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Free-For-All : With no incumbent to chase, 24 mayoral rivals are each scrapping for a piece of the electorate, dividing a city desperate for unity.

April 04, 1993|JILL STEWART | Jill Stewart is a contributing editor of this magazine. Her last article was "Unreal Estate," about California's current land bust

Julian Nava can't stand it any longer. The Cal State Northridge history professor and long-shot candidate for mayor of Los Angeles has appeared at a dozen forums in front of hundreds of voters and still hasn't had a chance to mix it up with his so-called "top-tier" rivals, who have passed up several debates to dial for dollars and glad-hand potential contributors.

Nava, running his campaign on a shoestring budget and hopes of free press coverage, peers down the long dais set up in the ballroom at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and sees, to his satisfaction, that City Councilman Michael Woo has shown up. When it comes time for Nava's two-minute introductory talk, the former ambassador to Mexico grabs the microphone.

"Boo hoo, you've got me looooking for Woo" he croons in a fairly decent tenor, to the tune of a 1930s song about a jilted bride waiting at a church. "Although Mike's trying to hide, I know he's got to come outside, Mike Woooooo, you've got us looooking for you. Are mayor's forums taboo for you, or will you speak out tooooo?" Nava, who has not exactly been wowing voters with his proposals to institute a citywide salary tax and give green-card holders the vote, is suddenly the man of the moment. The crowd thunders with applause.

A few days later, Richard Riordan, the wealthy white Republican in the race, sits staring out at a crowd of nearly 300 African-American voters at First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the most influential black church in the city. He is frozen in mid-speech, unable to decide upon the proper word for the 1965 Watts riots. He finally settles on rebellion after a six-second pause that lasts an eternity. Audience members laugh so hard that some actually weep. Later, however, Riordan wins sustained applause for his comments on attracting small businesses and fighting crime.

There, in two snapshots, you have the surreal quality of this campaign: on one hand, an almost small-townish buffoonery; on the other, a spooky streak that plays to the city's deep recession-ridden, post-riot anxiety. In the simplest terms, the race is unprecedented for Los Angeles--the first in 24 years in which Tom Bradley is not on the ballot, the first since 1929 to offer no mayoral incumbent. Bradley's departure attracted a swarm of 24 richly varied candidates, bloating the ballot into what looks like a post-Communist election menu in Eastern Europe.

For all of these reasons, the race is as wide open as the Sargasso Sea, holding out the promise of fertile ideas, fervent political exchange and a frank discussion of how Angelenos can restore their quality of life. Candidates are practically stumbling over one another to issue red alerts about the city's problems, as they do downtown one night when, in a span of six minutes, Woo tells a crowd of voters that the city "is dysfunctional," Riordan says the city "is a war zone," City Councilman Joel Wachs says the city "is in crisis" and Assemblyman Richard Katz says the city "is a mess."

But against the backdrop of the Waco, Tex., siege, reports of thousands more layoffs in Southern California and the second Rodney King trial, the SOS signals that are emanating from the mayor's race can barely be heard. There is no superstar candidate, no Tom Bradley, the young police hero whose cachet helped draw an unusually high 57% of voters to the polls in 1973. That year, Angelenos changed direction and moral tone by dumping Sam Yorty, electing Bradley and nearly ignoring third-placer Jesse Unruh, then the powerful Assembly Speaker.

This year, the candidates are stuck elbow-to-elbow in an orchestra pit trying in vain to play solos. Second-tier guys like Nava fear they may get drowned out, so they're taking risks and pulling goofy antics. And among the half dozen leading candidates, there's a controlled sense of panic as they become increasingly drawn into a nasty one-upmanship, turning the race into a free-for-all.

AT THE PACIFIC DESIGN CENTER ONE SATURDAY, AN ANGRY NATE Holden, city councilman, leans into a microphone to attack Woo on several sore points between them, including the state of Hollywood Boulevard and the breakup of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which Holden supports and Woo opposes. Holden's dark eyes glower, his rich voice bellowing up in disgust from seasons of politicking as the perennial outsider. He shouts, "You are a phony!"

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