Joel Wachs is jazzed. The brass ring of high political advancement seems tantalizingly close at times. And this is one of them.
There is an afterglow from his showing in the first prime-time televised forum of the Los Angeles mayor's race. The phone calls from the public are running strongly in favor of his controversial proposal to deploy National Guard troops prior to the reading of verdicts in the Rodney G. King civil rights trial. (Never mind that the city's leadership and his campaign rivals have denounced it as demagoguery and idiocy.)
And because momentum begets money, the grim fund-raising chore is a bit easier as Wachs sits in his satellite campaign office, a fluorescent-lighted room with grimy windows over a shuttered fast-food joint in Little Tokyo, and prepares to spend hours pleading for money.
His goal: large, life-giving transfusions of cash to bolster his anemic TV advertising budget. He has far less money than his three mightiest rivals.
But there are moments of rhapsody.
"Can you imagine?" the 22-year Los Angeles city councilman bubbles as he describes how a doctor walked up to him on a sidewalk outside a Fairfax drugstore and handed him a $2,000 check the day after the KCET-TV forum.
And even as Mayor Tom Bradley calls his National Guard plan "idiotic" and Wachs' himself teeters, wobbles and waffles on the plan, the candidate's phone messages are running 5 to 1 for it.
"Two weeks is a long time in a campaign," Wachs tells a reporter who questions whether a last-minute push can make him a contender in the April 20 primary against the likes of Michael Woo, Richard Riordan and Richard Katz. The last poll results, published three weeks ago, showed him tied for third place and mired in single-digit obscurity.
The next poll will probably make or break the Wachs fund-raising effort.
Until then, Wachs is feverishly pushing his hot button ideas--such as the National Guard plan and his support for breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District.
But despite Wachs' sharp political instincts, his campaign has been handicapped by fund-raising and organizational difficulties.
On the money front, Wachs is still squabbling with the city's Ethics Commission about whether it was legal for him to induce scores of contributors to give him tens of thousands of dollars by offering them copies of limited edition prints of works by world-famous painters, including David Hockney.
In a related matter, the Wachs organization looked loopy when it was unable to say how it spent more than $40,000 in political funds.
But Wachs' money troubles go deeper. According to a political consultant who has raised funds for Wachs, "the problem with Joel is that people give and then they don't get--he doesn't take a meeting or do a lunch with contributors."
Another former associate said Wachs has also failed at times to perform the grunt work required to cultivate and tend to his prime City Hall constituencies: renters, senior citizens and gays.
As a result, Wachs got a grade of B last week for his record on tenant issues from the Coalition for Economic Survival, the city's preeminent advocate for renters' rights. Woo, to Wachs' chagrin, scored an A-.
Even worse for Wachs, the grades have been printed up in 100,000 colorful, eye-catching mailers.
But Wachs actually takes pride in such criticism, trying to turn it into a sign of virtue. "It's true," he said. "It's not my nature to sit and schmooze and stroke."
As for the regular crowd of City Hall political contributors, he said with contempt: "Those people already have enough access."
Besides chasing political money, one of Wachs' major goals in recent days has been to sting Riordan, the wealthy businessman-attorney whose "tough enough to turn L.A. around" campaign has stolen voters from Wachs' San Fernando Valley political base.
So Wachs has unleashed a series of three mailers alternately attacking Riordan for being too right-wing, too liberal or too much of a City Hall insider--depending on which voting audience was being targeted.
Some of Wachs' efforts to lure Riordan voters may be paying off.
In a chance meeting Sunday on a leafy Encino street, Wachs encountered two Riordan campaign workers who praised his National Guard idea--although their own favorite opposed it.
Signs of cracks in the costly Riordan political edifice--erected with $3 million of the candidate's own money--cheered Wachs, the seemingly indefatigable campaigner.
How tireless Wachs can be on the campaign trail was evident recently when he took his National Guard plan to South-Central Los Angeles.
Although the area's African-American leaders were predicting an icy reception for the plan, Wachs wondered if the leadership wasn't out of touch with its constituents.
He was not altogether discouraged by what he found when he went door-to-door in the Vermont Knolls neighborhood, telling residents that he had lived in a bungalow at 83rd Street and Mariposa Avenue 40 years ago.