Local Elections : Woo Emerges as a Man With 2 Constituencies

Times Staff Writer

The Rolling Stone article infuriated Yoon Hee Kim.

In a satire of the South Korean presidential election last year, the magazine made references that were offensive to Koreans.

Kim and other leaders from Los Angeles’ Korean community, looking for an apology, turned to the one man they knew would help: City Councilman Michael Woo.

‘A Role Model’


Woo immediately called a press conference and denounced the article as racist. Rolling Stone flew an editor to Los Angeles from New York, apologized for the story and pledged, among other things, to hire an Asian intern.

“Woo is a role model for Korean-Americans, and a positive symbol,” said Kim, who heads the Korean American Coalition, an advocacy group based in Koreatown. “Having the support of a politician goes a long way.”

During his first term on the City Council, Woo--the grandson of a Chinese laundryman and the only Asian ever to serve on the council--has emerged as the point man for Asians throughout Los Angeles, the vast majority of whom have never cast a ballot for him because they live outside his 13th District.

As he approaches what most observers predict will be certain reelection, Woo’s stature in the city’s growing Asian community has made him a man with two constituencies. While he dutifully returns calls from supporters in Chinatown, he also tends to voters in his diverse and demanding district, which stretches from the affluent hills above Sherman Oaks, to the immigrant neighborhoods of Hollywood to the gay enclaves of Silver Lake.


Only 10% of the residents in Woo’s district are Asian, and less than one-third of those are registered to vote. Caltech political science professor Bruce Cain said Asian immigrants have a history of not voting, possibly because they are still too few in number or because they emigrated for economic rather than political reasons. In addition, many are not citizens.

“About 95% of my (voters) are not Asian, do not care what I do for the Asian community, and would be offended if they thought I was doing more for Asians and not enough for them,” Woo said in a recent interview. “I find my political identification as an Asian-American to be a strong asset in terms of the growing Asian population. . . . At the same time, (it) causes some strains in terms of the seemingly unlimited demands I get in terms of showing up for dinners and meeting the expectations of Asian community groups.”

High Expectations

And the expectations are often very high. Woo appears at banquets in Chinatown, lends his name to fund-raisers in Little Tokyo and meets with businessmen in Koreatown. Leaders in those communities--none of which fall within Woo’s district--say the councilman’s support can mean the difference between a marginal and a successful event.

Woo routinely is asked to recommend Asians to serve on boards for nonprofit foundations, banks and museums. He is called upon to speak at Asian functions outside Los Angeles, and is now president of a national association of Asian council members and mayors.

His office also fields hundreds of inquiries from Asians in and out of the city, ranging from questions about immigration to complaints about discrimination. In that sense, several community leaders said, Woo serves as the unofficial clearinghouse for much of Asian Los Angeles.

“He is the highest-ranking Asian . . . at the elected level,” said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California. “When people are desperate and they don’t know where to turn, they often turn to him. They may not know about my agency, but they will know about Councilman Mike Woo.”

Lifeblood of Career


Woo’s Asian connection, while demanding, has also been the lifeblood of his budding political career, which started as an aide to state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) and, some supporters expect, eventually will entail a run for mayor.

Woo’s triumph over incumbent Peggy Stevenson in 1985 was bankrolled in large part by Asian contributors--with his father, Chinatown banker Wilbur Woo, leading the list. His first bid for Stevenson’s seat in 1981 was also largely funded by Asian supporters.

This time around, the councilman has collected funds from a broader base--including developers, a traditional gold mine for City Council incumbents--but he continues to hold fund-raisers in Chinatown and his campaign finance reports include scores of Asian donors.

Tumultuous Redistricting

Equally important, Woo and others credit his Asian followers with rescuing him from near political extinction during the City Council’s tumultuous redistricting just a year after his election. More than 30 Asian leaders and organizations protested a plan proposed by Councilman Richard Alatorre that would have placed Woo in a new, predominantly Latino district.

The council approved Alatorre’s plan, but Mayor Tom Bradley, noting that it would likely rob Asians of their first representative on the council, vetoed it. In the end, Woo kept the core of his original Hollywood-area district, losing most of Echo Park on the east and picking up Studio City and some of Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley.

Woo says he works hard to balance Asian and non-Asian demands on his time--putting in 13 and 14 hours a day and packing his schedule with meetings and events in and out of his district. After being accused during his unsuccessful 1981 campaign of being too closely tied to Asian concerns, Woo says he has deliberately broadened his political base--sometimes at the expense of his fellow Asians.

Agonized Over Decision


Two years ago, for example, Woo said he agonized over a decision to endorse Gloria Molina in the race for the newly created 1st District council seat, which the council designed to elect a Latino. Woo said he supported Molina--even though the district includes Chinatown and two Asians were also running--because “she was the best-qualified candidate” and he wanted to make a strong statement about his own independence.

“While I am proud to be the first Asian on the council, I don’t want people to stereotype me and expect a knee-jerk reaction whenever a demand is placed on me by the Asian community,” Woo said.

