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The Name Game : With 52-count'em 52-people running for office, will a vision of L.A. be lost in the shuffle?

February 07, 1993|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School

The Los Angeles mayoral primary is shaping up as two separate contests for the votes of two separate electorates--one primarily white, the other primarily non-white.

The name of the game for the credible candidates in the field of 52--the majority are straight out of central casting--is to mobilize and hold onto their base of supporters while reaching out to enough voters to secure a place in the two-person June runoff. How that game is played, its strategy and rhetoric, could turn out to be bad news--if not dangerous--for an already fractured, tension-filled city. At a time when Los Angeles needs unifying leadership, winning the chance to govern it may Balkanize the city even more.

Early polls indicate the outlines of the separate contests--and constituencies--for mayor. Councilman Michael Woo has the lead, built largely on backing from non-white voters. His support also comes from lower-income, younger voters, city residents who live outside the San Fernando Valley and followers of Mayor Tom Bradley. Councilman Nate Holden draws his support from the same groups. Former Deputy Mayor Linda Griego, a Latina, and Attorney J. Stanley Sanders, an African-American, will probably nibble at this electorate as the campaign unfolds.

Assemblyman Richard Katz, businessman Richard Riordan and Councilman Joel Wachs, meanwhile, draw the bulk of their support from older, better-off white voters. They are splitting the Valley vote, and Riordan is counting on heavy Republican support there. Nick Patsaouras, with his policy-wonkism, and Tom Houston, with his anti-immigrant rhetoric, will also attract elements of this electorate.

It's important to remember that early tests of voter preference reflect little more than name recognition. That doesn't mean that name I.D. counts for nothing on an overcrowded ballot. In 1969, Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. ran for a seat on the newly created L.A. Community College Board; 133 candidates vied for seven seats in the primary, with the top 14 vote-getters to face off in a runoff. Mostly on the strength of his name, Brown finished far ahead in both elections.

No one running for mayor meets his level of recognition. Contenders understand that support will hinge on the images and messages projected by those few candidates able to spend enough money, or grab enough free media, to get themselves seen and heard. Last year's presidential primary campaign provides a few clues as to what this might mean. And none of it is healthy for the governance of Los Angeles.

Remember the "pander bear" warnings? The last thing Los Angeles needs is a mayor who promised big things to all people during the campaign, then can't deliver in office because the resources and political will aren't there. Nonetheless, just as the presidential contenders peddled blueprints for solving America's problems, nearly every major candidate for mayor has proffered a plan to "fix" Los Angeles. But nobody is talking about how to pay for it.

That is especially troubling, because the likelihood is that Gov. Pete Wilson won't get all--maybe not even any--of the federal immigration money he's demanding from the Clinton Administration Triumph?to help balance the state budget, and Sacramento will move to take the money out of the hide of local government by ending the Proposition 13 bailout. For Los Angeles, that could mean a $350-million shortfall.

Candidates won't tell the truth about the money and pain it will take to deliver city services in an era of increased demands and diminished resources, because they don't want to commit political suicide. And voters won't demand it of them because they don't want to make tough choices, either.

The arithmetic of the mayor's race also has something else in common with the '92 presidential primary campaign--the "remainder-man" theory of politics. Like Bill Clinton, who stayed a long and rocky primary course to win the Democratic nomination, the victors in the mayoral primary are likely to be simply the last two contenders left standing. That means candidates will do more ducking and running than falling on swords over hard issues. It means hitting first, if they can, and hitting back hard if they can't. None of this will address the problems inherent in governing Los Angeles, or in living in the city. And it portends a shallow, ugly and expensive campaign.

Given the fluky nature of the L.A. electorate--the Valley accounts for about 40% of the city's vote; the Westside overflows with high-propensity, older, white voters--and the lack of strong minority candidates, it also means that a low primary turnout could result in a runoff between two white males. Where would that leave the minority communities who feel alienated from politics?

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