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Rampart Shadows Mayoral Candidates

October 01, 2000|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the School of Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate University and a political analyst for KCAL-TV

Money aside, candidates know that seizing the political advantage is often a matter of luck and timing. The race to succeed L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan is a case in point. After prolonged speculation, state Controller Kathleen Connell declared her candidacy for mayor the day after the City Council agreed to enter into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice mandating sweeping reforms in the Los Angeles Police Department. Coincidence? Perhaps not.

How the politics of the consent decree will affect the mayor's race remains unclear. But it's certainly possible that the council's action, coming just days after Riordan and Police Chief Bernard C. Parks backed off from their opposition to a decree, muted the agreement as a heated campaign issue.

The timing of Connell's announcement enabled her to sidestep the political minefield of the initial dispute over whether to make a deal with the Justice Department. The other five mayoral candidates had to stake out a position on the consent decree and on the Rampart scandal. And every one of them is now linked politically to these stands.

Assemblyman Antonio R. Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) was an early supporter of federal intervention; Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) also backs such involvement. It remains to be seen whether they can gain political traction from their advocacy.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 29, 2000 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Opinion Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
City Attorney--In "Rampart Shadows Mayoral Candidates," published Oct. 1 in the Opinion section, it was incorrectly reported that James K. Hahn has been city attorney eight years. He was first elected to the post in April 1985.

City Atty. James K. Hahn has more vested in the success of a consent decree than any other mayoral wannabe. Since he took the lead in negotiating with the feds. Smart political move. Hahn, who has been the city's top lawyer for nearly eight years, needs to inoculate himself against attacks that police problems festered on his watch.

Veteran Councilman Joel Wachs is another mayoral candidate whose long tenure in government ties him to the LAPD mess. Wachs, considered "wobbly" on the consent decree, owes much to ailing Council President John Ferraro, who stepped in to provide adult supervision for a splintered council and broker the compromise with the mayor and Parks.

Republican businessman Steve Soboroff could be the candidate most politically embarrassed by the decree controversy. In the beginning, Soboroff stood steadfastly with Riordan, his mentor and endorser, in adamantly opposing any consent decree. Then, faced with the inevitability of federal intervention and watching his local political legacy erode, the lame-duck mayor switched gears. Soboroff found himself isolated on the reform issue.

Yet, L.A. voters are largely unfocused on the candidates' stands. Many Angelenos, particularly those who are high-propensity voters, have not been directly affected by Rampart, let alone enraged by it. They don't care how drug dealers or gang members get put in jail, as long as they stay there.

The response of Angelenos to the consent decree may resemble the reaction of California voters to initiatives. When Californians vote on an issue, no matter how controversial or what the outcome, there's a tendency to feel they've dealt with it, and voters' attention quickly turns to something else. That "been there, done that" attitude coddles mayoral candidates, who can demur that the decree, which calls for an independent monitor, signs over authority--and responsibility--for reform to someone else.

But consent-decree politics may have created future issues. Connell's campaign has put the financial implications of Rampart and the agreement squarely on the city's political agenda, something the other mayoral candidates have avoided. The costs of police reform have been estimated at up to $45 million a year, and that doesn't include liabilities incurred by the city as a result of the Rampart scandal. Connell seeks to position herself as a financial manager, questioning whether and what programs might have to be pared to meet the costs. She's been coy about unveiling the cuts she would make.

The fiscal fallout of Rampart could resonate with Los Angeles voters, particularly women, who worry about shrinking the social safety net to pay for Rampart settlements and consent-decree mandates.

Might consent-decree politics spill over to the transit workers' strike against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is already operating under a consent decree to improve its bus service?

The MTA strike pits important political constituencies against one another. The labor unions, representing a largely minority transit work force, are traditional Democratic stalwarts. The city's burgeoning Latino population accounts for nearly 52% of Angelenos dependent on public transportation. Mayoral hopefuls looking for support from these groups have to tread carefully.

In addition, many voters in car-dependent Los Angeles have not been inconvenienced much by the transit strike; they are disproportionately Anglo. Whites accounted for nearly two-thirds of the voters in the 1997 city election, but they represent only 9% of MTA drivers and roughly 13% of mass-transit users.

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