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A City Looking for Leadership : A Lack of Moral Vision Undermines the Mayoral Race

April 18, 1993|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School.

City Councilman Mike Woo and businessman Richard Riordan, the front-runners in the mayoral race, have been labeled "polar opposites." The truth is, the candidates repre sent two sides of the man they would replace--Tom Bradley.

Woo is early Bradley, creator of a coalition of minorities and white liberals. It is this coalition that enabled Bradley to win elections and govern the city. Until Woo decided change was needed and change meant Mike Woo, he was one of Bradley's staunchest allies.

Riordan is late Bradley, the politician who moved easily in the largely Anglo world of the downtown business Establishment. It is this connection that enabled Bradley to give Los Angeles a skyline. Riordan supported Bradley politically, giving him more than $500,000 in campaign contributions and loans. He also served as the mayor's appointee to city commissions.

But is either side of Bradley--the '60s activist or the Establishment politician--the leadership model for today's Los Angeles, especially in the wake of the verdicts in the Rodney G. King civil-rights trial? The reality is that neither the coalition that propelled the early Bradley into power nor the retro-boosterism that the aging mayor has relied on to lead the city--even after the riots last spring--can provide the necessary moral vision for an economically hurting, racially divided Los Angeles.

Sadly, any serious and honest discussion of what is needed--and what the mayoral candidates are prepared to supply--has been sacrificed to the crude arithmetic of reaching the runoff in a multicandidate race. But candidates who have locked themselves into rhetoric crafted to shore up narrow bases of support will face trouble when trying to offer a credible leadership to unite the community. Will a distrustful electorate reject as cynical any attempt to provide leadership during a political campaign?

Disturbingly, the news media have seemed unwillingly to force discussions of what it takes to lead Los Angeles, abandoning, in practice, what has been called "the leadership beat" for the transient pleasures of the political game.

It may not be surprising, then, that the contest to select the leader of the nation's second-largest city, and one of its most troubled, is relegated to a side bar in a national magazine's cover story on Los Angeles, headlined "Is the City of Angels Going to Hell?" Well, if that's a measure of media attention paid to the mayor's race, the answer is probably yes.

The media offered a seemingly endless diet of stories on riot preparations and citizens buying guns and stockpiling ammo leading up to the verdicts. But blaming news reporters for the mood of the city was too simplistic. A majority of L.A. residents, according to a recent Times poll, thought the news media were simply doing their job in reporting the city's mood and were not inciting violence.

The problem was that, for too long, there had been no countervailing voice, or voices, arising from the city's political leaders to offset the drumbeat of shrill news stories and bring perspective to the plethora of riveting visuals that portrayed a city mobilizing out of fear. Not until shortly before the jury began deliberating in the King civil-rights trial did Bradley check in. Meantime, the gaggle of candidates jockeying to replace him did little more than engage in "potlatch politics," trying to outdo each other with promises to put more police on the streets at less taxpayer cost.

Yet, Los Angeles was not absolutely leaderless. For all intents and purposes, LAPD Chief Willie L. Williams was the city's mayor, and he will continue to fill that role.

What does all this augur for governance in the long term? Williams is not an elected official nor is he running for mayor, but he knows what many of the candidates have failed to address. The King incident and the events surrounding it are, in his words, "the big mountain in front of us today." There are also bigger mountains ahead--homelessness, poverty, economic inequality, racial tensions, yawning budget deficits. To scale these problems requires the legitimacy only elected leaders are granted, because their leadership must be sanctioned by the will of the people.

Although the mayor's race has been largely eclipsed by the King civil-rights trial, few elections have been so tied to a singular test of leadership. Yet, voters appear to have little confidence that any of the contenders can meet that test.

The Times poll indicated that 40% of the voters found none of the candidates particularly qualified to handle the situation that has developed as a result of the civil-rights trial. Front-runners Woo and Riordan only mustered the confidence of 13% and 10% of the electorate, respectively. No one else registered above 3%.

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