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Mayor, City Hall Establishment to Also Face Test in Council Elections

May 31, 1987|FRANK CLIFFORD and VICTOR MERINA | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles City Council President Pat Russell called it a soap opera, her words for the life-and-death drama that nearly killed her opponent, traumatized Russell's campaign and, for a while, preempted the political focus on both of the City Council runoff races to be decided Tuesday.

Before it happened, before candidate Ruth Galanter was stabbed in the neck by a prowler in her home May 6, the elections were important in their own right. The races in both the 6th District and in the 10th were regarded as tests of Mayor Tom Bradley's local influence in the wake of his drubbing in the governor's race last year. Both of the races are expected to be close.

One of Bradley's candidates, Homer Broome Jr., is taking on former state Sen. Nate Holden, who is backed by a rival political organization of Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn in the largely black 10th Council District. There, the battle is between two personalities who differ only slightly on the issues of the district--fighting crime, revitalizing neighborhoods and raising economic standards.

In the other race, however, the candidates do not see eye to eye on the dominant issue before them. Russell, a 17-year incumbent and longtime Bradley ally, is going against a new force in town--an angry strain of white middle-class populism led by Galanter that is attempting to slow the pace of development in the 6th District.

It was just a few weeks after the campaigning had started when the story of the election became the Ruth Galanter story, the saga of a political ingenue who was brutally injured in the midst of a grass-roots campaign to unseat a City Hall boss.

Galanter's brush with death silenced both campaigns for a few days, but the rough rhetoric that had characterized the race from the start soon resumed. Over the weekend, Russsell sent a mailer to Republican voters showing one of Galanter's advisers to be a former member of the Socialist Worker's Party, while Galanter mailed cards to black neighborhoods accusing Russell of trying to buy black votes with offers of fried chicken.

Before the campaign, Galanter, a 46-year-old urban planner who had never run for elective office, was not widely known outside the community of environmental activists she had been part of since coming to California from New York, her birthplace, in the early 1970s. Appointed by then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., Galanter served on the South Coast Regional Coastal Commission from 1977 to 1981 and since then has run a consulting firm that specializes in environmental matters.

In opposing the 63-year-old Russell, Galanter was taking on a pragmatic liberal who has forged strong ties with business and labor because she, like Bradley, believes that jobs, housing and other opportunities are not possible without continued growth.

The question raised by the Galanter campaign is whether City Hall's traditional commitment to growth can withstand a widening middle-class protest over congestion and pollution.

But that issue along with other political considerations lost their sense of urgency in the days following the assault on Galanter when the questions of her survival and recovery were uppermost on people's minds.

While Galanter struggled to survive, Russell briefly agonized over how to run a campaign against a critically wounded adversary that would be effective without seeming exploitative.

Russell also had to contend with the accusation made by Galanter's neighbors--at the instigation of Galanter's campaign staff--that the councilwoman could have prevented the assault.

The neighbors said they sent a letter to Russell asking her to do something about the criminal activity they blamed on residents of a boardinghouse where, it turned out, Galanter's accused assailant was living.

Russell Says She Didn't Get Letter

Russell insisted that she never received the letter, and she pointed out that it had been addressed to the wrong City Hall office. Spokesmen for Russell now say they are confident that the publicity surrounding the letter did no permanent damage to her campaign, but it did contribute to a rising level of frustration and bitterness.

"I was living through a soap opera with the unprecedented and unbelievably brutal attack," Russell said. "I asked my advisers what I ought to do, but they had never heard of anything like what we had to face in this election."

Russell's main campaign worry was over the prospect of an enormous sympathy vote for her opponent.

But with help from her advisers, a group of high-priced consultants hired after her disappointing primary performance, Russell was able to find opportunity in adversity. Gradually, it became apparent to the Russell camp that Galanter's plight might work against her.

In her one press conference since the assault, Galanter, still in the hospital, said her doctors were confident that she would be fine, but her voice was frail, her speech slurred and one side of her face seemed immobile.

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