BEHIND-THE-SCENES jockeying has begun in earnest for the most significant changing of the guard this city has seen in a quarter-century.
Since the October announcement by Mayor Tom Bradley that he will not seek an unprecedented sixth term, no fewer than 24 names have been tossed around as candidates for the office. Nineteen have declared they are raising money.
By many accounts, the most serious candidates at this point are Michael Woo, a seven-year city councilman and the first Asian-American to serve on that body; state Assemblyman Richard Katz (D) of Los Angeles, a leader on transportation issues; and attorney Richard Riordan, L.A.'s wealthy former recreation and parks commissioner.
The candidates who meet the Jan. 25 filing deadline will face off in a nonpartisan primary on April 20. The top two finishers will then meet in a June 8 election.
"We have a new generation of candidates vying to lead a city that has reversed itself in ethnic makeup," says Larry Berg, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. He notes that whites made up 65 to 70 percent of the city in 1972, when Mayor Bradley took office, but have since dwindled to 30 to 35 percent.
"The mayor's race is the most important decision this city has to make for a new, very unsure era," Professor Berg asserts.
The new mayor will take the helm of the nation's second-largest city roughly one year after the worst civil disturbances in modern United States history. Recovering from the riots, and dealing with the fallout from several related trials that are still pending, will probably top the next mayor's agenda.
The increasing balkanization of the city is another pressing issue. Whites, Koreans, Chinese, blacks, and Hispanics are separating into neighborhoods divided along ethnic lines. The city's broader divisions into rich versus poor - symbolized by the differences between Bel-Air and South Central Los Angeles - were underlined by the 1992 riots.
Bradley had built a base of Jewish and black voters. But after two decades of coalition politics, many are wondering whether it's time for a new style of leadership.
"Is it time to search for another person who can unite these further diversifying communities or a broker who can deal with them without fantasizing that they can be brought together?" asks Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School.
Fiscal concerns will also challenge Bradley's successor. The city government is running a $155 million deficit. As a result, welfare programs are being being cut and the L.A. school district teeters on the brink of bankruptcy. At the same time, residents have been pressing the new police chief, Willie Williams, to put thousands more officers on the streets.
Yet the word "tax" is anathema to politicians who are trying to reverse the well-publicized tide of businesses exiting the state.
"I have not heard a single candidate address how they are going to pay for new ideas," Professor Jeffe says. "We are left with the intangible of intangibles.... What are the qualities of leadership and who has them?"
The distinguishing feature of the race so far is that no candidate has been able to separate himself from the pack, in part because two of the highest-profile possible contenders - Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina and City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky - have taken themselves out of the running.
Of the 19 people who have declared they will collect funds to campaign, nine have held posts in city or county government and 10 are virtually unknown. The sheer number of entries will have an important effect on strategies, experts say, since a candidate garnering only 20 percent of the electorate may make it into the runoff.
"The problem for candidates will be how to define themselves narrowly enough to win the primary runoff, without damaging their more general appeal in the general election," Berg says.
Messrs. Woo, Katz, and Riordan are said to lead the pack because all three have broad-based constituencies, a demonstrated ability to raise money, and appeal on a wide range of issues.
High-cost consultants are behind at least two of their campaigns. James Carville, widely credited with masterminding President-elect Clinton's campaign, has been retained by Katz. Robert Squier, a veteran consultant who ran Texas Gov. Ann Richards's 1990 campaign, has been hired by Woo.
"You don't bring in high-paid gunslingers like Squier and Carville without getting a race with candidates going for the jugular," Berg says.
Woo is a liberal who says government can intervene effectively in the local economy. He stresses the need for the city to back loans to minority businesses, to help find jobs for high school students, and to create an "urban peace corps" to harness the idealism of college-age youths.
Riordan is a fiscal conservative and longtime critic of government red tape. He contends that the economy will not revive until the city is a safer and more hospitable place to do business.
Katz says he will try to present himself as someone with no ties to the city political machinery. "Voters will be looking for someone who thinks like they do, has the same frustrations they do, and has a track record but is not part of the problem downtown," he says.