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ELECTIONS / CITY COUNCIL : Walters Finds Business Group a Tough Crowd : Politics: The incumbent councilwoman in the Downtown-to-Florence district debated two challengers before the Central City Assn.

February 14, 1993|GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hoping to again win the endorsement of a politically potent force in her district, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Rita Walters debated two challengers late last week before a prominent group of Downtown business interests.

But during the generally cordial, hourlong event Thursday that masked what many expect to be a fierce race ahead, the 9th District councilwoman appeared to have trouble convincing some in the Central City Assn. that she should get their support.

"Rita seemed vague and ill-prepared," said one participant at the end of the luncheon.

"I think," said another veteran of City Hall politics, "she is still trying to figure out what it means to be a member of the City Council."

The comments underscored Walters' political problems as she seeks reelection in the April 20 primary to a seat she first won two years ago. Challenging her are Bob Gay, a longtime City Council aide who lost to Walters by 76 votes in 1991, and businessman Don Lumpkin, a political newcomer.

The backing that Walters received two years ago from the association was seen as significant in her narrow victory. But in office the councilwoman has been viewed by some Downtown business leaders as aloof--even indifferent--to their development issues, particularly compared to her predecessor, the late Gilbert Lindsay. Lindsay, the 9th District's representative for decades, actively courted business and often described the Civic Center's emerging skyline as one of his great accomplishments.

Throughout last week's debate, Gay and Lumpkin portrayed themselves as agents of change. Walters, as the incumbent, attempted to convince the group that the Downtown's woes--from high crime to homelessness--could not be blamed solely on City Hall and certainly not on her.

When she took office, Walters told the group, the 9th District was in distress. And during the last two years, she said, both the district and the city have struggled through one crisis after another--from joblessness to the riots, which left Downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods with "twice the suffering, twice the destruction" of any other district.

Today, Walters said, the city faces a financial crisis with the prospect of a budget deficit of $250 million to $500 million. That fiscal dilemma will only exacerbate the problems of improving a Downtown district that was neglected for years before she took office, Walters said.

But, unlike her competitors, Walters was unwilling during a question-and-answer session to commit to some controversial, cost-cutting proposals that many in the Downtown business community see as pivotal to overcoming the city's fiscal woes.

To offset the looming deficit, for example, Gay and Lumpkin said they favor enacting a first-time city trash collection fee on residents. Gay recommended the fee be based on the volume of a homeowner's refuse.

"I think it would be unfair for my mother, who still lives in this district . . . to pay the same fee as (television producer) Aaron Spelling, who has a 50,000-square-foot (Holmby Hills) house," Gay told the crowd.

However, Walters refused to commit to vote for such a refuse collection fee, arguing that a variety of budget-cutting options must be considered first.

Although Walters and her challengers all said they would be willing to vote for layoffs of city employees as a last resort to reduce the looming deficit, Gay and Lumpkin also spoke of an exhaustive review of city spending to avoid duplications of jobs. Again, Gay offered the most detailed proposal. It called, among other things, for the elimination of the city's Board of Public Works, whose citizen commissioners are paid $90,000-a-year.

Near the end of the debate, Walters took issue with a question about the strength of her support in the Downtown business community.

"I understand some of you feel that I have not paid" attention to the Downtown community, Walters said. She added later: "And I'm sorry that you have that impression."

The 9th District stretches from Downtown to the Florence area of South Los Angeles.

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