Making It Personal 

What’s really driving these L.A. mayoral candidates?

Thursday, Dec 9 2004

It is high opera, a classic tale of ambition, betrayal, revenge and perhaps even a little lust and greed. It has to be. Otherwise, who would care about the campaign for mayor of Los Angeles?

Especially now, in December, when voters here are just recovering from the presidential elections and the mayoral race has yet to shift into high gear. The election is March 8, when 19 challengers — four of whom reporters have labeled "serious" because we know them and they have a lot of money — will try to unseat Mayor James Hahn. They are state Senator Richard Alarcon, former Assembly speaker Bob Hertzberg, and Councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa and Bernard Parks.

We in the news media tried to jump-start the campaign last week with a prime-time televised debate that we apparently agreed to call the very first of the year, even though it was not, and we insisted that it laid bare the issues facing the city, even though it didn’t.

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All the papers concurred that the coming election is crucial because it will determine the kind of city Los Angeles will become — whether it will be a more abundant city, with opportunity for all, and with those hallmarks of the most highly evolved societies: humane care for the sick, dignity and respect for the aged, creative and caring education for our youth, and civic delight in cultural variety and artistic expression.

Just kidding about that last part. There has been very little discussion anywhere about what the mayor of Los Angeles does, what kind of changes the mayor can effect, and what our city will become. There hasn’t even been that much substantive discussion yet from the candidates themselves, although you could hardly expect them to deliver lofty visions in the 30-second and 60-second spots they had on debate night.

In a city with little history of broad civic discourse, we in the media are interested primarily in the drama and the strategy. The who and the how of campaigns, as opposed to the why.

Here is some of the Who. Hahn is the scion of L.A.’s best-known political family. He rode the coattails of his beloved father, Kenny Hahn, into elected office in the 1980s with his successful campaign for city controller. In a then-conservative L.A., Hahn’s longish hair (for City Hall) and penchant for hanging out at rock clubs earned him the nickname "rock & roller controller." Really. He was the exciting new personality of City Hall. No joke.

Then he ran for city attorney, which is what he wanted to be all along, and won — again and again and again and again. He started his 2001 run for mayor as the clear front-runner. Villaraigosa, a former state Assembly speaker, caught up and moved ahead, besting Hahn in the primary race. The following eight weeks featured hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by so-called independent campaigns on behalf of, but not coordinated with, each candidate, and the bitter campaign was capped by a Hahn ad that depicted a grainy Villaraigosa against the backdrop of a crack pipe. Hahn won handily with the oddest of political coalitions — black South L.A., which had been loyal to Kenny Hahn, bound to the mostly white and more conservative San Fernando Valley.

He began his tenure by alienating both ends. Many African-Americans still feel betrayed by Hahn’s firing of Parks, the city’s second black LAPD chief and the highest-ranking African-American in the city structure. And he fought hard against independent cityhood for the San Fernando Valley; a vote just a few months after his election blocked the Valley separatists’ aspirations. But from his campaign against secession grew complaints, quiet ones at first, from contractors who claimed Hahn’s people at the harbor and the airport tried to strong-arm them into making contributions to the anti-secession campaign. There are now full-scale criminal probes in City Hall.

Hahn lists among his biggest successes his hiring of Bill Bratton to replace Parks as police chief, and a subsequent drop in crime. He will try to trumpet his success in public safety, and has tended to invoke repeatedly the name of Bratton, who is more popular and more personable than he is (although Bratton’s L.A. tenure has been far more soft-spoken than his gigs in Boston and New York. Must be something in the L.A. water).

His opponents will hit Hahn where he is weakest — the appearance (still no charges filed) of corruption in contracting.

Villaraigosa had a hardscrabble youth before turning into an activist for the teachers union and the ACLU. His own political career began with a run for the state Assembly, which he won. Serving three terms, he became speaker and earned a reputation as a consensus builder and an effective policymaker. He almost immediately became a national figure, a status that was further enhanced when he came in first in the 2001 mayoral primary.

Villaraigosa’s personal charisma and strong speaking style helped his campaign take on the elements of a crusade. Latinos, especially those from his native Eastside, loved him. But he rejected ethnic identity politics and got some of his strongest support from liberals on the city’s Westside.

He is still angry, and his supporters still feel betrayed, by the crack-pipe ad. He got back in action by taking on a Hahn supporter — Councilman Nick Pacheco. Newspaper headlines about criminal probes of people connected with Pacheco allowed Villaraigosa to present himself as a more upstanding alternative. It worked, and personal hits against the challenger on family issues failed. The run against Pacheco is a road map for this campaign: enthusiastic coalition, crusade for the future, incumbent tainted though uncharged. To cap it off, Villaraigosa may well be hoping for, rather than dreading, the same kind of personal attacks he suffered before, to make him the high-road candidate.

Like Villaraigosa, Parks has a personal history with Hahn, having lost his job as police chief at the hands of the mayor. He would like nothing better than to return the favor, ousting Hahn. But Parks, despite a curious assortment of endorsements from people as varied as the conservative county Supervisor Mike Antonovich and several celebrities, will have a hard time getting into a runoff. He insists he is in for keeps, but his smartest political move would be to broker his support to whoever does make the runoff against Hahn, and reap the political rewards after the next mayor is sworn in.

But Parks insists he is no politician. People who know him know better.

With no viable Republicans in the race, Bob Hertzberg appears to be making a play for the pro-business and single-family-homeowning centrists claimed by Mayor Richard Riordan in 1993 and 1997. That would explain his promise to break up the school district and his less than inspiring rallying cry at the debate: "I will end the gross receipts tax as we know it!" That won’t get the masses to pour into the streets, but Hertzberg knew the masses weren’t listening last week.

As for the school plan, it plays well in his San Fernando Valley base and makes him appear, like Riordan, as a man who cares little for City Hall minions who will remind him that the mayor has no authority over the school district. But Riordan swept the school board clean by opening his own wallet. Hertzberg has money, but he’s no Riordan.

Then there’s Alarcon, for whom we geniuses in the news media had been drafting a political obituary. After all, he was out-Valleyed by Hertzberg and out-Latinoed and out-progressived by Villaraigosa. And he’s had trouble raising money. Earlier this summer, at a Loyola University forum, he made his best pitch for electing him mayor, and it fell flat. Mike Woo, who lost badly to Riordan, told him publicly he would have to do better.

At the debate, he did better, avoiding negative swipes, coming across with concrete ideas, displaying genuine passion. He did better than Villaraigosa, who left his usual spark at home, or Hertzberg, who showed up without his warmth, or Hahn, who has yet to turn on his fight switch, or Parks, who may be right, but is still Parks.

So that’s the Who, with a little of the How thrown in. As for the Why, well, that may come into it eventually. January, maybe, or at least February, when an association of neighborhood councils hosts two debates that will focus on their concerns. The questions may be lofty, calling for a long-scale vision for the city, or mundane (but actually quite important), like whether the mayor should use his power to can every single department head and bring in his own cabinet.

In the meantime, there’s another televised mayoral debate on Tuesday, then a blessed two weeks off for the holidays before we get into it for real.

By the way, if you want to watch the debate, over and over, you can find it at http://www.la36.org/. To listen to the real first debate, from September, go to http://www.scpr.org/programs/talkcity/listings/2004/09/totc_20040906.shtml.

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