Presidential politics take back seat in Los Angeles ON POLITICS


May 19, 1992|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

LOS ANGELES -- Now that all four active presidential candidates -- Democrats Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown and Republicans George Bush and Patrick Buchanan -- have paid their mandatory visits to the sites of the Los Angeles riots, the question is: How will the tragedy affect the approaching June 2 California primary?

The answer, somewhat surprisingly, is probably not in any substantial way. The reason, on the Democratic side, is that there is little basic difference between Clinton and Brown on what the Democratic response should be: more federal aid to urban America, both short- and long-term. On the Republican side, there is a difference between Buchanan and President Bush, at least in tone, with Buchanan calling only for tough law enforcement and Bush tempering a similar call with support for more federal relief. But Buchanan poses no threat at all to Bush in the primary.

The former television and newspaper commentator has predicted that if he wins one-third of the Republican vote June 2, Bush will immediately take sterner measures to deal with the perpetrators of the looting. Buchanan's reaching that goal, however, is not considered likely.

By contrast, Brown as a former governor of California could cause Clinton trouble in the state, and in fact was leading him in a Los Angeles Times poll, by 51 percent to 37 percent until last week, when the California Poll by Mervin Field put Clinton ahead by 49 percent to 42 percent.

If the riots have had any impact at all on the primary, it has been to block the approaching election right out of public awareness. What is occupying the citizens of this city and state is whether the explosion after the Rodney King verdict has run its course, and whether the police performance since the riots will succeed in restoring peace or provide the fuel for further outbreaks.

The arrest of four young black men in the beating of Reginald Denny, the white truck driver pulled from his cab at the site of one of the first and worst riots, has brought threats that unless the black men, are acquitted -- as were the four white defendants in the King beating -- rioting will erupt again.

Here in Los Angeles, the issue on the ballot touching on the riots that is expected to get the most voter attention is a City Charter amendment to remove civil-service protection from the office of police chief and limit tenure to two five-year terms. A Los Angeles Times poll just out indicates voter support of 61 percent, to only 17 percent against.

Although what to do about the Los Angeles riots is not a bone of contention between Clinton and Brown, each has diligently worked the issue into his campaign rhetoric. Looking ahead to a fall campaign against Bush, Clinton has scored the president for a lack of leadership. Brown, for his part, has called on the Democratic leaders in Congress to stop making excuses and pass an urban agenda.

One place where the Los Angeles riots are having political impact is in the contest for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Alan Cranston, who is retiring. Candidates trailing in the polls have adopted tough law-and-order postures.

Democratic Rep. Mel Levine, a Los Angeles liberal running third behind Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy and Rep. Barbara Boxer in the California Poll just released, has begun airing a television ad here blaming the riots on "a failure of political leadership" and warning that "a democratic society can't tolerate mob rule."

In the Republican Senate primary, another television commentator, Bruce Herschensohn, has labeled the rioters "rotten" marauders and has taken issue with a post-riot police effort to round up firearms.

In March, Herschensohn led Rep. Tom Campbell by 28 percent to 25 percent in the California Poll. But in the latest survey, after the riots, Campbell -- taking a more moderate line in support of President Bush's urban program -- has nudged slightly ahead, 31 percent to 29 percent.

In the two weeks remaining until the primary voting, the voters may pay more attention to what the presidential and senatorial candidates are saying about the riots and other issues. But for now, the shock of the events in South Central Los Angeles, and nervousness that the violence may resume at any time, have reduced politics to an unwanted distraction for many Californians.

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