Los Angeles, the city of perpetual ambivalence, is questioning itself again. The home of Spanglish rap and Italian-Thai restaurants and more than 100 languages and dialects is wondering whether its "multicultural" self is still viable.
The alternative is, of course, nationalism, and there are plenty of examples of that, too, from black vs. Latino race riots on inner-city high school campuses to increasing numbers of suburban hate crimes. There's also talk of dividing the Los Angeles School District -- this move being led by residents in the mostly white San Fernando Valley who wish to distance themselves from a black and Latino inner-city.
Less than a year after the uprising of last spring, Los Angeles is once again perched on a precipice. The federal trial of the white officers acquitted in the Rodney King beating is under way, and the state trial of the black defendants in the assault on white truck driver Reginald Denny follows shortly.
In the midst of these turbulent trials, Angelinos will also head to the polls to determine their next mayor. Mayor Tom Bradley, one of the best-known African American mayors in the country, is stepping down after two decades in office. He was elected in 1973 by a cross-town coalition of blacks in South-Central and Jews on the Westside -- a grand multicultural experiment which worked until it became apparent that the Westside and downtown had prospered under Mayor Bradley much more than South-Central.
The initial filing for the mayor's race drew an astounding 52 candidates. The running joke in this city is that all 52 should be elected and allowed to run the city for one week each year. That way, no one could harm the city too badly.
In reality, the election has come down to a battle between two factions -- the multiculturalists who say they would "heal" the city, and the nationalists who represent the Not-in-My-Backyard middle class. The multiculturalists compete for what's left of Tom Bradley's tattered coalition and are mindful of the rapidly growing ranks of Latino and Asian voters. Neither can the multiculturalists write off the conservative-leaning (and still predominantly white) Valley, which produced 36 percent of the city's vote in the last municipal election came.
In the multicultural camp are Councilman Mike Woo, who more than any other candidate claims Mr. Bradley's old base; Assemblyman Richard Katz, whose natural base is in the Valley but whose center-left record gives him a base in the labor and Jewish communities; and Nick Patsaouras, the favorite of urban planners, who plays up his immigrant roots, his fluency in Spanish and the fact that his wife is Mexican. Stan Sanders, an African-American attorney, made a symbolic pitch for a black-Latino coalition by kicking off his shoe-leather campaign at the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts with a bilingual speech.
The nationalists, on the other hand, are concentrating on their own backyards, and they come in all colors.
The neo-nationalist in the field is former Deputy Mayor Tom Houston, whose anti-immigrant rhetoric is a particularly strong draw in the white suburban Valley. Councilman Joel Wachs shuttles between his white Valley base and his liberal admirers among the arts crowd city-wide. Multimillionaire Richard Riordan may run strong in the Valley, although he's looking for ways to cash in political chips from his long-standing patronage of inner-city projects. There are Latino nationalists more rabid than Julian Nava, but Mr. Nava, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, justifies his campaign by pointing out that Latinos constitute the largest single ethnic group in Los Angeles. South-Central Councilman Nate Holden hopes his black South-Central base will come through, although his conservative stands might get him votes in the Valley.
If L.A. tried out the one-mayor-a-week idea, we'd have nationalist Mayor Nava allowing non-citizen immigrants to vote in school board elections one week, and nationalist Mayor Houston deporting all the members of the "Mara Salvatrucha" Salvadoran street gang the next.
Nationalist Mayor Nate Holden could split the Los Angeles Unified School District in two -- making the Valley the second-largest district in California -- and then nationalist Mayor Wachs or Riordan or Nava could break up those two districts into a dozen smaller ones.
Multiculturalist Mayor Woo could follow by reuniting the LAUSD and fund his urban peace corps. Multiculturalist Mayor Katz could sign on some entrepreneurial and entertainment talent for his 1994 World Cup of Soccer We-Are-The-World art fair scheme. Multiculturalist Mayor Patsaouras would propose a series of greenbelts and transportation hubs to unite our disparate neighborhoods.
But all of them -- Mayors Katz, Patsaouras, Woo, Houston, Wachs, Riordan, Nava and Holden -- would beef up the ranks of the LAPD. For if there's one thing that brings Angelinos together, it's their fear of crime.