The West Hollywood City Council race between Abbe Land and Gene La Pietra promises to be a watershed election for the city, posing a choice between two distinctly different candidates and two formidable power bases. The results may well determine the alignment of political power in the community for the next several years.
The election is also likely to test the durability of the coalition of homosexuals, renters and senior citizens who make up a majority of West Hollywood's population and whose voting alliance was crucial to the birth of the city three years ago.
"All of our elections have been important, but this one has the clearest implications for all of us," said Bernard (Bud) Siegel, a community activist and city planning commissioner.
For the past three years, the City Council has been a body of shifting alliances, with no clear political majority. This special election, scheduled for Nov. 4, will determine whether homosexuals or tenant activist members of the Coalition for Economic Survival (CES) constitute a majority on the council.
Two council members, Helen Albert and John Heilman, are members of the coalition, a well-organized, controversial renters' rights organization, which has dominated the city's last two elections and is backing Land in the November race.
And two council members, Heilman and Stephen Schulte, are acknowledged homosexuals. The two were among three avowed homosexuals elected to the council in the city's first election, producing the nation's first city council dominated by homosexuals, a largely symbolic achievement that has also been accompanied by strong support of gay-rights issues and the funding of several gay-oriented social service organizations.
The council lost its gay majority in May, when Councilwoman Valerie Terrigno, the city's first mayor, lost her post after she was convicted on federal embezzlement charges.
Of the candidates vying for her seat, La Pietra, owner of a discotheque, is the only homosexual. Land, an artist's representative, is co-chairwoman of the tenants coalition and city planning commissioner. A third candidate, Stephen D. Michael, is given only a spoiler's role in the race.
Both major candidates and their allies say they will target their campaigns at a broad-based electorate and will not attempt to polarize the vote between gays on one side and tenants and seniors on the other.
"I think voters in this community are sophisticated enough not to break this down between gays and renters," said Larry Gross, the coordinator of the tenant coalition.
Still, Gross' coalition has managed in the last two elections to build a solid 5,000-vote cushion largely from renters and senior citizens who perceive the group as the fashioner and defender of West Hollywood's strong rent control law. In those elections, the coalition also found moderate support from among West Hollywood's 35% gay population.
There are 19,000 registered voters among the city's 35,000 residents. Renters make up 85% of the city's population and seniors are believed to be constitute about 35%.
But in this election, the coalition does not have a gay candidate. And with the Lyndon Larouche-backed statewide Proposition 64, which would allow restrictions and quarantines of AIDS patients, also on the ballot this November, gay activists have been working to increase the gay turnout to defeat the initiative.
In West Hollywood, some gay leaders say, that effort could aid La Pietra, who has not only contributed funds to the effort to defeat the LaRouche initiative, but has also been an effective fund-raiser for other gay-oriented causes and organizations.
"I don't see it as a divisive issue," said Ivy Bottini, a La Pietra supporter who is co-chair of the statewide No on LaRouche grass-roots organizing effort. "But when West Hollywood elected three gay leaders, it was like a beacon to gays and lesbians across the country. With this AIDS initiative on the ballot and our community in grief (over the impact of AIDS) and crisis, we need that symbolic presence. I think it will be on the minds of a lot of gay and lesbian voters."
But, as both Land and La Pietra's supporters point out, many gay and lesbian residents in West Hollywood can also be expected to consider rent control and community issues when they go to the polls. And, both sides add, even if a majority of gays vote for La Pietra, that alone would still not be enough to assure him a victory.
As a result, both sides scrambled last week to obtain as many endorsements as possible to reach every segment of West Hollywood's fragmented community.
Land scored several surprises in the search for support. Besides winning the backing of Heilman and Albert, as expected, along with support from several of her fellow planning commissioners, Land also picked up an endorsement from Councilman Alan Viterbi, who said she had "paid her dues in this community."