LOS ANGELES — The colorless patrician vs. the charming gadfly.
That's how press and pundits are characterizing the April 7 Los Angeles mayoral race between the Republican incumbent, Richard Riordan, and the Democratic challenger, state Sen. Tom Hayden. Both Irish, rich, and residents of the same upscale ZIP code, the duo clash on everything else from personal and government style to education and the environment.
Nationally, observers are looking at the race as a report card on reinvented city government. In 1993, Mr. Riordan was part of a freshman class of American mayors who swept into office by promising to push cities in new directions. Those promises included streamlined city services, privatization, increased public safety, and improved local economies.
With crime down, employment high, and the city on surer economic footing, Riordan has delivered on some of his promises, while benefiting from a statewide recovery not of his making. "Riordan is a less-known and paler success story in the same mold as [New York Mayor] Giuliani," says William Schneider, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "That is to say, he has pushed crime down and raised business up, though he has not been able to monopolize the credit in the media the way Giuliani has."
While Riordan enjoys a commanding 2-to-1 lead, observers are welcoming the weak match up because they say it will force Riordan to defend his policies.
"This is going to be a very healthy exercise for the city and for Riordan because he is going to have to be visible and articulate about where he wants to go and defend where he's already been," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School. "Hayden will be able to hold [Riordan's] feet to the fire."
Hayden has come a long way politically since his days as a 1960s radical. He was a member of the Chicago Seven - which demonstrated outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention - and former husband of activist Jane Fonda. He represented southern California in the state assembly for 14 years before he was elected to the state senate in 1992 on a platform of "reforming the special-interest state."
The Sacramento Bee has called Hayden "the conscience of the [state] Senate," and the Los Angeles Times has said he is a "liberal rebel." In his mayoral bid, he wants to empower neighborhoods, create jobs for inner-city youths, and bring together two sides of Los Angeles that are divided by race and class.
"I am running for mayor because Richard Riordan wants to make Los Angeles the biggest city in America, and I want it to be the most livable one," he says. "Two cities, one that is overdeveloped and congested, the other that is underdeveloped and poor, cannot coexist harmoniously forever under the complacent control of an establishment in denial."
Partly because Hayden still carries political baggage as a '60s radical, few observers say he can win. Many even feel the candidacy is a relatively inexpensive ploy to keep his name in the public eye for future political prizes, such as a possible congressional run.
Still, he is articulate (the author of eight books), and politically savvy, offering voters a slick alternative to the dour image of Riordan, who even supporters admit is dishwater dull.
"Tom Hayden has the capability, the political savvy, the cunning and the sheer chutzpah to take the challenge right to Riordan," says Larry Remer, director of The Primacy Group, a San Diego-based political consulting firm. "Hayden's candidacy is more than just a media event. It's a serious undertaking."
But observers say despite Hayden's appeal in some camps - mostly among poorer and African-American voters - Riordan has established a near-invincible political support in most areas of the city. His war chest is already a reported $3 million, well over 10 times even the most optimistic estimates of Hayden's. And if need be, Riordan can tap into his own millions.
"Riordan has done his political spadework and gotten himself the right kind of political exposure to be nicely centered," says Alan Heslop, director of the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College. "He said he would manage the city better, and he has done that ... even though it's nothing you could put up in lights."
Those accomplishments, observers say, include creating a business team that streamlined one of the most convoluted permitting processes in the nation. He created an award-winning, minority-business committee, securing nearly $2 billion in contracts. He has also reversed the exit of film, TV, and commercial production.
His weaknesses include a lack of follow-through on promises to privatize key city services, an unfulfilled pledge to put 3,000 more police on the streets, and board membership on an embattled transit authority.