Fear of crime in L.A. helped Riordan win ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

June 10, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Republican Richard Riordan's election a Los Angeles' first new mayor in 20 years reflects more the fear of street crime and its negative impact on the city's image and growth than positive enthusiasm for a new, fresh face in City Hall.

Riordan campaigned against Democratic City Councilman Michael Woo, seeking to become Los Angeles' first Asian-American mayor, essentially on the issue of crime in Woo's home district of Hollywood and in the city as a whole, and against the backdrop of the trials in the Rodney King beating.

Exit polls by the Los Angeles Times of 3,402 voters at 50 polling places found that while the issue of jobs and the economy was highest on the list of voters' concerns, only slightly more Riordan voters cited it as a reason for how they voted than did Woo voters. But 46 percent of Riordan voters listed crime and gang problems, to only 29 percent of Woo voters who said they were motivated by those concerns. Riordan's television advertising hammered at crime in Hollywood, reporting in one ad: "Twelve hundred women raped in Hollywood since 1985. . . . Murders in Hollywood are up 53 percent. . . Assaults doubled under Mike Woo's tenure. . . ."

The exit polls found that Woo's record as a Hollywood councilman was the single strongest reason that 49 percent of Riordan voters gave for how they voted. Woo sought to counter this onslaught by reminding voters that he was the first L.A. elected official to call for the resignation of Daryl Gates, the police chief at the time of the Rodney King beating. Although the exit polls indicated that one-third of Woo voters cited this reason, it clearly was not enough to make Woo a winner.

Fear of street crime was a particular problem for Woo in the Westside Jewish community in which the Democrat needed a large turnout of support to overcome inroads that Riordan had made in that community in the 24-candidate non-partisan mayoral primary, in which Riordan ran first with a plurality and Woo was second, requiring Tuesday's runoff. Instead, turnout was low in spite of Woo's determined efforts to get out the vote. Those efforts were somewhat frustrated when a court banned a $200,000 turnout campaign planned by the state Democratic Party, on grounds it was illegal in an officially nonpartisan election.

The election of a new mayor after two decades of retiring Democrat Tom Bradley might have been expected to bring out an enthusiastic electorate. But the heavily negative tone of the campaign on both sides obviously turned off many voters. The exit polls found that 51 percent of Riordan voters chose him as "the lesser of two evils," as did 60 percent of Woo voters.

Bradley himself endorsed neither candidate, but Woo as a fellow Democrat sought to hold onto the white liberal-minority voter coalition that had kept Bradley in office so long as a conciliator between the city's racial and ethnic constituencies. Instead, Riordan made inroads into the white vote while retaining the bulk of the city's Republican and conservative vote centered in the San Fernando Valley.

Riordan's campaign slogan, "Tough Enough to Turn L.A. Around," obviously struck a chord with white voters still concerned about neighborhood safety even after the second Rodney King trial, whose split verdict avoided the riots that followed the first trial's sweeping acquittals.

"Crime is really redefining traditional Democratic politics" in the city, says Deputy Mayor Mark Fabiani. "People no longer think that Democrats have the answers to crime in the inner city," he says, and Riordan capitalized on such doubts.

Riordan will become the city's first Republican mayor in 30 years, but he takes office with considerable Democratic ties. President Clinton, in endorsing Woo, pointedly observed that he had nothing against Riordan and could work with him if Woo lost to him.

But Riordan's challenges have less to do with good relations with the White House than with repairing the image of L.A. itself in the face of the racial and ethnic tensions of Bradley's last years, and the diminishing willingness of business to use the city as a base. In the end, Riordan's success in projecting himself as the tougher of the two candidates won the day, and holds the key to his fortunes in City Hall.

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