Praising him for his ideas and his loyalty, President Clinton cautiously endorsed Michael Woo for mayor of Los Angeles Tuesday, urging people not to expect too much from the gesture and insisting that he did not mean to disparage Woo's opponent, Richard Riordan.
"I endorsed Mike Woo, not because I have something against his opponent. I don't," Clinton said at a news conference at Los Angeles Valley College with City Councilman Woo and his wife, Susan Fong, standing beside the President.
"I just like him, and I like him for some very good, substantive reasons. I feel a personal affinity for him because he supported me early in the race for President before the New Hampshire primary, and that's a part of it," Clinton said at the Van Nuys campus. "But I have also been terribly impressed by what he said to me privately, about this city, about the need to bring people together across racial and ethnic lines, about the need to try some new ideas to get the economy going again."
But Clinton said people should not put too much stock in endorsements, and he questioned whether his backing will make any difference.
"Frankly I don't know if they ever do. If I have any coattails, it is only because of the ideas I share in common with Mike and the things I hope we can do together," he said.
"In the end, the people of Los Angeles will vote the way people do everywhere. They will vote on the merits of the issues before them."
Clinton added that he has no idea what additional help his Administration is prepared to bring to the Woo cause. "I'm embarrassed to tell you I don't know. I never even discussed that."
Nevertheless, Woo campaign workers clearly regarded such a rare show of support of a President as a major coup. They hope it will help them raise money, as well as raising the level of enthusiasm for a candidate who is second in fund raising and second in the polls with just three weeks to go in the race.
It was a hard-won endorsement, which Riordan battled to prevent. And, in the end, it could matter in a city where the majority of voters are Democrats who flocked to Clinton in last year's presidential election. Although Riordan is a Republican who supported George Bush, the wealthy lawyer-businessman has contributed generously to Democrats. In addition, many of Riordan's advisers are Democrats who were loyal to Clinton, a point made by the President in one of several respectful references to Riordan during his remarks.
"I know quite a bit about him. I've met him, and I know a lot of people who are working in his campaign. And my wife has spent some good time with him. I have nothing against him. I'm for Woo. There's nothing negative about my feelings toward Dick Riordan."
Clinton noted that it is out of the ordinary for nationally prominent politicians to get involved in a mayor's race that is officially nonpartisan. He attributed his interest and that of other officials to the importance of Los Angeles. (U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Henry Waxman have endorsed Woo; the Riordan campaign lists Gov. Pete Wilson and former President Ronald Reagan).
"I know it is somewhat unusual for all these national figures to be involved in a mayor's race in Los Angeles," Clinton said. "But that's because what happens in Los Angeles matters to America and because we cannot really turn America around until we can lift the economy of Los Angeles up."
The President said his commitment to helping the city would be the same regardless of who wins the June 8 election.
"We're here for the duration. (Commerce Secretary) Ron Brown is going to be here supervising the economic program and out coordinating efforts. But I think it will work better if there's a mayor who has a lot of good ideas about how to start a business, how to rebuild communities."
Clinton said he came to appreciate Woo's ideas about making the city better while the two toured Los Angeles last spring.
"After the riots last year, I came here and walked the streets of Los Angeles with Mike Woo, and we talked about the kinds of things it would take to start businesses, to attract investment, to change the framework of people's lives."
Although Clinton stressed his gratitude for Woo's support last year, he made a point of saying there was more to his endorsement than a simple pay-back.
"Do I feel a personal sense of loyalty to him? You bet I do. And I'm not ashamed of that. But would I do it if I didn't think he would make a good mayor? Never in a thousand years. I believe he would be a very good mayor."
He went on to cast his alliance with Woo in terms of a working partnership.