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Growling Voters 

A humane view of L.A.’s mayoral race

Thursday, Jan 13 2005
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More than 150 rain-soaked animal rescuers and humane-community activists listened patiently Sunday to five candidates who want Mayor James Hahn’s job, questioned the contenders, argued passionately for their favorites, and cheered loudly as votes were counted and an endorsement was announced for Walter Moore.

Who?

Moore, 45, a business trial lawyer, is the most major of the seven minor Hahn challengers on the March 8 ballot, but he has been working hard to cross the line and join the Big Five who get invited to debates and are taken seriously by the media: state Senator Richard Alarcón, incumbent Hahn, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, and Councilmen Bernard Parks and Antonio Villaraigosa. It’s an uphill battle, but Moore, a political novice, said he expected the endorsement of Citizens for a Humane Los Angeles to make a huge difference.

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"You aren’t throwing away your vote," a clearly pleased Moore told the several dozen die-hards who stuck it out for the whole six-hour convention at the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn in North Hollywood. "We’ll win!"

That’s extremely unlikely, but Moore’s presence in the race has underscored several factors that loom large in any political landscape, and especially in Los Angeles, where voter turnouts are often low and political bases are always in flux.

First, there is the phenomenon of the single-issue voter. A political base is usually made up of people who feel passionately about one issue or another but land on the same page because their issues spring from a common perspective. It was no surprise, for example, that the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters endorsed Villaraigosa. The councilman and former Assembly speaker has a strong legislative track record on environmental matters but also shares the broader political concerns of the mostly white, well-to-do and politically left-leaning demographic that generally claims environmentalists.

But it doesn’t always work that way, and the animal activists are a case in point. They’re all on the same page on only one thing — reforming the city’s Animal Services Department, which means booting Hahn, who is seen as unresponsive to activists’ concerns and to ending the euthanizing of unclaimed pets. Only that single-issue focus can explain how people at the convention split their votes between Moore, a Republican whose other major issue is ending illegal immigration, and Villaraigosa, the most liberal (by reputation) candidate in the race.

Leaders of the often fractious animal groups claim that, among them, they can get 30,000 people to the polls, but even a tenth of that number could make a big difference on Election Day. That, undoubtedly, is what drew them to the forum on a day on which, Moore noted, "It was raining cats and dogs."

In the November election, voters circulated a rundown on ballot measures that was eye-opening in its single focus. Animal-rights voters should reject reforming the Three Strikes Law, for example, because "Animal cruelty would no longer count as a " ‘strike.’ " Yes on Proposition 69, because "This would require DNA samples from all felons, including those convicted of animal cruelty."

It’s hard to say how many single-issue voters go to the polls, especially when you count only those who are as passionate as the animal-rights activists. But the phenomenon explains, for example, why Hahn (like Richard Riordan before him) so relentlessly stresses crime and public safety. Without political parties on the ballot, without slates and without major differences among the candidates, single issues draw voters.

The humane convention also highlighted the question of a candidate’s "viability" and the use, and misunderstanding, of polls.

Moore backers, for example, found themselves on the defensive against arguments by Villaraigosa and Hertzberg supporters who argued that their candidates not only were good on the issues but had a better chance of beating Hahn.

Laurie Rittenberg argued that activists could both "vote your heart" and pick someone who has a shot at getting into office by picking Hertzberg. "He has given so much access to the community already," Rittenberg said.

Carol Long saw it differently. "The latest polls I’ve seen show Antonio Villaraigosa and James Hahn running neck and neck at the top," Long told the crowd. "I would like to see the person who has the best chance of winning become the next mayor."

The comment echoed an assertion Villaraigosa himself made earlier in the day.

"There’s one person who has the best shot," said the councilman, who was beaten by Hahn in a tough runoff four years ago. "It’s going to be a rematch. And most people know that. It’s going to be Jim Hahn versus Antonio Villaraigosa."

What were the polls Long saw? She acknowledged afterward that she only recalled seeing something, perhaps, in the Los Angeles Times about poll results. In fact, though, there has been a lot of scuttlebutt but little reporting on polling, all of which has been conducted by the candidates themselves. The Los Angeles Business Journal reported in its first issue of the year that internal polls showed Villaraigosa and Parks breaking out from the pack as the most viable challengers.

The same day as the humane convention, Villaraigosa reported on his Web site that an internal Hertzberg poll (apparently obtained by the political newsletter CalPeek) showed Villaraigosa at 24 percent, Hahn at 20, Parks at 15, Hertzberg at 10 and Alarcón at 6.

What does early internal polling show? Not, according to Republican strategist Allan Hoffenblum, who is "winning," but what issues and traits resonate with voters.

"Campaigns poll early not because of the ballot question, but to come up with what the issues are," Hoffenblum said. The only part the public hears about — who is ahead — is usually "a reflection of the candidates’ name ID," Hoffenblum said.

Someone like Hertzberg, for example, isn’t doomed just because no one has heard of him yet. He has money. His polling shows him what issues are strong, and what segment of the electorate will be most responsive to his message.

But that doesn’t stop supporters of candidates like Villaraigosa from using favorable poll results to persuade voters to jump on the bandwagon. In this case, though, the single-issue focus trumped the viability argument, and a majority ended up siding with people like Lisa Lopez, who noted that only Moore vowed to stop the killing of animals in city shelters right away.

"Even if Walter doesn’t win, there’s a message there," Lopez said. "Just know we will never back down until we stop the killing."

Besides, Moore himself noted, there are actually two elections. There will be a second chance to vote for another candidate against Hahn if Moore doesn’t make the runoff.

Moore’s presence in the race also points out some troubling realities about what it takes to be a major player in Los Angeles elections. Moore was excluded from the first two televised debates because, under guidelines promulgated by the Los Angeles League of Women Voters, he wasn’t a "significant" candidate. The criteria for significance include having a campaign headquarters, telephone number and stationery, and a 5 percent name ID "in a major, reliable, nonpartisan public opinion polls [sic] which shows all the candidates."

You already have to be a player, it seems, to be able to play. Even the Alliance of Neighborhood Councils, the grassroots organization of people involved in neighborhood affairs, is planning so far not to include Moore in its two important televised February debates.

Late last year, Moore pumped $100,000 of his own into his campaign, to demonstrate his seriousness and to win a place at the table. In a stroke of irony, the move was a boon to the bigger candidates, allowing them, under city campaign-finance laws, to brush aside the $1,000-per-donor limits and raise thousands of dollars from rich contributors and special interests.

In a smaller city, Moore probably still wouldn’t win, but he wouldn’t be so completely shut out. In Los Angeles, though, a city that historians and political scientists describe as a departure from the closed political systems of the East Coast, things are not quite so open, after all. A mayoral election here is won at arm’s length, like a senatorial or presidential election, with polling, voter segmenting, attack mailers and television ads, but without party or, for the most part, ideological plank.

The result can be that voters here feel like a commodity. They — we — are used to that in most elections, but it carries a special sting on the municipal level, where voters expect to be able to relate most closely to their government.

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