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Mayoral Race: 2 Standouts

March 25, 2001

As the April 10 mayoral election approaches, the big field of candidates all but ensures a June runoff between the two top vote-getters. The presence of so many people in the race has promoted campaigning by opinion poll results--the candidates' positions on police, neighborhood councils, growth, blight and education issues are virtually indistinguishable. But based on leadership skills and experience, two candidates have emerged from a talented pack as those clearly best suited to lead Los Angeles: City Atty. James K. Hahn and former Speaker of the Assembly Antonio Villaraigosa.

Villaraigosa and Hahn stand out among the field, whose best-known aspirants also include Rep. Xavier Becerra, state Controller Kathleen Connell, businessman Steve Soboroff and City Councilman Joel Wachs. Becerra is an able representative and a strong advocate for his Eastside constituents. He has not distinguished himself from the others in this race. He has a bright future, but not as mayor, at least not now. Connell, the only woman in the race, has stressed her public finance background in urging greater fiscal responsibility for the city. But her understanding of the city and its neighborhoods is shallow. Wachs has long walked a thin line between political brilliance and opportunism. He has a quicksilver ability to zoom in on an issue, as he did when he raised questions about the building of Staples Center. He rightly challenged the secrecy of the early negotiations--while also exploiting San Fernando Valley resentment toward downtown. He talks about the problems of City Hall as if they had nothing to do with him, though he's been a councilman 30 years.

Soboroff wants to carry on the businessman-politician model of Mayor Richard Riordan at a time when it's not clear whether that's what the city wants or needs. While Soboroff has better people skills than Riordan, his vision of the job is still too narrow. A mayor is more than a problem solver. The next mayor should use Soboroff's focused project management skills on tough specific problems, like siting schools or figuring out how to tackle regional airport congestion.

Why are Hahn and Villaraigosa the superior candidates? Villaraigosa, 48, is the certain "charisma candidate," riding momentum with his endorsement from Gov. Gray Davis. The former Assembly speaker managed to mend fences with the governor after supporting a Davis rival and went on to work successfully with Davis and Republicans in Sacramento. Villaraigosa's Horatio Alger story of pulling himself up from poverty and bouncing back from bad choices is the kind of political tale that people find inspiring. He speaks with such energy about the greening of urban areas, about leading a city where all people focus on their commonalities and appreciate differences that just listening to him can be exhausting--or exhilarating. Villaraigosa has the highest potential to take up the unifying mantle of the late Tom Bradley, circa 1973-85, which is why he is now attracting support beyond his natural Latino base.

But there are judgment and political maturity questions that Villaraigosa must address. He calls such shortcomings leading with "my heart instead of my head," but critics call it a lack of character. One example, the Carlos Vignali presidential commutation controversy, in which Villaraigosa and others called for clemency for a big-time drug dealer, showed a stunning lack of forethought for an experienced politician.

As to political maturity: Villaraigosa has the strong support of unions. As mayor, would he be able to say no to them when necessary? Does he know the line between trying to forge coalitions and trying to please everybody all of the time?

James Hahn, who for years has suffered a lackluster reputation, in part due to comparisons with his legendary father, the late Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, has grown in his job as city attorney. Hahn, 50, has seemed driven in recent years by newfound ambition and by having to handle the mess of the Rampart police scandal. Hahn was a key player in making sure that the city agreed to the federal consent decree that sets forth outside oversight of the Los Angeles Police Department to keep a check on police abuse. He shuttled between the mayor and the police chief, who both strongly opposed the decree, and the City Council, which largely supported it. He's been willing to take tough measures on gang violence and sometimes take on the wrath of liberal political allies. Hahn wasn't always so aggressive, and critics say he looked the other way for too many years, ignoring problem police officers being sued by citizens.

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