Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo sat face to face with one of his opponents last week--a rarity during his campaign for reelection.
But the event was not a candidates forum. Woo has refused to debate his four opponents. Instead, he encountered challenger Berndt Lohr-Schmidt at a City Hall hearing on the councilman's proposal to restrict hillside building.
To Lohr-Schmidt, the hearing was a chance to confront the incumbent on the issue that first vaulted the Hollywood Hills attorney into the 13th District race against Woo. But perhaps more important, it was also a quick and easy opportunity to draw some attention to his candidacy on Woo's home turf.
At the close of the hearing, while Woo returned to the privacy of his office, Lohr-Schmidt headed directly to the City Hall press quarters, where he energetically cast his spin on the meeting and inquired about the coverage it would receive.
Lohr-Schmidt's City Hall appearance is just one example of how Woo's opponents have had to scramble for ways to spotlight their candidacies because of his unwillingness to debate them. With little money, poor name recognition and an incumbent who barely acknowledges their existence, the four are finding it difficult to distinguish themselves as the campaign approaches its final week.
"It has been tough to get news coverage," said Lohr-Schmidt, who recently hired a former journalist to help him get the word out. "I feel I am making serious inroads, but I need some media attention."
Candidate Bennett Kayser, looking for publicity, last week traveled to Porter Ranch in the northwest San Fernando Valley--about a dozen miles from the western tip of Woo's district--to criticize a $2-billion development proposed by campaign contributors to various city officials, including Woo.
In an interview, Kayser said he was disappointed that the press conference aroused little media curiosity. He blamed Woo's refusal to engage his opponents--or the issues, he said--for dampening public interest in the race.
"There have been so few community forums," said Kayser, former president of the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Assns. "Part of it, I am sure, has been because the councilman has said he won't come to any of them."
Woo, a 37-year-old freshman councilman staging his first reelection effort, offers no apologies for his campaign strategy. Although he says he is taking nothing for granted, he predicted that he will win the April 11 primary. "So far, I don't see any indication that any of the candidates are putting together a serious campaign," Woo said in an interview last week.
Woo said he will debate any opponent who qualifies for a runoff election, but he argued that a forum before then "would be a zoo" because of the number of candidates. Woo's refusal is in keeping with a tradition among City Hall incumbents, who are reluctant to lend credibility to challengers by sharing a podium with them.
"My presence would dignify the presence of the other candidates, which I don't think I need to do," said Woo.
Kayser has been particularly critical of Woo's decision, accusing the councilman of hypocrisy. In 1985, when both Woo and Kayser were among the challengers opposing then-Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson, Woo led the calls for Stevenson to join the other candidates in a debate. Stevenson eventually agreed. This time, Woo has not.
"I was a challenger then," Woo said in explaining his change in positions.
Despite sharp criticism from some residents in Sherman Oaks, Hollywood and parts of the Hollywood Hills, Woo's campaign officials appear confident that the councilman remains popular in most of the district, which stretches from Silver Lake to Sherman Oaks and takes in most of Los Feliz, Hollywood and Studio City.
Big Lead in Funding
Woo is expected to spend $200,000 on the campaign, with a flurry of mailings during the final week before the election. Lohr-Schmidt leads the challengers in fund raising with about $10,000.
Woo has concentrated his precinct walking in Sherman Oaks, Studio City and some hillside neighborhoods--areas that were added to his district in 1986 when the City Council redrew district boundaries. Woo said he is making an extra effort to meet residents in those areas because they have never seen his name on the ballot.
Steven Afriat, Woo's campaign manager, said more than 70% of the voters contacted by the campaign in a phone survey of the district have said they intend to vote for Woo. "I think he will carry every precinct in the district," Afriat said.
But Lohr-Schmidt, who has emerged in recent weeks as Woo's No. 1 challenger, said he has detected a high level of dissatisfaction with the councilman, particularly in some hillside neighborhoods affected by the proposed building restrictions and among people who live near the Hollywood Redevelopment Project. He predicted that he will garner enough votes to force Woo into a runoff, although he has done no formal polling.