor, "Give any indication you are moving on, and you are out."

Moreover, Villaraigosa faces term limits before the mayoral primary in the spring of 2001: If he runs for the top slot in the city, he will forgo a more likely shot at Mike Hernandez’s seat on the City Council. "Right now, his popularity is a mile wide but only an inch deep," says one source close to state Senator Richard Polanco. "He would be better served by winning a seat on the council. With a local platform, he could make a name for himself and run for mayor sometime in the future."

While Villaraigosa is keeping quiet about his plans, Congressman Xavier Becerra sounds like a candidate in waiting. "He is very, very serious about running," Henry Lozano, his chief of staff, said last week, noting that the congressman would not announce a decision for several months.

Becerra has built a high profile in Washington as chairman of the Latino Caucus; when Al Gore toured the Southland last month, Becerra was at his side much of the time. Moreover, the congressman supported the 14th Council District’s Nick Pacheco, who won 20 percent of the vote in a crowded April primary.

But if he’s more likely than Villaraigosa to run, many consider him far less likely to win. Becerra would also be running from out of town, with low name recognition and limited funding. "Where will he come back to?" asks one longtime Eastside politico. "Xavier hasn’t laid the groundwork that a candidate for mayor has to do."

Political consultant Cerrell, however, believes Becerra should not be underestimated. He noted that Becerra is a tough campaigner who surprised people by first winning an Assembly seat in a crowded field, then ascending to Congress in his first try.

Beyond this short list of candidates, Council Members Joel Wachs, Laura Chick and Jackie Goldberg have all expressed interest in running for mayor. Even LAPD Chief Bernard Parks’ name has come up as a possible contender. "It’s too far off to contemplate who is even going to be in the race in two years," concluded consultant Rick Taylor. "You just never know."

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