With a month of intense campaigning left in the runoff for Los Angeles' 13th District council seat, incumbent Peggy Stevenson is working to win over affluent homeowners in the Hollywood Hills to stave off challenger Michael Woo.
Stevenson's campaign manager, Allan Hoffenblum, said the outcome in the hillside communities--where Woo ran strongly during the April primary--could prove critical in what both camps expect to be a close election on June 4.
Although Stevenson led Woo and four other challengers in the 13th District primary, amassing 42% of the total vote to Woo's 35%, Woo surpassed her in the Hollywood Hills precincts and did well enough throughout the district to reach the runoff.
Reapportionment in the council district hurt Stevenson during the primary, Hoffenblum said, by bringing in hillside voters who were unfamiliar with her record. But Stevenson aides contend that hillside homeowners can be swayed during the next month.
"The hills are new territory and people there haven't got to know her yet," Hoffenblum said. "Her opponent did a good job of beating up on her in the primary, but he's the only one running against her this time. We think his support is soft."
According to a precinct-by-precinct analysis of the Hollywood Hills primary vote, Woo won that area with 35% to Stevenson's 29%. Arland (Buzz) Johnson, a Republican candidate who appealed to conservative, anti-Stevenson homeowners, took 18% of the hillside votes in the primary.
With Woo her only challenger, aides said, Stevenson can win the hills by attracting a majority of former Johnson supporters and persuading some of Woo's primary backers to switch sides.
"The areas she seemed to have the most trouble with are the ones with the yuppie vote--the singles who seem to be very concerned about environmental issues," Hoffenblum said. "I think they have a misperception about her record and we've got to straighten that out."
In the last two weeks, Stevenson has introduced legislation expected to have favorable political impact in the hills. A little more than a week ago, Stevenson led a fight to protect the Highland-Camrose Bungalow Village from apartment developers by persuading the City Council to give the area's 15 hillside homes historic-landmark status.
And last Tuesday, Stevenson introduced a motion that would enact a 360-day moratorium on development in the Cahuenga corridor, a section of the Hollywood Hills where homeowners have been battling high-rise apartment projects for the past three years.
'Window of Opportunity'
Dan Wooldridge, Stevenson's deputy press aide, said the councilwoman introduced the moratorium bill because "the council's vote on the Highland-Camrose bungalows gave us a window of opportunity. It was an indication that the council would be receptive to a moratorium."
The bill, which would protect the well-organized homeowners in the Whitley Heights area from apartment projects that have been going up along Franklin Avenue in Hollywood, cleared the council's Planning and Environment Committee last week and will be reviewed by the city Planning Commission.
Brian Moore, president of the Whitley Heights Homeowner's Assn., hailed the moratorium proposal, saying it was "long overdue. We're glad she finally woke up to our concerns."
Moore said that in Whitley Heights and surrounding neighborhoods, voters have been leaning toward "a change in (council) leadership," but added that Stevenson's moves may be regaining her support in the hills. "She's been doing a great deal to change that attitude," Moorse said. "She certainly seems to be doing everything she can."
Woo, while saying he supported Stevenson's moratorium proposal, criticized her political timing and questioned whether she would continue to support the bill after the June 4 election.
"She's trying to alleviate the heat on her," Woo said. "This situation didn't spring up overnight. Why didn't she come up with this idea a year ago?"
Woo also pointed to a similar moratorium in Silver Lake that Stevenson helped pass five months ago, saying that once the moratorium was in place, Stevenson tried to undermine it by supporting two apartment projects planned there.
"They would have gone through if the Silver Lake community hadn't rebelled against her," Woo said. "Then she did a flip-flop and claimed she had been against the projects all along. If she can't be trusted in Silver Lake, how can she be trusted in the hills?"
"That's ridiculous," Wooldridge responded. "Of course that's what he would say."
Even without the legislation, Stevenson's campaign aides expect to devote more attention to the hills than any other section of the council district. "We'll probably spend a little more time and campaign resources in that area," Hoffenblum said. "We think we'll do well, especially with the Republicans there."
That effort may have been helped Thursday when Johnson decided not to support either candidate during the election. Johnson, who criticized Stevenson repeatedly during the primary campaign for what he called a "lack of leadership," said he was not making an endorsement because many of his followers had already made up their minds.
