Wachs Looks Toward Mayoral Race : Councilman Sees Victory in New District as Enhancing His Political Status

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs said Wednesday that his comfortable victory in Tuesday's election in a new northeast San Fernando Valley district has revitalized his political career and put him in a better position to be elected mayor.

"I think that I'm stronger politically," he said.

Others at City Hall, however, said Wachs won because he faced weak opposition. "I was surprised that he didn't do better, given the funds that he spent in the campaign," said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who also is interested in running for mayor.

Wachs collected 65% of the vote to defeat three challengers in the 2nd District. Of the district's 101,714 voters, 14% cast ballots.

Jerry Hays, a conservative businessman, finished second with 29% of the vote. Jack Davis, a retired railroad brakeman, and Georgetta Wilmeth, a homemaker, each received 3% of the vote.

Hays beat Wachs in about a dozen precincts, mostly in conservative Sunland-Tujunga, an analysis of the vote shows. Wachs, however, carried some areas, especially those left from his old district, by as much as 11 to 1.

Wachs said his victory shows that he has turned around his political career, which was at all-time low after last September's council redistricting. That took away 90% of the liberal constituency that Wachs had represented for 16 years and put him in an almost entirely new and conservative, semi-rural district.

During a victory celebration at his campaign headquarters late Tuesday night, Wachs said he wanted his enemies on the council who engineered the reapportionment plan to know that he had "beat them at their own game."

Wachs said that, although he had opposed the redistricting plan, he now believes that it has helped him politically, enabling him to reach new voters. "We have a much broader political base," he said.

Wachs said he now will have represented twice as many voters as other council members. He said he also will have developed a base of political support among different economic and political groups, ranging from liberal, upscale residents from his old Studio City district to the conservative, working-class people in Sunland-Tujunga in his new district.

"Hopefully, we have proven that we have the ability to relate to a wide diversity of people," he said.

Wachs used redistricting to build his financial and political base citywide. For example, he recently sent out 80,000 letters to homeowners and renters throughout the city asking for their help in his reelection campaign. He asked them to call friends in the 2nd District and urge them to vote for him. He also asked them to send money.

Wachs will be able to build a list of financial and political supporters from the envelopes returned with contributions. It could not yet be ascertained how much money this technique brought to his campaign coffers.

Now, eight months after he was fighting just to win reelection to the council, the 48-year-old Wachs is again talking about running for mayor. But Wachs said he would not challenge Mayor Tom Bradley, if Bradley seeks reelection in 1989 as he has said he will.

Wachs, first elected to the council in 1971, ran for mayor in 1973, finishing fifth in a field of 13 candidates. That was the year that Bradley first won election as mayor by defeating then-Mayor Sam Yorty. Since then, Wachs, who has championed gay rights and rent control, has built up a base of support, including gays and renters citywide.

With Tuesday's election behind him, Wachs is planning to seek a number of City Hall reforms that could also enhance his potential candidacy for mayor, according to a political consultant who has worked on city campaigns.

Wachs declined to be specific about the reforms Wednesday, but previously he has talked about using his $600,000 campaign fund to sponsor two initiative drives--one to establish an independent reapportionment commission and another to prohibit council members from voting on matters benefiting campaign contributors.

Popularity Could Improve

Such initiatives could give Wachs issues to improve his name recognition and his popularity citywide in the same way that Proposition U, the slow-growth initiative overwhelmingly approved by voters last November, helped one of its authors, Yaroslavsky.

Some at City Hall, however, questioned how much Wachs' victory Tuesday has strengthened the councilman politically.

A colleague of Wachs on the council said Wachs' reelection "enhances his mayoral chances somewhat. But I don't think it enhances it as much as he thinks."

The council member, who along with two others spoke on the condition that they not be named, said Wachs should have done better in the election, "considering everything that he had going for him," namely a high name recognition and huge campaign fund.

"He had no serious opposition," the council member said.

Another council member said the election results actually show Wachs is vulnerable, given a strong challenge.

The council member said Wachs received only 55% of the ballots cast on Election Day, after challenger Hays waged a last-minute mail blitz. Wachs' support was raised to 65% by a strong showing in the absentee ballots.

Not a Vote of Confidence

Another council member said that, although Wachs won over a new constituency, he could easily lose their support by beginning a campaign for mayor too soon after his reelection.

Hays, meanwhile, said Wachs should not see his victory as a vote of confidence for a future run for mayor.

"If he runs for mayor, he is going to run against people with equal financial resources and equal power bases," Hays said. "I don't see how he sees this victory as any kind of mandate."

Saying that he was "a lousy loser," Hays vowed to run against Wachs again in four years.

Wachs, meanwhile, said Wednesday that the election campaign has also enabled him to grow personally.

"This has been an invigorating experience," he said, remarking that, after 16 years of representing the same safe district, he feared that he was becoming complacent. However, he said, the challenge of running for reelection in an almost entirely new district has sharpened his political skills.

Campaign Started Early

Wachs won reelection by starting his campaign early. Even before the redistricting plan was approved, he was in what would become his new district, joining hundreds of residents at demonstrations to protest the plan.

Wachs also went into the campaign with more than $600,000, raised since his last campaign four years ago. He raised another $172,000. In contrast, Hays raised about $35,000.

Wachs also got the city to sponsor a country music festival, attended by about 125,000 people in Hansen Dam Recreation Area less than two weeks before the election.

In the final days of campaigning, Wachs withstood an ugly campaign piece accusing him of promoting activities that spread AIDS. The mailer attacked Wachs for serving as grand marshal of the Gay Pride Parade in West Hollywood in 1983.

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