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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.

“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.