LOS Angeles voters have the best chance in more than two decades to change the direction of their city tomorrow.
With Mayor Tom Bradley stepping down after 20 years in office, voters will go the polls tomorrow to decide among a field of 24 mayoral candidates. L.A. residents also will vote on several ballot measures - one of which would put more police officers on the street - as well as races for the City Council and important education posts.
Assuming that no candidate gets a majority of the vote tomorrow, the mayor's race will be decided in a June 8 runoff between the top two finishers. There has been relatively little interest in the election recently because all eyes in Los Angeles have focused on the Rodney King trial, so the top candidates have been frozen in the same pecking order for several weeks.
Most opinion polls show that the top two vote-getters will be Richard Riordan, a rich Republican businessman, and Michael Woo, a Chinese immigrant who currently sits on the City Council.
The two candidates offer a clear contrast. Mr. Riordan, a 62-year-old Princeton graduate who fought in the Korean War, is considered the candidate of the city's white, old-line ruling establishment. Mr. Woo is seen as the candidate of younger people, minorities, and poorer voters.
"With this election knocked off the radar screen by the King verdicts, no one else has been able to break through," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School.
Another candidate, former Deputy Mayor Linda Griego, made a late surge with successful television advertisements portraying her as an outsider and stressing the fact that she is the only woman among the top contenders. But even her own polls show her barely over 10 percent.
Ms. Griego's campaign chairman, Roy Behr, says his candidate's momentum was thwarted by the last-minute eclipse of voter interest in the campaign. But he says a spate of commercials by several candidates attacking the front-runners could put Griego in the winner's circle.
"This is still very fluid," Mr. Behr says. "It's the classic scenario where the third-place candidate sneaks in while the top two are getting beat up and beating each other up."
`THE whole mayoral race has been a mess," notes Larry Berg, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.
He says attempts by political and business groups to hold candidate forums have been poorly attended.
At one recent forum, for instance, candidates and staff outnumbered attendees 2 to 1. "With so many candidates on the podium and so many issues, each only gets to talk a couple minutes. It's worthless," Mr. Berg says.
Behind Griego in the polls are state Assemblyman Richard Katz and City Councilman Joel Wachs, with 7 percent each. Both have kept their names before the public primarily with 11th-hour TV campaigns.
A key ballot initiative to watch among tomorrow's other votes will be Proposition 1, which asks voters to raise property taxes to hire 1,000 additional uniformed officers.
Polls show 70 percent of city voters back the measure, but a similar initiative failed in November when only 60 percent voted for it. The state constitution requires two-thirds approval.
"Everyone knows Los Angeles doesn't have enough police," says Wendy Griegan, a resident of South Central L.A. "But the economy is so bad, not quite enough [people] are willing to put their money where their mouth is."
Political pundits are also watching two different propositions on term limits for city officials. Proposition 2 would set a limit of two terms for mayor, city attorney, controller, and City Council members elected this year. Proposition 4 would have the same effect but would allow incumbents not up for reelection this year - which means half the City Council - to serve one more term.
In a surprising about-face, the Los Angeles Times - which in the past has opposed term limits - has come out in favor of Proposition 2.
"Term limits will pass in some form," Berg predicts. "After so many years of the same old thing here, it's become clear the voters are in the mood to clean out City Hall."