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The Day They Threw an Election and Few Cared to Vote

March 02, 1997|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

Every member of the City Council looks in the mirror and believes he or she sees the city's next mayor. But not this time. None of them has opted to challenge Mayor Richard Riordan in next month's municipal elections. Even council members with a free ride--their own seats are not at stake--are sitting this round out. Unhounded by state Sen. Tom Hayden, Riordan could have coasted to reelection as mayor of the nation's second-largest city virtually unopposed.

Of the eight council races on the ballot, three incumbents are uncontested and three more have only token opposition. Only Councilman Rudy Svorinich has drawn anything close to an active, if quixotic, challenge.

Los Angeles used to be known for its long and quirky lists of contenders for local office. What has happened to dry up the candidate pool?

A standard reply--and a favorite of some political scientists--is that low political participation means voters are happy with the way things are going. But are they contented enough to give their leaders a virtual bye?

A recent Times poll did reveal a dramatic turnaround in the way Angelenos view their city, its economy and their own circumstances. A majority (52%) felt things are going well, while 44% said they are not, a reversal of the numbers from the previous survey. In a related finding, the poll showed increased approval for the way both Riordan and the City Council are doing their jobs. But this uptick in residents' perceptions doesn't truly explain the dearth of competition.

In 1993, L.A. voters approved Charter Amendment 2, which limits elected officials to two terms in office. Riordan, then running an "outsider" campaign for mayor, called support for term limits proof "that the voters are fed up with the politicians and they want some new blood." But the transfusion is slow.

The first wholesale change will come in 2001, when the clock runs out for six of the seven incumbents likely to be reelected this year, and for Riordan, also favored to win reelection. Why should council members jump into a bruising and expensive campaign against Riordan today when they can wait until the mayor's office is up for grabs? And why shouldn't potential council candidates hold off running until they don't have to battle the built-in advantages of incumbency?

One incumbent advantage is the ability to raise money. In 1990, Los Angeles voters approved Proposition H, a wide-ranging ethics-in-government measure that included public funding of campaigns, and limits on contributions and spending. Paradoxically, such limits can make it much more difficult for untested opponents to raise money to challenge incumbents. Absent name recognition, a heavy and ready Rolodex or the ability to self-finance a campaign, it's better to wait term-limited politicians out.

Councilmember Richard Alarcon contends that running unopposed "means I don't have to focus as much energy on the campaign and I can focus on work." Whose work? With what accountability? Free of serious challengers, term-limited incumbents can easily subordinate district concerns to concentrating on how to win higher office.

No two elections are alike but, in all elections, results depend on who votes. Turnout in Los Angeles municipal primaries has generally declined from a high of 66% in 1969, the first Sam Yorty-Tom Bradley confrontation. Turnout in minority districts has lagged behind other areas.

In the 1993 primary, when every incumbent council member on the ballot faced a challenge and 24 candidates vied to replace retiring Bradley, turnout reached only 35% citywide. Inner-city numbers were below that. Turnout in the 1989 city primary was even more dismal--about 24%, the lowest in any mayoral election in at least the previous 32 years. In minority districts, it was even lower.

That year, two council incumbents ran unopposed and Bradley, under late-campaign fire for his extracurricular business activities, withstood challenges from City Councilman Nate Holden and former L.A. County Supervisor Baxter Ward (as well as eight minor candidates) to win his fifth term.

If this year's turnout duplicates that in 1989, as circumstances seem to warrant, what kind of a mandate can there be in winning by default?

How will the lack of competitive political races affect down-ballot issues? The direction of of charter reform could hinge on who turns out to vote. A recent Times poll indicated that 64% of city voters support rewriting the 72-year-old City Charter. The percentage was even higher (69%) among voters in the San Fernando Valley, where debate over secession fueled the charter-reform movement. These voters prefer the mayor's approach, contained in his initiative on the April ballot, which would give the power to rewrite the charter to an elected commission, rather than to an advisory panel appointed by the City Council.

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