Shift in urban politics seen in L.A. Democrats' hold may be loosening

June 11, 1993|By Scott Armstrong | Scott Armstrong,Christian Science Monitor

LOS ANGELES -- The election of the first Republican mayor of Los Angeles in 36 years may portend a shift in urban U.S. politics.

While the victory of millionaire businessman Richard Riordan was driven more by personal preferences than party affiliation or ideology, it nevertheless shows a penchant for change among voters in an era of urban fiscal and social disrepair.

With Democrats at the helm of so many big cities, the frustrations could bring shifts in direction and new faces.

"This was a referendum on the decline of the city," says William Schneider, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"What Riordan did was successfully portray [City Councilman] Michael Woo as the incumbent. . . . This was not a move to the right, but dissatisfaction with the status quo. Democrats are linked to the status quo in most cities."

In the city's first open election in 64 years, voters rejected the heir apparent to outgoing Mayor Tom Bradley's coalition of blacks, Latinos and Jews. Mr. Woo, a liberal Democrat, had portrayed himself as the one best able to unify the city's multi-ethnic melange.

Instead, the voters opted for a conservative who stressed the themes of fighting crime and rebuilding the economy. Though aided by $6 million of his own money, Mr. Riordan was viewed by voters as the lesser of two evils. Those who supported him cited his financial acumen.

He won with a coalition of suburban San Fernando Valley Republicans and Democratic centrists that represent a new majority in the city.

It is these kinds of groups and issues that Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani is expected to tap in his likely challenge of New York Mayor David N. Dinkins, a Democrat, later this year. If Mr. Giuliani were to triumph, three of the nation's most liberal bastions -- New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco -- would be ruled either by Republicans or a conservative Democrat (Frank Jordan in San Francisco).

"So much of the liberal agenda for the last 20 years was an entitlement ethic," says Steven Erie, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego. "You can't do that anymore."

Mr. Riordan's victory hasn't gone unnoticed in Washington. Though President Clinton's late endorsement of Mr. Woo was tepid and though neither the president nor his policies were an issue in the nonpartisan race, the councilman's loss means there won't be a Democrat reining in the largest city in a state that would be crucial to Mr. Clinton in 1996.

Mr. Riordan's top challenge will be the city's fiscal crisis. Los Angeles faces as much as a $500 million deficit. Overcoming parsimony in the state capital, Sacramento, will be critical in limiting the red ink.

Perhaps his most sensitive task will be uniting what may be the most ethnically diverse city in the world. He promises an administration of every political affiliation, race, creed and color.

"He is going to have to be patient and build coalitions," says Mike Hernandez, a councilman who supported Mr. Woo.

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