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CALIFORNIA PORTFOLIO : With L.A. Economy Ailing, Mayoral Candidates Offer Few Solutions

May 23, 1993|JOEL KOTKIN and DAVID FRIEDMAN | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Center for the New West and international fellow at the Pepperdine University School of Business and Management. David Friedman, an L.A. attorney, is a visiting fellow at the MIT Japan program

The astonishing strength of Richard Riordan's mayoral candidacy is evidence of how hungry voters are for the message of enterprise, self-help and personal responsibility. His business-oriented pitch is especially resonating among homeowners and small businesses.

By contrast, Michael Woo's tepid appeal among voters, even among traditionally Democratic groups, largely stems from his failure to address middle-class economic concerns with much conviction. Indeed, his coalition of special-interest groups--poverty warlords, public-employee unions, women's- and gay-rights advocates--promises to perpetuate the "PC gridlock" that is driving productive people of all races and classes from Los Angeles and other big cities.

But if Riordan wins, it is far from clear that he would not perpetuate the interest-group stagnation that has marred the last years of Mayor Tom Bradley's regime. In many ways it is Riordan, not Woo, who seems destined to maintain the city's economic status quo.

For example, Riordan strongly supports and is a board member of RLA. Far from creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs, the quasi-public bureaucracy has mostly pandered to fading Anglo corporate elites, professional social-service providers and self-promoters.

Entrenching Los Angeles' existing power structure would do little to help industry in the San Fernando Valley, where Riordan enjoys his strongest support, or in the heavily Asian and Latino Eastside, where many increasingly vibrant entrepreneurs live. Furthermore, an RLA-City Hall machine would continue to undermine genuine community efforts, such as the micro-enterprise loan programs run by the Coalition for Women's Economic Development, by making it even more difficult for non-insiders to compete for resources.

If it earmarked resources for the benefit of a clique of political insiders, a Riordan administration would also harm those sectors of the L.A. economy--textile/garment and medical instruments--that offer the best bets for generating new jobs and wealth. Truth be told, it is the old elites that have proved least loyal to the city, often preferring to take their earnings and leave instead of defending the region where they made fortunes.

Woo has asserted that he would curb RLA's power by making it more accountable and by appointing an economic czar to promote and coordinate business activity. He has also highlighted Riordan's insider connections to illustrate the self-interest inherent in his opponent's economic vision. But Woo has yet to propose a workable alternative. Indeed, the centerpiece of his economic program seems to be lamenting the "excesses of the 1980s" and promising to declare an economic emergency if elected.

Woo might attract more support if he promoted the principles and qualities--self-help, enterprise and hard work--that epitomize many of his financial backers in the Chinese and Asian business communities. Short of building a message around such core values, Woo risks repeating the political error of his presidential endorser--letting social issues get out in front of the economic concerns at the heart of middle- and working-class anxiety.

It would be far better for the city if the candidates got serious about specifying a program to spark the growth of small and mid-sized companies and make Los Angeles more economically appealing to an increasingly threatened middle class. For Riordan, that means recognizing that the city's future includes non-traditional, often ethnic, economic players. For Woo, that means a multiculturalism less dependent on entitlements.

On June 8, voters worried about their economic future will probably have to choose between two forms of special-interest pandering, one all-too familiar, the other hidden beneath a veneer of enterprise and responsibility rhetoric. It could be a happier choice.

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