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Mayoral Hopefuls Race Toward Finish With 3 Clearly in the Lead

Election: With a very slim margin of victory expected, the turnout among key voter groups will be crucial.

April 08, 2001|JAMES RAINEY and MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Los Angeles voters will go to the polls Tuesday to select just the third new mayor in more than a quarter-century, a decision complicated by the city's relative political equilibrium and by the presence of a capable field of candidates tested in a long and increasingly contentious campaign.

Recent opinion surveys, including the Times Poll, suggest that most voters are coalescing around three candidates--City Atty. James K. Hahn, former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and businessman Steve Soboroff. Only two can qualify for the runoff, which will be held June 5 if no candidate gets a majority Tuesday.

Each draws his support from a different slice of the city's political geography. And their biographies emphasize the range of choices they offer as Los Angeles contemplates the selection of its first mayor of the 21st century.

There is Hahn, the temperate administrator and scion of one of the region's best-known political families. Then there is Villaraigosa, the passionate, up-from-nowhere Eastside coalition builder. And, finally, there is Soboroff, the roll-up-your-sleeves businessman and protege of outgoing Mayor Richard Riordan.

They are not alone, however. Trailing but still commanding significant chunks of the Los Angeles electorate are three other credible candidates: state Controller Kathleen Connell, the only woman among the top six candidates and a capable debater who has consistently cast the city government as desperately in need of overhaul; City Councilman Joel Wachs, a nimble campaigner who has turned his quick wit against the special interests he says dominate local affairs; and U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), a well-educated lawyer who has run a gentle campaign directed at revitalizing Los Angeles neighborhoods.

Those three each hold out hope--though fading--of elbowing their way into a runoff against one of the favorites.

As they make their final push, however, it is the front-runners who have made the most apparent progress in the essential task of Los Angeles politics: assembling a base and then moving beyond it.

Hahn first stakes his claim among African American voters in South Los Angeles, just like his father, the late county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who represented the area for four decades. He then appeals to liberals and moderates across the city--similar to the alliance created by the late five-term mayor, Tom Bradley.

Soboroff's formula begins just where Riordan's did--mostly with white conservatives and some moderates in the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside.

And Villaraigosa gets his best footing among liberals, Latinos, Jews and voters on the Westside--a new coalition that some believe could be even more potent in the future, as Latino voting strength continues to grow.

"The most interesting factor in the election thus far is the emergence of the Latino community," said Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political scientist who has written extensively about politics in Los Angeles. "They may be creating a new, third route to power. And that affects the way everyone else is running, too."

While some things change in politics, some remain the same. The split in the candidates' fortunes in large measure reflects their differing abilities to raise money. Hahn, Villaraigosa and Soboroff have far surpassed their rivals in that regard--in Soboroff's case, in part because of his personal contributions to his campaign.

Yet no candidate for mayor has been able to break away from the field. The level of engagement by key voting groups will be crucial on election day, with a number of questions still unanswered:

* Hahn will visit six African American churches today, hoping to whip up turnout among his key supporters. But will black voters turn out in large numbers to vote for Hahn or because of another competitive race on the ballot, the campaign to fill the late Julian Dixon's seat in the Congress?

* Latinos have long been looming as a political force in the city in which they will soon become a majority. They surpassed blacks in number of voters for the first time in the 1997 mayoral election. But to succeed, Villaraigosa hopes to boost that 15% Latino turnout to at least 20%. Will that happen without immigration, affirmative action or other hot-button issues for Latinos on the ballot?

* Moderate and conservative white voters shook up the city's Democratic status quo by electing Riordan, a Republican venture capitalist, in 1993. Is the city's psyche such that those voters will again be determined to vote for a white, Republican businessman and outsider--Soboroff, the former Recreation and Parks commissioner?

Even slight variations in the answers could determine the outcome in what most experts predict will be an extremely tight finish. Only about half a million people are expected to vote on Tuesday in the city of nearly 4 million. The result of that apathy: just over 100,000 votes should be enough to win a trip to Round 2.

Many Changes in One Year

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