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NEWS ANALYSIS / THE LOS ANGELES MAYOR'S RACE : The Middle Ground Becomes the Battleground

May 06, 1993|FRANK CLIFFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everybody wants a piece of Ben Reznik.

Middle-age, professional, Jewish, a lifelong social liberal with a conservative streak when it comes to crime and the economy, Reznik is a paradigm of the swing voter in the Los Angeles mayor's race.

The two candidates, Richard Riordan and Michael Woo, began building their bases of support at opposite ends of the political spectrum and are now converging in the middle, homing in on people like Reznik.

A campaign once expected to divide the city along racial lines and pit rich neighborhoods against poor is instead becoming a battle for the hearts and minds of the people in the middle.

In a largely Democratic city, some Democrats say the race is causing them to reassess their political identities and forcing them to choose between competing values.

"It is a strange dilemma for me," said Reznik, who describes himself as a lifelong Democratic activist.

"When it comes to the issues that are on my mind right now, like crime and the city's deplorable business climate, Riordan hits on all cylinders," Reznik said. "But when you get to the emotional things, issues like gun control or choice that I've been active in for a decade, you are more sympathetic to Woo.

"When it comes down to asking yourself who would be the best person to run the city, it's a gut-wrenching decision."

Riordan, a Republican, may have won an important round in the struggle to lure Democrats when he gained the endorsement earlier this week of Stan Sanders, the most successful black candidate in last month's mayoral primary.

But Reznik said it would take more than that to get his support in the June 8 runoff.

"If it's going to be palatable to support Dick Riordan, it is going to take more than one endorsement," he said.

It is no accident that Reznik is feeling pressured by the election. He is the chairman of the San Fernando Valley's most prominent civic organization, the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., and his endorsement would help either candidate. He is also a member of a larger but even more politically desirable group: the 200,000 or so voters who chose somebody other than Riordan or Woo in the primary. Viewed as moderate or independent-minded Democrats, these are people who voted for the likes of City Councilman Joel Wachs, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) or former Deputy Mayor Linda Griego, who finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively, in the April primary. Reznik supported Katz.

"No doubt about it, the key to winning this election is winning the middle--those voters who think of themselves as social liberals and fiscal conservatives," said one of Riordan's top advisers, who asked not to be identified.

When campaign strategists look at someone like Ben Reznik, they think they recognize a type of voter in Los Angeles--a person in the throes of change, at odds with himself over what matters most in life, trying to decide who stands for his better nature: Woo and his appeal to progressive values or Riordan and his appeal to fiscal conservatism.

"The thing about courting voters in Los Angeles is that you cannot ask them to violate what is a cherished sense of political identity," Jay Severin said. A New York-based consultant who worked for Wachs in the primary, Severin is a Republican who has made a career of figuring out how to get urban, liberal voters to vote for Republican candidates.

"In New York and Los Angeles, more than any other places, you are defined by the way you vote," Severin said. "You don't want to be seen voting for someone who is uncool. You can't afford to be seen as making the politically incorrect choice. You don't want friends and colleagues to say, 'How could you?' Imagine being a typical West L.A. voter 30 days before the presidential election, walking into a room full of people you knew and saying you had decided to vote for Bush."

For Woo, then, the task is one of making it socially unacceptable to support Riordan. He has been trying his best to do that--reminding voters that Riordan contributed to anti-abortion groups and that his vaunted fiscal prowess has cost ordinary people their jobs.

At the same time, he repeatedly tells voters of the strong support he is drawing from the Democratic Party, which has committed $200,000 to his campaign. Beyond that, Woo boasts of high-profile endorsements from party luminaries, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

But political strategists warn that Woo should take nothing for granted.

"Conservatives in city elections will often get votes of people who say one thing in public and do something different in the voting booth," Severin said.

Riordan appeared to face the tougher challenge.

The Riordan adviser who spoke in confidence outlined the task.

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