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LOCAL ELECTIONS / L.A. MAYOR : Holiday and King Case Obscure Race : Campaign: Interest in campaign appears to wane nine days before primary. At one forum, candidates outnumber spectators by 2-1 margin.


With Los Angeles celebrating the holiday weekend and awaiting verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case, a preoccupied city seemingly turned its attention away from the mayor's race, even as the campaign entered its final critical days.

Of two mayoral forums held Saturday, one was nearly devoid of spectators and the other was more notable for the presence of an intoxicated intruder than for its showing of leading candidates.

With nine days left before the city chooses its first new mayor in two decades, the public's apparent apathy clearly frustrated some political camps.

"There was about a week period when we felt palpable voter interest, but when the defense rested in the King case, everything shut down again," said an aide to one prominent mayoral candidate who is trying to catch the front-runners. "Unfortunately, the (King) case has reduced interest in the mayor's race at a time when the city faces its most important decision in 20 years, which is: Who is going to put the city back together?"

For early front-runner Michael Woo that phenomenon was not as troubling.

"It does sort of freeze this race in place for a few days," Woo campaign spokesman Garry South said of the convergence of Easter, Passover and the end of the trial of four officers accused of violating King's civil rights. "It makes it very hard for anyone back in the pack to make a move."

At Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South-Central Los Angeles, a biblical quotation posted on the wall proved prophetic: "They Labor in Vain."

Beneath that line of Scripture on Saturday morning sat lawyer Stan Sanders, college professor and former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Julian Nava and seven lesser-known contenders for the mayor's office. They had the spectators outnumbered about 2 to 1, not counting campaign staff and hangers-on.

"I think it's the holiday keeping them away," said debate sponsor Juanita Hammonds, a member of the congregation. "They are out shopping, or staying home or Easter egg hunting." But she said fears of unrest now that the King case was before the jury were also keeping some people at home.

Nava said he was dumbfounded by the lack of spectators from the 2,200-member congregation and by the absence of Woo, Richard Riordan and other leaders in the polls. "Considering the issues at stake," Nava said, "I expected to see the church packed."

Later in the afternoon, at a forum near MacArthur Park hosted by seven neighborhood groups ranging from Echo Park to Pico-Union, a scruffy man with bloodshot eyes got as much attention as Sanders, City Council members Joel Wachs and Ernani Bernardi, and half a dozen other candidates. The intruder repeatedly shouted: "You're using all these big words! I don't understand what you're talking about!"

Only Sanders seemed to capture the question on most people's minds--how to keep the peace when the King verdicts come in. He implored each citizen to counsel others not to react violently.

"Not too many people are thinking of who is going to be the next mayor of Los Angeles," Sanders told the small gathering at the Park Plaza Hotel. "They are thinking about what's going to happen to their city."

The former Watts resident said that he was trying to find and influence his own nephew, named Donald, whom he has not seen in years. "He is based out on crack (cocaine). He is one of those who might not react appropriately to the verdict," Sanders said. "I want to find Donald."

He said the end of the King case brings an opportunity, not a crisis. "This is a time when Los Angeles can re-establish contact with itself."

Today, most of the major candidates planned Easter tours of churches, but on Saturday they turned to committed supporters. Woo revved up precinct workers at a morning rally in South-Central. Assemblyman Richard Katz did the same with the faithful at his Sherman Oaks headquarters. And Richard Riordan attended a rally of well-wishers and others in El Sereno.

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