Michael Woo, a Los Angeles City Council candidate and grandson of a Chinese laundryman, was reading a piece of hate mail, a letter which began by asking Woo, "Are you only going to defend the Chinese?" and ended by saying, "We need another Civil War to clean out the aliens."
Woo had hoped those sentiments were part of his political past, along with other factors that contributed to his loss four years ago to 13th District Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson. Aside from a trickle of ethnic slurs, the race this time has been more civilized.
However, Woo, whose impressive debut was the Cinderella story of the 1981 election season, is finding that new obstacles--notably a tough new challenger and a determined Stevenson--are making his second run for the council harder in some ways than the first.
Woo, 33, an aide to state Sen. David Roberti (D-Los Angeles), leads a field of five candidates who are challenging Stevenson for the council seat she has held since 1975, when she succeeded her late husband, Councilman Robert Stevenson.
Stevenson is running on a record that she says is highlighted by service to the district's large concentration of elderly people, by work with police to reduce crime and by efforts to rebuild downtown Hollywood.
Her opponents accuse her of being a lazy council member who repeatedly bows to the interests of corporate contributors, who allows real estate developers to run roughshod over hillside residential neighborhoods and who has done virtually nothing to bring Hollywood back to life.
Entering the final phase of the primary--election day is next Tuesday--Woo says he is doing well enough to force Stevenson into a runoff. Stevenson needs more than 50% of the vote to win without a runoff.
However, figures from polls Woo has been conducting show that he has a lot of ground to make up if he is going to equal his 1981 primary performance, when he received 42% of the vote and came within two percentage points of surpassing Stevenson.
Woo said his polling, done by telephoning 50 different people each night through last Friday, indicates that he will receive 22% of the vote, as compared to 38% for Stevenson, 4% for the other four candidates and 36% undecided.
Stevenson says her most recent polling shows her just four points away from winning the 50% majority she needs to avoid a runoff. She said a poll this week of 400 voters had her leading Woo 46% to 21%, with the other four candidates receiving 11% and an undecided factor of 22%.
Spokesmen for the Woo campaign say they are not troubled by these poll results. They say they do not believe the Stevenson figures.
"We're not looking to do what he did in '81," said Harvey Englander, Woo's campaign manager. "We're just looking to get into the runoff, and we think we are right on track for that."
Woo and Englander point out that the race is different in several ways from what it was last time. Twenty percent of the electorate has changed as a result of reapportionment. Highland Park and other communities in the east end of the district are gone, replaced by several hillside neighborhoods to the north. There are two more candidates than there were four years ago.
Moreover, Stevenson, who admits she was stunned by Woo's performance in the 1981 primary, is devoting more time and energy to getting reelected.
Woo admits that the campaign has brought some unpleasant surprises, including an echo of some of the anti-Asian sentiment of the last campaign. It has come this time in the form of gratuitous hate mail.
While Woo blamed Stevenson's campaign managers for arousing anti-Asian feelings in 1981 by sending out literature that suggested Woo was the pawn of Chinatown bankers, Stevenson has different managers this year. Thus far, there have been no references in her campaign literature to Woo's race.
In 1981, Woo was backed by the younger, more liberal elements of the district. This year, however, he has an aggressive new rival for the affections of those voters. Michael Linfield, a 34-year-old high school mathematics teacher with a long record of activism on behalf of rent control, farm workers' rights, gay rights and women's issues, has gained the endorsements of eight liberal community groups that supported Woo in 1981.
In his speeches, Linfield likes to refer to the 13th District as the city's "Ellis Island," where the growing needs of immigrants, runaway children and homeless adults are being ignored.
Linfield has raised $64,000, not a lot when compared with Woo's $210,000 and Stevenson's $300,000. However, with volunteer help from the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group, and the Coalition for Economic Survival, a renters' organization active in the West Hollywood cityhood campaign, Linfield has established a presence in the race.
Woo says Linfield has cut into his support.