"I would say 40% are going to vote for Mike Woo because they don't like Peggy Stevenson and another 40% are going to vote for Stevenson because they don't like Woo," he said. "Another 20% don't know what they're going to do or they're not going to vote at all. Even if I did throw my support, there are only a few votes I could swing over."
The voters that Stevenson aides hope to court are Republicans, who Hoffenblum estimates make up at least 30% of the hillside bloc. "My belief is that when Republicans look at the facts they will support Peggy Stevenson," he said.
Some political observers believe Stevenson's selection of Hoffenblum as campaign manager may have been a nod to Republican voters. After Stevenson failed to reach 50% of the primary vote and was forced into a runoff with Woo, she fired political consultants Jill Barad and Larry Levine and replaced them with Hoffenblum, a former California Republican Party political director.
"You have a lot of Republicans in the hills who may not like Peggy, but who would be susceptible to Hoffenblum's kind of appeal," said Parke Skelton, former campaign manager for Michael Linfield, a teacher and community activist who won 13% of the council district vote during the primary.
In the primary, Woo's greatest strength appeared to come in Silver Lake and Echo Park, areas where Linfield had hoped to draw off some of Woo's liberal support. Hoffenblum said Stevenson does not expect to gain much in those areas.
"We're not giving up on any territory but the Silver Lake area, where Woo seems to be strongest right now," Hoffenblum said.
Woo said he expects Stevenson to pursue Johnson supporters in the Hollywood Hills, but maintained that he can beat Stevenson if he attracts all of Linfield's backers and at least half of Johnson's.
"I need to continue to do well in the hills and expand on that base," he said. "We also have to take our case to the Hollywood flatlands and convince senior citizens that it's time for a change."
In the primary, Stevenson held her own in the western hills, where she lives and has always done well, and in Los Feliz, a portion of the hills that--like the Hollywood Hills--was reapportioned into the district.
Her largest base of support, however, came in the central Hollywood flatlands, where senior citizens still fondly remember her husband, Councilman Robert Stevenson, whom she replaced after his death in 1975.
"A lot of the old folks here still have good will toward her," said Bart Bartkowiak, president of the DeLongpre Park Assn. and a Stevenson supporter. "A lot of seniors remember Bob Stevenson and stick with Peggy."
But Woo aides said he made some inroads into Stevenson territory during the primary. In several precincts on the western side of the Hollywood flatlands, Woo and Stevenson ran neck and neck, with Linfield cutting into Stevenson's vote totals by doing well with Jewish voters.
Skelton said Woo could court Linfield's Jewish supporters in the flatlands only if he stresses issues that Linfield supported, especially rent control. "He has to generate enthusiasm there," Skelton said.
Woo, who was endorsed by Linfield after the primary, said he would do more to court Linfield's backers. "Short of converting, I'll do as much as I can over there," he quipped.
But Woo, a Chinese-American whose grandfather was an immigrant laundryman, said he may also have to confront more serious ethnic concerns.
He said that since the primary, some of his supporters have received telephone calls from Stevenson pollsters who are stressing Woo's ethnic heritage--dredging up memories of 1981, when Stevenson played on anti-Asian sentiments in the Hancock Park area to turn out voters for the general election.
In that election, Stevenson defeated Woo by more than 30 percentage points after barely beating him in the primary. Woo said he doubted that a similar tactic would work this time because Hancock Park was reapportioned out the 13th District and was replaced by Hollywood Hills and Echo Park precincts less likely to be swayed by ethnic appeals.
Hoffenblum denied that Stevenson campaign workers were commenting on Woo's heritage. He also said Stevenson would agree to sign a campaign code of ethics that Woo has urged her to sign--but would not agree to his demands that they show each other their political mailings 24 hours before they are sent to voters.
Immediately after the primary, Woo also had called on Stevenson to debate him once a week until the June 4 vote. But thus far, Stevenson has ignored the plea, agreeing only to consider a single pre-election debate.
"We'll probably just do one," Hoffenblum said. "It's not like they've never debated. I don't think the community is waiting out there . . . to rush to a debate."