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Mayoral Candidates Inch Along

April 01, 2001|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior scholar in the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC. She is also a political analyst for KCAL-TV

L.A.'s mayoral election brings to mind the fable of the inchworm. The tiny grub, made famous by comedian Danny Kaye as storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, was obsessed with carefully and incrementally "measuring the marigolds. You and your arithmetic," sang Kaye, "you'll probably go far."

The mayoral candidates in the April 10 primary must tally, inch by inch, vote by vote, enough support to make the June runoff. It's estimated that, in this city of nearly 4 million people, about 100,000 votes could land a candidate on the general-election ballot. Whoever masters that arithmetic will probably go far.

The evolution of the "politics of the inchworm" began with the electoral strategy of Tom Bradley. In 1973, a coalition of African Americans and white liberals propelled Bradley into City Hall and transformed L.A.'s political calculus. Today, that coalition no longer exists. Replicating it could be enough to secure a place in the runoff, but its support alone is not enough to win the mayor's office outright.

To understand why, consider the demographics. L.A. is roughly half as white as it was in 1973. The percentage of blacks in the city's population has remained relatively stagnant, but Latino representation is two and a half times larger.

Major-party registration has also changed since Bradley was first elected. The city's Democratic registration has declined by roughly 4%, though in raw numbers, there are about 100,000 more Democrats living in L.A. today. The GOP story is grim. Republican registration has slipped 8%, or, in raw numbers, by 50,000. Nominally Republican candidates are thus at a disadvantages in citywide elections.

In 1993, the year Bradley retired, a conglomeration of Republicans, moderate Valley and Westside voters and Latinos enabled businessman Richard Riordan to defeat Democratic City Councilmember Michael Woo, the putative heir to the Bradley coalition. Four years later, Riordan easily won reelection against liberal state Sen. Tom Hayden, who garnered 75% of the black vote but could not expand his base much beyond that. That contest marked a milestone in L.A. politics: For the first time, the percentage of Latinos in the electorate (15%) surpassed that of African Americans (13%).

Recent figures in the L.A. Times indicate the percentage of Latinos among registered voters (22%) just about equals that of GOP registered voters in the city. No group, then, has more at stake in this election than Latinos. Will their voting increase from the historic high of 1997? With two Latinos among the major mayoral contenders, the size and direction of turnout will send a powerful message about the future impact of Latino political participation on electoral outcomes.

According to polls, City Atty. James K. Hahn is pulling a majority of the black vote. There is no other candidate who can boast the margin among any voter group that Hahn claims among African Americans. But the L.A. political demographics show black clout decreasing.

There is a spirited contest among several black candidates to replace the late Rep. Julian C. Dixon. The heart of the ethnically diverse 32nd Congressional District lies within the city; high turnout among African American voters there could help Hahn.

Hahn's early front-runner status, built on name recognition, was aided by fallout from the seemingly endless presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. It was impossible for little-known mayoral candidates to break through the post-election cacophony to do even the most preliminary things, like introducing themselves to contributors and activists, or angling to catch the attention of the media and voters. Then came the presidential inauguration, the flap over former President Bill Clinton's last-minute pardons and California's energy crisis. Candidates' messages remained smothered or ignored--unless or until they could hit the airwaves on their own; without a healthy media buy, nobody but Hahn could break out of the pack. All that kept the race tight and fluid.

With voters finally focusing on the mayoral campaign, things have changed. Messages are fine-tuned; candidate ads are on the air. However, there remains an absence of defining issues in the race. It is not that this is a truly issueless campaign; it's just that there are few dramatic differences among the candidates on many of them.

In today's inchworm politics, candidates are careful not to alienate any potential voter. Ads trumpet their support for voter favorites like education reform or opposition to gridlock. But they shy away from broadcasting their views on hot-button issues like the Rampart police-corruption scandal or festering secessionist movements. A candidate who takes a clear stand--against the San Fernando Valley secessionists, in support of Rampart cops--risks forfeiting votes.

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