Although there have been some grumblings in Woo’s district about the amount of time he spends on non-district issues, even his harshest critics have shied away from blaming his Asian commitments.

“There are many things I have to criticize Mike for, but I don’t think that is anywhere on my list,” said Bennett Kayser, 42, one of four candidates challenging Woo in the April 11 primary. “His problem is that he ignores his constituents, except those who have big money and big development interests.”

Woo draws mixed reviews from residents in the 13th District, having alienated some homeowners in Sherman Oaks over a boundary dispute with neighboring Studio City and scores of property owners over proposed building restrictions in the Hollywood Hills. He also faces a fierce and vocal group of opponents in Hollywood, who complain that his support for the Hollywood Redevelopment Project has sentenced the community to a future of traffic jams and congested, high-rise development.

But Woo’s opposition is fractured, poorly organized and has little money. His critics in Hollywood, for example, have failed to rally behind one candidate. Kayser, Venus De Milo and Zahrina Machadah all lay claim to the anti-redevelopment vote. Even candidate Berndt Lohr-Schmidt, an attorney from the Hollywood Hills who first clashed with Woo over the hillside building restrictions, has worked hard to attract redevelopment foes.

Leaders in both Woo constituencies--the Asian and the 13th District--attribute his success in part to his considerable political skills. Friends and enemies alike say Woo has the fine touch of a seasoned politician--never at a loss for words, ever aware of his public image and always on hand to make an important phone call or write a personal note.

“Michael is smooth,” said Collin Lai, a Chinatown businessman who is active in the Chinese American Citizens Alliance. “He reminds me of Roberti. They are smooth. They have a sense of community responsibility, like a social worker. They don’t say, ‘Hey, buddy, get the hell out of here.’ They try to be pleasant and let you down easily.”

13th CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT Like Los Angeles itself, the 13th City Council District is a multi-ethnic collection of Anglos, Asians, Latinos, blacks, Russians and Armenians, represented by an Asian, Councilman Michael Woo. It reaches from the fashionable and expensive Hollywood Hills to the crowded, low-income flatlands of old Hollywood.

The largest number of Asians live in an area from the Silver Lake Reservoir east to Hollywood, and it is here that Woo, of Chinese descent, is assured of enthusiastic support. But not enough to win, by far. For despite the ethnic variety, political power is held by Anglos, and Woo has had to rely on them much more than on Asians. That is because the district’s Asians, like the other ethnic minorities, have a low voter registration.

POPULATION: 222,942 Anglo: 3.1% Black: 4.5 Other than black or Anglo: 22.5 Latino*: 22 Asian: 9.8 POPULATION INCOME

Under $15,999: 37.2% $15,000----$24,999: 21.6 $25,000----$49,999: 24. $50,000----$74,999: 7.6 $75,000----$100,000: 3.3 $100,000+: 5.8 REGISTERED VOTERS** 85,525

Anglo: 89% Latino: 8 Asian: 3 HOUSING Owner occupied: 26.3%

Renter occupied: 73.7 * Latino and Anglo census categories overlap. ** Information from an estimate of 1986 voter registration based on last names. Because of that, it was impossible to separate black voters.

Source of Data: Times Marketing Research Department and Pactech THE CHALLENGERS

Venus De Milo, 49, has previously run for mayor and county supervisor. A renter in Hollywood, De Milo is a self-described rent control activist. A former stripper, she now lists her occupation as a computer consultant. She describes Woo as a “shadow without a face” and says she is running because he “has not kept any of his promises.” She lists traffic, crime and social services among the key campaign issues.

Bennett Kayser, 42, had to go to court to get his name on the ballot after the city clerk’s office said he did not collect enough valid signatures to qualify. Kayser, former president of the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Assns., has lived in the Silver Lake-Echo Park area for 17 years. He has been critical of Woo’s support of the Hollywood redevelopment project, until recently serving on the project’s citizens advisory panel as a representative of an anti-redevelopment group. Kayser said he is running to give the district a “true slow-growth representative who will represent people rather than do battle against them.”

Berndt Lohr-Schmidt, 45, is a Harvard-educated attorney who has lived in the Hollywood Hills for 16 years and owns property there. He first clashed with Woo over Woo’s proposed restrictions on hillside residential construction, which Lohr-Schmidt says would unfairly punish property owners who have not yet developed their lots. He describes the election as “a referendum on Mr. Woo,” who he says has “made our district a model of neglect.” Lohr-Schmidt has been making efforts to extend his base of support beyond the hillsides, recently picking up the endorsement of the Greater Hollywood Civic Assn., a group that has been critical of Woo’s support of the Hollywood redevelopment project.

Zahrina Machadah, 58, who rents an apartment in the Beachwood Canyon area of Hollywood, also ran for the seat in the 1970s. The former owner of a shoeshine stand on Sunset Boulevard, she says Woo failed to deliver on several campaign promises, including one to provide crosswalks and better lighting in her neighborhood. She has also criticized Woo for spending several hundred thousand dollars to renovate his City Hall office. “What I lack in experience and funds, I make up in energy, integrity and my big mouth,” she said.