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CAMPAIGN 2001

Maxed Out on Mayoral Debates

Demand for appearances meant the six top candidates rarely appeared together, and some sponsors were frustrated.

April 05, 2001|CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So who says Los Angeles is apathetic and bereft of civic enthusiasm?

The residents of the same city that could barely arrange a party and fireworks for the millennium have managed to stage approximately 75 mayoral debates in the last year, a record high according to the League of Women Voters, which keeps count of these things. And about 50 of those debates were in the last three months.

Veteran civic groups and fledgling community organizations vied for the Big Six candidates in such large numbers that they began overlapping dates and constituencies. It got so confusing that the campaigns asked the League of Women Voters to act as a clearinghouse.

Rarely did all of the six show up. And in politics, as in love, the one you want the most is the hardest to get. Front-runner James K. Hahn was the most sought after and the least frequently seen at these debates. When pressed in person by an eager organizer, he would sometimes hedge and say he would try but then wouldn't come through.

On the other end of the spectrum, Antonio Villaraigosa and Xavier Becerra went to almost all of them. Villaraigosa, who ignored advice from his handlers not to go to so many, just "didn't want two or more people to be gathered without his presence gracing them," said his campaign consultant, Parke Skelton.

All the campaign officials diplomatically commended the debates as democracy in action, but most pined for a race with fewer gatherings, larger audiences and more TV coverage.

"Campaigns are such that you cannot attend all of them--even if you wanted to," said Hahn consultant Kam Kuwata. "Otherwise, that's all you would do."

Becerra may have come close to that. According to his campaign manager, Paige Richardson, he liked the forums so much he wanted to do more.

"We have a kind of fun ritual," Richardson said. In the car on the way to the forums, Becerra would fire up the CD player with some Chaka Khan and other "jock jams," "like they play for basketball teams warming up. It's hilarious. The car dances some days."

With debates multiplying so fast that sometimes two were scheduled on one day, debate hosts went after the candidates with an aggressiveness rivaled only by morning talk show bookers. Often refusing to accept a scheduler's lackluster response that "the candidate has a conflict," organizers would confront their target in person.

Susan Maquindang, who helped organize a debate sponsored by a coalition of Philippine community groups, buttonholed Hahn just after he walked out of the funeral of a Filipino community leader. (He still didn't show.) When Villaraigosa's campaign said he had to cancel his appearance at the Los Feliz Improvement Assn.'s mayoral debate due to a fund-raiser in New York, organizer Marilyn Bush found the candidate at another forum and told him to take a red-eye flight home to make it to the Los Feliz debate. (He didn't.)

"We were very tenacious," said Helen Torres, who helped organize a debate held by Latino women and business owners. Torres personally spoke to Hahn's campaign manager and then to Hahn to ask him to appear. "He was very cordial, he said he would try, but there was quite a demand on his schedule." (He didn't make it.)

Every candidate who knew he or she couldn't attend a forum was, nonetheless, loath to say that to an organizer's face. In Hahn's case, "He would say, 'Well, I really want to.' And they take that as 'Hahn's in,' " Kuwata said. "Then they call us and say, 'Can he attend?' And we say, 'Well, he really can't for all the reasons we told you about three weeks ago.' "

Hahn Takes Hit for No-Shows

Hahn took the most criticism in absentia from opponents at forums for being in absentia. "We tried to make as many as we can," Kuwata said.

Most organizers were fairly diplomatic about the no-shows. Still, a few League of Women Voters officials worried that community groups would blame the league if a candidate declined an invitation.

"As I told people, I'm a specialist, all I do is book them," said Ellen Pangarliotis, who created a master list of debates and steered groups away from one another's days.

"A lot of the groups really started getting feisty," said Pangarliotis, who prides herself on her scheduling skills. "They would say, 'If so-and-so doesn't show up, we're going to tell our people not to vote for them.' One group said, 'We're just going to have an empty chair and put the person's name on it.' I said, 'It's your group, you do what you want for your forum.' We certainly can't dictate terms."

But the league did give basic advice to those who wanted it: Have nameplates for the candidates and a pitcher of water and glasses. Avoid duplicate questions. Signal time limits to candidates.

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