Tom Hayden's crusade: Sometimes, winning isn't everything


LOS ANGELES -- Before a government class at the Los Angeles Mission Community College the other night, state Sen. Tom Hayden was doing what he has been doing all his adolescent and adult life: organizing students for political action -- this time in his own behalf as a long-shot candidate for mayor of Los Angeles.

Now 57 years old and a veteran of 15 years in the California Legislature, Mr. Hayden is still selling grass-roots democracy, just as he did as a founder of the Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s, a civil-rights soldier and protester against the Vietnam war. On this night, he patiently talked 35 student volunteers through the basics of neighborhood organizing, which he himself learned in the streets of Newark, New Jersey, in the '60s.

Mr. Hayden's target this time is Republican Mayor Richard Riordan, a wealthy investment lawyer whose personal generosity to the city, coupled with an ambitious economic-development program, makes him a strong favorite for re-election on April 8. Mr. Hayden hammers at the mayor as an ''absentee'' who ignores the neighborhoods in this far-flung city in favor of downtown development by, Mr. Hayden argues, corporate friends.

Mr. Riordan replies with a sea of favorable statistics on Los Angeles' health since he was first elected four years ago: 20,000 new jobs created in the last year alone; unemployment at the lowest level in six years; film production -- the city's trademark industry -- at an all-time high; hotel occupancy up more than 15 percent; 31,000 new business licenses issued; major crime down 25 percent.

Mr. Hayden counters that business failings increased 11 percent last year, hitting small ethnic and racial entrepreneurs hardest. He insists that Mr. Riordan has been so remote that average people have ''only a vague idea of him as mayor.''

Mr. Hayden, whose own legislative work remains obscured in the public mind by his earlier role as a street fighter on issues of social justice, acknowledges that he must do better conveying his record as an environmentalist and reformer if he hopes to defeat the bland but popular Mayor Riordan.

While major crime has shrunk in the city, fear still stalks its streets. The latest prominent episode was a bloody shootout at a North Hollywood bank in which two men wielding AK-47 assault weapons were killed, but not before 11 police officers and six civilians were wounded.

How many cops?

Mr. Hayden says the mayor failed to deliver on a promise in his first campaign to put 3,000 more cops on the city streets. But he has added 2,000, bringing the force to a record high of 9,000, and a Los Angeles Times poll found that 48 percent said Mr. Riordan would be better at checking crime, to only 23 percent for Mr. Hayden.

While the mayor insists that his economic-development policies have attracted new business, Mr. Hayden contends that ''a few thousand people leave every time something happens'' like the recent bank shootout. A public debate over the effectiveness of Police Chief Willie Williams, facing the end of his five-year term and seeking reappointment, has shielded Mr. Riordan somewhat on the crime issue. Mayor Riordan has had differences with Chief RTC Williams but is officially neutral on whether he should go or stay.

Mr. Hayden's challenge is regarded by many as quixotic, but he insists that the ingredients are present for an upset. In a turnout of only 400,000, he says, his Democratic base should be good for 125,000 votes, meaning he needs to pick up only about 75,000 more to upset Mr. Riordan. Two other matters on the ballot, charter reform and school bonds, should draw liberal voters to the ballot box, he argues.

Bill Carrick, who is handling media advertising for Mayor Riordan, suggests that Mr. Hayden, who has lost races for the U.S. Senate and for governor, seems to look at candidacies as ''crusades'' to air his favorite liberal causes.

Before the college students the other night, Mr. Hayden said: ''I'm trying to do more than just win an election. I'm trying to change the [political] environment on issues.'' In that light, his challenge to a popular mayor he sees as a captive of business does not seem -- win or lose -- quite so quixotic.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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