Roster of big names spices up Los Angeles mayoral race

Term-limited state politicians and presidential campaign consultants are bringing high-level intensity to a city race.

You might expect the race for mayor in the country's second-largest city to have "big" written all over it: big city, big names, big money, big stakes.

But in the entertainment capital of the world, where political stories are tucked in right after beached whales or rescued pets on the nightly news, it has not yet reached the conventional threshold of "big deal."

Call it presidential voter fatigue or a city just happy to have achieved some equilibrium after a decade of social and political tumult - or maybe it's just little interest in an unflashy mayor. But perhaps more simply the residents of the nation's second-largest city just don't seem to be paying attention to its mayoral race.

And that ho-hum response might just be what incumbent James Hahn needs in order to survive what's turning out to be one of the fiercest local political battles in state history.

Four high-profile challengers are aiming to unseat him with the help of national political consultants fresh off presidential campaigns, bringing an intensity to an otherwise run-of-the-mill race. Accusations of corruption are now overshadowing a slate of key issues ranging from multilingual schools, immigration, traffic, pollution and crime - all increasingly important issues across the nation's cities.

But as it was in the US presidential race, the focus here is the record - in deeds and leadership style - of the incumbent.

"Corruption, or at least perceived corruption, is the key issue Hahn is dealing with and the others are throwing at him," says Allan Hoffenbloom, a Republican analyst. "If he clears that hurdle, the issue will be whether or not voters want to keep a guy who is perceived as nuts-and-bolts competent, but rather bland, or if they want to go with dynamic new leadership."

First came alleged contracting irregularities at City Hall - concerning the city's airports, harbor, water, and power departments. Next, investigations of "pay to play" contracts by companies making political contributions to Mr. Hahn in order to win city business.

The tumult, some say, may be keeping voters from focusing on key issues. And that is significant in a city that has long set the pace nationally for dealing with emerging local challenges in everything from immigration to pollution.

"It's unclear whether residents in Los Angeles and those across America are investing much interest in who gets to be mayor here, but they should," says Elizabeth Garrett a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "The challenges and promise of what happens here are ongoing harbingers of the coming waves for all of urban America."

Given Hahn's travails, the unified chorus of corruption charges is likely to take a toll on him, even if he survives.

Candidate Bernard Parks is the black police chief that Hahn fired after the Los Angeles Police Department's decade of police misconduct. Analysts say Mr. Parks is cutting into Hahn's key support among blacks, a holdover of support given to Hahn's father, who represented largely minority districts for four decades on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

Two other candidates are former speakers of the California Assembly. One is Bob Hertzberg - who is draining Hahn's support among white middle-class voters - and the other is Antonio Villaraigosa, who narrowly lost to Hahn in the mayoral runoff of 2001. Mr. Villaraigosa and the final candidate, former state Sen. Richard Alarcon, are both expected to draw Latino support away from Hahn.

"This is an amazing array of really impressive, articulate guys," says Bob Stern, director of the Center for Governmental Studies. "They are all are very dynamic, proven leaders who have shown they can attract money and voters."

The presence of Villaraigosa and Hertzberg also highlights a growing trend of politicians ousted by term limits who are looking to further their political careers. And that movement could make it harder for low-profile mayors like Hahn to win reelection.

"This is the impact of [California's] term limits come full circle," says Hahn's campaign chairman, Bill Carrick, a longtime political campaign veteran. "Now every time there is a local election in this state, you have a bunch of big-time politicians looking for their next gig."

He and other political analysts say the conventional wisdom is that Hahn can eke out a victory if he can steer clear of the corruption charges - and get voters to focus on his accomplishments. Many feel the corruption charges are unlikely to reach all the way to Hahn, even if proven true. Even those who don't particularly like Hahn say he is generally agreeable to voters.

"Voters in this city just don't think that a guy like Hahn living in a tract house in San Pedro is corrupt," says Mr. Carrick.

Another theory is that the field of strong candidates will cancel each other out by dividing votes and in leaving the impression of overstating the corruption charges to gang up on Hahn. "Incumbents tend to win in these kinds of situations," says Ms. Garrett. "Hahn has never lost a citywide vote."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.