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CALIFORNIA PORTFOLIO : Economics, Not Social Issues, Is the Test for Mayoral Candidates

February 07, 1993|JOEL KOTKIN and DAVID FRIEDMAN | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Center for the New West and an international fellow at the Pepperdine University School of Business and Management. David Friedman, an attorney. is a visiting fellow in the MIT Japan program.

Too many of the mayoral candidates are focusing on issues that are either peripheral to critical economic issues facing City Hall or that pander to a social narrow-mindedness laced with racism. Tom Houston's preoc cupation with illegal immigrants is the most familiar example of this trend, but there are others. In the 13th Councilmanic race, crime and the economic devastation brought on by the loss of major studios and the deterioration of Hollywood's historic core have taken a back seat to the prospect of an openly gay council member.

To be fair, most of the credible candidates to succeed Tom Bradley have tried to address the city's economic issues. Yet, with few exceptions and little media scrutiny, they have done so only in the broadest brush strokes. The tough, often politically explosive, choices that the new mayor will have to make to resuscitate the local economy are bypassed. Consider:

* Reducing crime and gangs should be identified as the city's No. 1 economic problem. Not only is crime foremost among voter concerns, it also makes the prospect of serious economic development, especially in the inner city, little more than an exercise in public relations. The new mayor must make increased security a top priority, even if that offends well-placed liberal and community activists whose zealotry for criminal rights often outweighs the commonweal of neighborhoods economically paralyzed by fear of crime.

* The next mayor must not shy away from strongly advocating a sensible economic development plan in a city where development, at least in some quarters, is still a four-letter word. Even as they sell themselves as pro-business, many mayoral candidates continue to defer to anti- or slow-growth groups, particularly on the Westside, who reflexively oppose studio expansions or development projects such as Playa Vista. Candidates who today coddle the anti-growth crowd in the current economic climate are unlikely tomorrow, no matter their campaign rhetoric, to reverse L.A.'s anti-business reputation and work to create jobs.

* Reform of city government is a plank in virtually every candidate's platform, but carrying it out means challenging the entrenched interests of public-employee unions and professional bureaucrats. Some candidates who speak the loudest about the need to cut "red tape" and government costs are at the head of the line when endorsements from these groups are in the offing. Candidates should thus be pressed to spell out which city regulations, fees and jobs would be eliminated in their administration.

* Rather than vague talk about fostering a more "pro-business" climate, aspirants should explain how they would compete with other cities in the region--such as Burbank, Glendale, Santa Fe Springs and Fountain Valley--that have crafted successful pro-growth strategies during the economic downturn. Unless there is a radical shift in bureaucratic attitudes at City Hall, such promising ventures as CALSTART, the electric-vehicle manufacturer, will continue to shun Los Angeles and locate in cities that work harder to attract and keep them.

* Many candidates now embrace the idea that the city should reward and nurture, through various incentives, growing companies in the region. But few have laid out their ideas on how Los Angeles, in collaboration with other regional authorities, might package incentives, relaxed regulations and technical support to achieve this outcome. The contestants also have been less than candid about their willingness to resist economically weak, but politically powerful interest groups who have dominated city economic policy for years.

* Finally, the wannabe mayors should indicate how they intend to tap into and manage the international economic forces, particularly in Asia and Latin America, shaping Los Angeles' future. How should the city enhance and enlarge its trading role? Who should it seek out as new financial partners in the rebuilding of the city? A city that will soon be North America's leading entrepot needs a mayor who has a global perspective and plan that will promote the city's luster around the world.

Los Angeles surely doesn't need any more conflicts over cultural symbolism or special-interest battles over divvying up the remaining crumbs of a troubled economic and political system. Rather, it needs a mayor, and other elected representatives, who can count.

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