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A Snowball's Chance in L.A.

Fringe mayoral candidates who might not have a shot have their say. But will anybody actually hear them?

March 07, 2001|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a little before 5 p.m. on a Tuesday night inside Los Angeles City College's student center. There are seven people seated in auditorium chairs who've come to tonight's program. That's neither particularly good nor bad--unless you are one of the mayoral candidates on stage eager to get your message out.

"It gets discouraging," says Leonard Shapiro, one of the candidates who spoke that night. "But you meet some interesting people. You meet some nuts, too, though."

This is a glimpse of what it's like to run for mayor of Los Angeles with little media coverage, no campaign funds and no chance of winning. But this is also what it's like to forge ahead anyway, determined to make a point, determined to reshape the race, and determined, in a city of more than 3 million people, to matter.

LACC's first mayoral forum in January was, by all accounts, a rousing success. Opened by former Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, the January night attracted three of the six leading candidates and an audience of 150. The next two forums, devoted to the remainder of the field--a number that was as high as 25 at one point--did not go so well.

Here, at this second forum in February, seven candidates greet a crowd of about 50. In deference to the proceedings, Ms. PacMan and the other handful of pinball and video arcade machines are silent, as are the room's television sets. The candidates launch into their opening statements in which they recite a stock litany of office-seeker goals: halt wasteful spending, improve city services and listen to the people. Still, a few things stand out.

Garment worker Wendy Lyons, a candidate representing the Socialist Workers Party, announces a highly ambitious platform: organize a national revolution and install a new American government modeled after the one Cubans have enjoyed for decades under Fidel Castro. It was unclear what role, if any, Castro might play in the proposed government.

There is technology consultant James Wiley, 40, a plain-spoken, modest man dressed in a cowboy hat and Wrangler jeans. He's upfront with the crowd: "I know I'm not capable of running a front office."

Steve Mozena, a 40-year-old former morning radio talk-show host from Arizona, fires the first shot in an undeclared, but unremitting, war on the media. (On his Web site, http://www.mozena.com, the candidate who compares himself to the cartoon character "Underdog" proudly recounts sending local TV news directors raw chickens "to symbolize they're all super chickens" for their unfair news coverage of the mayor's race.) "Call the media and tell them there are more than six candidates. Everyone deserves a voice, don't you think?" asks Mozena.

One person responds, "Yes."

The candidates are then given two minutes to answer questions from moderator and LACC administrator Fred Piegonski. It quickly becomes clear that the candidates, though amateurs, have nearly all mastered the essential skill of the professional politician: Never directly answer a question. Rather, reroute the inquiry to a topic, preferably a self-serving one, as quickly as possible.

Candidate Dante Rusciolelli, whose business card identifies him as a "stand-up comic/actor/writer," is asked to talk about Proposition A, a bond measure on the April 10 ballot that would fund infrastructure improvements at community colleges. Rusciolelli, 30, doesn't seem terribly knowledgeable about Prop A but tells the home crowd their campus "is rundown."

"It's in a rundown neighborhood," he continues. "I'm still wondering if my car is going to be there when I get back." (It was.)

As Rusciolelli talks, a Mozena campaign worker quietly distributes lollipops--in honor of Valentine's Day. Within moments, much of the audience is sucking away at their candy.

Meanwhile, a kaleidoscope of views are offered. Mozena observes that the LAPD's image would improve if it adopted "less militaristic" uniforms. Lyons later counters that the LAPD is beyond reform since officers "serve and protect the ruling class," and reiterated the need for revolution.

Joe Smith, a 50-year-old businessman, stresses that he is a "humanitarian" who has never wanted "any pats on the back" or "merit awards" but has nevertheless received many of both.

Eric Wickland, 53, an urban planner, characterizes the city's mass transit system as one that does a superb job delivering "the people who use mass transit to all the places they don't need to go." (This remark provokes a relative avalanche of applause, meaning three or four people clap loudly.)

Joe Shea, 54, editor of the online daily newspaper the American Reporter, quotes Times columnist Al Martinez as saying "a statue should be built to Joe Shea." (Close. In a 1997 column, Martinez wrote: "They ought to build a statue to guys like Joe Shea . . ." for his role in fighting crime and cleaning up his Hollywood neighborhood.)

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