L.A. voters to decide Tuesday on city's direction after 20 years of Bradley

June 06, 1993|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- For the first time in 20 years, the nation's second-largest city picks a new mayor Tuesday. Voters will decide whether City Councilman Michael Woo will continue the long Democratic rule of retiring Mayor Tom Bradley or businessman Richard Riordan will become the first Republican elected to run City Hall in 40 years.

Either way, the election will end a political dynasty under Los Angeles' first black mayor that was launched in 1973 with high hopes of new racial and ethnic harmony and is concluding amid deep divisions and grave fears about tensions to come.

The retirement of Mr. Bradley, who built an early reputation as the calm soother of a booming and boisterous multiethnic metropolis, and the election of a successor come as the city is still recovering from the racially divisive Rodney King case of police brutality. At the same time, it is coping with lingering economic depression, sharp defense cutbacks and escalating street crime.

Mr. Riordan, the plurality winner of the city's nonpartisan primary, and Mr. Woo, the runner-up, are in a runoff June 8 that offers to produce change in Los Angeles' political direction, no matter who wins.

Although Mr. Woo is a Democrat who has served eight years under Mr. Bradley's leadership, he is not the retiring mayor's hand-picked heir apparent and is selling himself as an agent of change. Inadvertently helping him make that case is the fact that Mr. Bradley has declined to endorse him -- or Mr. Riordan, for that matter.

Mr. Riordan, endorsed by former President Ronald Reagan but with considerable Democratic support and two 1992 Bill Clinton operatives running his campaign, pitches himself as a fresh face who is, as his campaign posters proclaim, "Tough Enough to Turn L.A. Around."

Mr. Woo has tried to focus, like Mr. Clinton, on economic revitalization, but Mr. Riordan has sought to keep him on the defensive on the crime issue, calling attention to the physical and social deterioration of the Hollywood district, a now-tarnished tourist attraction represented by Mr. Woo.

Often when a longtime, big-city dynasty ends, the reigning mayor has a prince ready to take over. But, says Deputy Mayor Mark Fabiani, Mr. Bradley for 20 years "was like a huge tree, and nothing ever grew in his shadow." The result was a 24-candidate nonpartisan primary in which nobody won a majority, requiring the runoff.

Promising change

While both survivors -- Mr. Riordan, 62, and Mr. Woo, at 41 seeking to be the city's first Asian-American mayor -- are promising change, their campaigns have been no change at all in the pattern of negative slashing that has come to dominate big-time U.S. politics. Their TV attack commercials -- Mr. Riordan's suggesting that Mr. Woo is soft on crime, Mr. Woo's implying that Mr. Riordan is allied to right-wing, religious extremists -- have put the campaign on the low road and have largely kept it there.

Two dominant issues that plague most other big cities -- economic sluggishness and street crime -- have marred Los Angeles' earlier image as the city of the future in the state known for setting trends.

Mr. Riordan says Los Angeles today is "a war zone, and business doesn't want to come into a war zone; tourists don't want to come into a war zone." Mr. Woo agrees and pledges to restore the city's image with a version of the "I Love New York" campaign that helped bail out that troubled city. But more police presence is what voters want, and each candidate says he will put more officers on the street if elected.

Mr. Riordan is no right-wing ideologue, but his ideas about privatizing government -- he wants to lease Los Angeles International Airport to pay for more police on the beat -- smack of Reaganism. And while Mr. Woo offers himself as a Clinton-style agent of change, he is easy prey to Mr. Riordan's charge that he is the candidate of the status quo, although he has had his differences with Mr. Bradley.

Mr. Riordan, sustained by the city's limited Republican base against a field largely of Democrats and by a personal campaign bankroll of $6 million, won the primary on a strong anti-crime platform.

His Democratic opponent has struggled uphill to get off the crime issue and onto the economy, but voters' fears about their safety and about smoldering racial and ethnic hostilities keep crime on the campaign's front burner.

Negative TV war

The negative television war has featured a Riordan ad graphically depicting fears of street crime in Hollywood and a Woo ad alleging that television evangelist Marion G. "Pat" Robertson and his Christian Coalition are actively supporting Mr. Riordan, which both Mr. Riordan and the religious-right group deny.

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