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Decision '93 / A Look at the Elections in Los Angeles County : Los Angeles City Council : 9TH DISTRICT : Walters Faces Newcomer, 2nd Fight Against Predecessor's Aide

April 11, 1993|GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two years after winning one of the closest City Council races in memory, Rita Walters is locked in another battle to represent one of the city's most politically significant--and culturally diverse--districts, the 9th.

Just as before, the former educator is expected to face her toughest challenge from a longtime council deputy, Bob Gay. He virtually grew up in City Hall as an aide to Gilbert Lindsay, the late 9th District councilman.

But there the similarities end between this race and the 1991 contest in which Walters defeated Gay by 76 votes.

This time she faces not only Gay but another aggressive and well-funded challenger, businessman Donald Lumpkin. And she has lost support from downtown businesses.

On the other hand, she has the advantage of incumbency, and some of Gay's supporters have shifted to her. Her blunt style and street-level politics have earned her the backing of many local ministers who two years ago supported Gay, who is a minister.

"People thought of it . . . as sort of a classic rematch between Rita and Bob," said Larry Irvin, president of the Irvin-Hampton Co., a public relations and political consulting firm. "But the perception on the street is that Bob has not been successful in raising issues or raising resources sufficient to make it that."

That is not to say the race is over. Many observers say Walters may fall short of the majority vote she needs to avoid a June runoff.

Her district is politically complex, stretching from Chinatown to South-Central Los Angeles and including downtown. Such an ethnically diverse group of poor and working-class residents makes for a clash of constituencies whose votes may be up for grabs.

And Lumpkin is a political neophyte whose background in finance has proved appealing to some voters and business leaders looking for change.

Still, the race seems Walters' to lose. Her campaign manager, Felicia Bragg, said: "The significant difference this time is that Rita is enormously popular in the district and there is tremendous word of mouth about what she has been doing."

Walters took to City Hall the same blunt, combative style that marked her 12 years on the Los Angeles school board.

Just as school board member Walters flung herself into debates over desegregation, Councilwoman Walters concentrates fiercely on battles over downtown development, permits for new liquor stores and other issues.

With a lecturing manner that can grate on colleagues and constituents, Walters often blames her predecessor, Lindsay, for problems. His preoccupation with downtown businesses, she says, led to neglect of the rest of the district.

"Downtown certainly is an extremely important part of the city, but it is not all of the district," Walters said.

She has found it far easier than her predecessor to disagree with downtown business leaders on developments and other Civic Center priorities. She has drawn praise for independence, along with accusations that she is an obstacle to progress.

"There seems to be a sense in the business community that she is anti-business . . . and that perception is accurate about Rita," said a Walters supporter with downtown business ties. "She is very suspicious of everyone."

The Central City Assn., a business group, decided not to make any endorsements in the race, even though it supported her two years ago.

"We discussed the race at some length and decided, because of divergent views expressed within our leadership, not to endorse," association President Don F. McIntyre said.

Some see the decision as signifi-cant proof that Walters cannot work with the business interests that are vital to inner-city rebirth.

Others view it as being unimportant given Walters' other endorsements.

Among her supporters are Mayor Tom Bradley and City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, community activist Danny Bakewell of the Brotherhood Crusade, and many ministers, including the Rev. E. V. Hill, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, who supported Gay in 1991.

Gay, a 40-year-old City Hall veteran, contends that Walters' combativeness has hurt the district and residents by discouraging business investments. He says that his time in the district and knowledge of City Hall will help make the bureaucracy work for voters.

"You get action by getting seven other votes on the council," Gay said, referring to Walters' frequent battles on the council. "And the current incumbent has not been able to do that."

In 16 years with Councilman Lindsay, Gay rose from a 22-year-old aide to being his heir-apparent. His 1991 defeat has left even some supporters wondering whether his chance at the seat has passed.

Adding to the uncertainty is Lumpkin, 42, who has waged an aggressive campaign as a can-do political outsider.

The president of his own financial services firm, Lumpkin has emphasized his business background. His promise of more police protection, better services for the elderly and more recreation facilities for youths hinge on his ability to improve the district's economic climate.

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