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CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY : Hiding Heads in Nonpartisan Sand : Let's admit it: The L.A. mayoral race is GOP vs. Democrats. This is the first referendum on the Clinton Administration.

April 29, 1993|XANDRA KAYDEN | Xandra Kayden, a visiting scholar at the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School, is the author of "The Party Goes On" (Basic Books).

The only order to emerge out of the massive free-for-all called the primary in the Los Angeles mayor's race is a partisan order.

It is very clear to everyone that Councilman Michael Woo is a Democrat and that businessman Richard Riordan is a Republican. It is clear what that means in terms of how they see the role of government, and about the kinds of people they expect to support them. And because of that, it is a very clear choice that voters will make on Election Day.

The choice of a winner on June 8 will speak to the meaning of that victory. It will not really be a personal choice, although making choices about character are appropriate in an election for executive office. It will not even be an ethnic choice, although that, too, will emerge; polls show Riordan ahead with white voters, Woo with minorities. The breakdown of ethnic loyalties extends beyond the individuals and relates also to ethnic loyalties to political parties in America.

While both candidates are seeking the partisan label (and Riordan, at least, as the sole Republican in the primary, has been running on it for some time) it is also clear that the parties will be the beneficiaries. This election will be the first referendum on the Clinton Administration. For that reason, we can expect national as well as state party support for Woo. And we can expect complementary Republican support to flow to Riordan, who otherwise has the personal resources to go it alone.

Most important, it will be seen as partisan by the voters.

So, if this election is partisan, what does it tell us about our political culture, about Los Angeles and about the nature of partisanship in general?

In all probability, if the primary had been legally partisan we would have ended up with the same two candidates facing each other in the general. But we would have gotten there with more clarity in the minds of both the media and the voters. Riordan would have had more competition, and his money might not have mattered quite so much, but it still would have made a difference. He is, however, a perfectly appropriate Republican candidate. Woo, as the most liberal of the major candidates, would be just as likely to have emerged, given that Democratic primary voters tend to be more liberal than both the party and the electorate.

The main difference is that everyone would have known what choice they were making. It would have attracted more Republicans to the race, knowing that one at least would survive to the general election. And if more people knew what the election was really about--because we know what the parties stand for--more people would have voted. Turnout is always higher in partisan elections.

Being a Republican benefited Riordan in the primary because it distinguished him in a field of Demoocrats and gave him enough of a core to come out ahead. It may hurt him in the general election, in a city that is predominantly Democratic--which should help Woo. The party will help turn out the vote and provide other organizational support to offset the differential in campaign funds. It will bring back at least some of the swing Jewish vote, which made up 15% to 20% of the vote in the last city election and is predominantly Democratic.

In a two-man race, character is more easily defined, and it is a reasonable and important criterion for choosing a mayor. The problem with relying on character is that we start out believing in those who share our political beliefs and we disregard those who don't. It gives an edge that is hard to overcome from a distance, although having the money to communicate an alternative image certainly helps.

But as long as we hide our heads in the sands of nonpartisanship, applauding our virtue, we do not see the reality for what it is. It does not hurt us to make a partisan choice. It hurts us to do so without knowing it. And as it happens, that was the choice we made in the primary.

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