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Visiting Press Puts L.A. on the Couch


Did you get out of bed this morning feeling cranky and out of sorts? Are you generally perplexed? Do you plan to limp through this day in the chokehold of an identity crisis?

If so, you are not suffering from the flu, PMS or multiple personality disorder. You are merely living in L.A.--or rather in L.A. the way the rest of the world chooses to see it.

Reporters are coming here from around the globe to cover the race for the first new mayor in 20 years and most of them cannot leave without first subjecting the nation's second-largest city to instant psychoanalysis.

Laid-back Lotus Land, inventor of the Good Life, capital of dreams, has hit upon hard times (riot, recession, real estate bust, racial tension) as it looks for a new mayor to replace the long-serving Tom Bradley. And out-of-town reporters are rubbing their hands together like Freud in a roomful of hysterics.

According to them, Los Angeles is:

" . . . a stressed out city, armed to the teeth, looking for a reason to believe in itself." (Chicago Tribune)

" . . . economically shattered." (Washington Post)

" . . . the reigning symbol of America's urban decay." (San Francisco Chronicle)

" . . . wracked by crime, unemployment and racial strife." (Business Week)

" . . . self-conscious." (New York Times)

" . . . undergoing an identity crisis." (Chicago Tribune)

" . . . cranky and out of sorts." (New York Times)

" . . . (a town with) few reasons for optimism." (The Economist)

The critics cannot even agree on the worst thing about the mayoral campaign.

One magazine says it has left us "thirsting for debate." Another claims we have met the most important municipal race in decades with "resounding indifference."

Londoners, who once bemusedly regarded this as the land of beaches, zany ideas and movie stars, are turning in that postcard image for one of an armed camp.

"There is now a tendency in London to look at Los Angeles as a crime-ridden place where one would not venture into the street. What strikes people who come to the city is how frightened the people are who live here--the gated communities, security, armed patrols, dogs. . . . The crime rate is horrifying," said Phil Reeves, West Coast correspondent for the Independent of London.

One of his recent campaign dispatches informed the British about unsuccessful mayoral candidate Tom Houston, who tried to hold an underwater news conference in scuba gear and had to be rescued by frogmen.

Still, even visiting journalists concede that any way you look at this mayoral race, Los Angeles is about to do something remarkable. We will either elect the first Asian-American mayor of a major U.S. city or we will go down in history as the Democratic, ethnic melting pot that sent a white Repubican millionaire to City Hall.

"This is still an enormously important city, the second-largest city in the country, so the job of being the mayor of that city is a terribly important one," Reeves said, explaining why other cities may seem more interested in this race than are some voters of Los Angeles.

At first, the interest seemed more numerical than political. With 24 candidates elbowing each other in the April primary, Time magazine declared the ballot "cluttered . . . with too many choices" and the electorate "perplexed."

"Is This a Casting Call or L.A. Mayoral Race?" a Chicago Tribune headline chortled.

Time magazine suggested that Los Angeles was not up to the task of narrowing 24 candidates to two. It likened the primary to putting a kid in a candy store and asking him to choose from hundreds of pieces. "He can't," the magazine quoted one Angeleno as saying.

Lou Cannon, the Washington Post's Los Angeles bureau chief, says the real story, unglamorous though it might be, is that most people here either cannot or do not vote.

"This is the least democratic city in the country," Cannon declared in a recent interview.

For years, Los Angeles was seen by many outsiders as a carefree oasis where everybody who was not starring in a movie was sprawled out on the beach with a Corona, snuggled safely under the wing of a mayor they elected five times. Now the world gets to watch Los Angeles struggle to find a new leader, fight back a recession and map out an uncertain future. It is like seeing the prom queen get zits. It is the kind of thing people pray for.

(And another thing. The out-of-town press is forever calling us the City of Angels. This irks some locals the way Frisco irks San Franciscans. It's an impossible standard to meet; any place advertised as a City of Angels has nowhere to go but down.)

One problem for disgruntled locals: The mayoral race has brought the international press knocking before Los Angeles was ready to receive visitors. It is still sprucing up from the riots, still knocked flat by the recession.

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