Crime is the focal point of L.A. mayoral contest ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

May 28, 1993|By JACK GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

LOS ANGLES — LOS ANGELES -- Hollywood and Vine isn't what it used to be. The star figures are still there, embedded in the sidewalk pavement bearing all the memorable movie names, from Miriam Hopkins and Gloria Swanson to Kirk Douglas and Ray Milland. But the glamour is missing.

In its place is a steady stream of panhandlers and other homeless derelicts often intimidating the few tourists braving the scene. The most famous corner in filmdom is Exhibit A of how much of the glitter of the heart of Hollywood has been rubbed out by the reality of street life in the Los Angeles of the 1990s.

That reality in turn has become a centerpiece in the officially nonpartisan campaign for mayor of Los Angeles between Democratic City Councilman Michael Woo, who has represented Hollywood since 1985, and Republican businessman Richard Riordan, who cites the famed Tinseltown as evidence of why Woo should not be elected June 8.

Although Los Angeles collectively breathed a sigh of relief after the second verdict in the Rodney King police brutality case, which generated no rioting, the city's racial and ethnic tenseness has remained.

The resignation of former police chief Daryl Gates, first called for among public officials by Woo, and Gates' replacement by overwhelmingly popular Willie Williams, Philadelphia's police chief, has distinctly improved the climate. But street crime continues to menace the city, and Riordan has made the issue -- and especially street crime in Hollywood -- the cornerstone of his campaign.

His most talked-about television commercial shows a woman walking nervously down an alleyway, holding tightly onto her purse as frightening statistics on the crime rate move across the bottom of the screen. The voice-over says:

"Twelve hundred women raped in Hollywood since 1985. Mike Woo voted 27 times against police officers and equipment. Under Mike Woo, murders in Hollywood are up 53 percent. Woo opposes the death penalty. Assaults doubled under Mike Woo's tenure. Councilman Woo allowed cuts in L.A.'s police force from 8,400 officers to only 7,600. Now, Mike Woo wants to be mayor. Is that what you want?"

The Riordan campaign also provides other Hollywood crime statistics: robberies and attempted robberies up 26 percent since 1985, stolen vehicles up nearly 20 percent and prostitution arrests up nearly 16 percent. All these figures add to the image of an eroding social fabric against a backdrop of peep shows, tattoo and sex paraphernalia shops just off Hollywood and Vine.

Woo says crime actually has dropped in Hollywood this year, but the attack on him on the issue that troubles the whole city not only has forced him onto the defensive on it but also has hindered his efforts to focus on Los Angeles' depressed economy as the culprit in the city's economic and social deterioration.

He tells audiences that as mayor he will lift Los Angeles' image and restore it as a major tourist attraction, not only at Hollywood and Vine but throughout the city. He says he will launch a local version of the "I Love New York" campaign that helped put that city back on its feet in the 1970s, and will finance it with a 1 percent hotel bed tax to be paid essentially by visitors.

But Woo acknowledges at the same time that crime in Los Angeles, and the bad publicity generated by the riots after the first Rodney King verdict, have hurt tourism.

Like Riordan, Woo pledges to put more police on the street, but he says Riordan's proposal to lease Los Angeles International Airport to private interests to get the necessary money isn't the answer, at least in the short term. Riordan insists it will work, and the idea has some appeal to voters sick of paying higher taxes.

With economic recovery still eluding Los Angeles and the rest of California, Woo is trying to make the same case for change that carried President Clinton to the White House, but as a longtime city official it is a hard sell for him.

An analysis of a private poll for the Democratic National Committee says Woo "must define the race in populist terms that shift the debate away from crime and personal safety, and onto economic, middle-class concerns." In a city where the threat of street crime continues to hang ominously over it, that task is easier said than done.

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