The contest for mayor of Los Angeles is growing increasingly tense as Tuesday's election approaches, with much of the heat generated by attacks on the records of the most experienced candidates. But the assaults have not masked an essential truth: In politics, incumbency almost always provides a crucial boost.
Its benefits are immeasurable: a battle-tested army of aides, ready attention from the media, and that most important political asset of all, access to money.
The age-old practice of leapfrogging from one office to the next has grown more urgent and necessary as politicians face term limits, which guarantee them unemployment if they can't win a new job.
Gone are the days when a city councilman like Joel Wachs could hold the same job for nearly 30 years. (Wachs, a mayoral candidate, is banned from running again for the council.) Nowadays, politicians appear to be searching for their next job almost as soon as they are elected.
Los Angeles' election next week represents only the latest example. Among the candidates who are currently or were until recently in office: U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra, state Controller Kathleen Connell, City Atty. James K. Hahn, former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and Wachs, all running for mayor; City Council member Laura Chick, aiming for city controller; and former state Sen. Tom Hayden, running for City Council.
"I've seen guys over the years leave local office telling the voters they're going to the state level, where they're really needed," said Bob Mulholland, campaign advisor to the state Democratic Party. "Then several years later, they're running for county supervisor saying that's where they're really needed. . . . The vast majority of people running for office are in another office."
Ask political consultants and others whether they would prefer to work for incumbents or novices and the answer is nearly universal: incumbents. By far.
First and foremost, they say, is the sheer ability to raise money. Many politicians already have a cadre of special-interest groups, lawyers, lobbyists and others willing to contribute in the name of access.
"If you're Jimmy Hahn or Joel Wachs, you have Rolodexes the size of oil drums of people you've helped for decades," said Ace Smith, who is running the campaign of businessman Steve Soboroff. "You just dial for dollars."
Second, these consultants and others say, is the related benefit of name recognition. First-time candidates like Soboroff must spend a tremendous amount of their precious campaign contributions on advertising just to introduce themselves to voters.
"The advantage of incumbency is amazing," said Rick Taylor, a veteran Los Angeles political consultant. "There is no dollar figure you can put on it."
Additionally, incumbents typically have far more experience with the issues--or at least with finessing their answers--than outside candidates.
At a recent mayoral debate, for example, Wachs said he was so busy with city business that he didn't have time to prepare. He didn't need it.
"We were asked questions for an hour and a half. By my experience, I was able to answer every question," Wachs said. "I didn't have to hire a staff to tell me what to say."
And that suggests another benefit to incumbency: Elected officials often ask their prized staff members to take a leave from their government jobs to help on the campaign. Other aides use their vacations or evenings and weekends to work on their bosses' races.
"They have a million-dollar staff," said Taylor, the political consultant, referring to incumbents. "To have those people with that kind of knowledge and resources . . . they know where the bodies are buried. They know every issue you've ever done.
"My own staff has been trying to get the city's sign ordinance for weeks," Taylor said. "If I was a councilman, my staff would have had it in minutes."
Not only are staff members likely to pitch in, but so are other officeholders with whom incumbents have developed relationships. For example: Sen. Barbara Boxer and Gov. Gray Davis have endorsed Villaraigosa, with whom they worked when he was Assembly speaker.
It all boils down to a substantial difference between the campaigns that can be waged by incumbents and by the average first-time candidate.
So Ken Gerston, who is running for City Council against Hayden, is sending out lots of glossy mailers--with pictures of his family and parents. Even his wife is out knocking on doors. Council candidate Jack Weiss, who is running against Gerston and Hayden, is trying potholders, the traditional political gimmick.
Compare that with the efforts of incumbents, blessed with the benefits of their current offices: