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ACLU Drive Puts 1st District Council Campaign in Spotlight

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thanks to an unusual drive by the ACLU, the Rodney G. King case has taken over the spotlight in the closing days of the campaign to replace Gloria Molina on the Los Angeles City Council.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California--whose officials have called for the ouster of Police Chief Daryl F. Gates--has flooded the 1st Council District with as many as 10,000 postcards and letters, urging recipients to press the two candidates in next Tuesday’s special runoff election to state their positions on Gates and the Christopher Commission’s recommendations for reforming the Police Department.

The campaign offices of the two finalists, Cypress Park bond agent Mike Hernandez and Chinatown lawyer Sharon Mee Yung Lowe, have been receiving an average of 100 preprinted postcards a day as a result of the ACLU campaign, officials said.

Ramona Ripston, ACLU executive director, said the organization took the unusual step of involving itself in the campaign because it believes the City Council should act swiftly to adopt the Christopher Commission proposals and replace Gates, who has said he plans to retire next April. She said the winner of the 1st District runoff could help swing support among council members to the ACLU position.

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“We want the candidates to take stands publicly so they cannot run away from them in the future,” Ripston said.

Both candidates have responded to the ACLU campaign by saying they support Gates’ ouster and favor implementation of the major planks suggested by the independent commission chaired by former Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher. The 10-member body, among other things, suggested a transition period leading to Gates’ departure and a maximum of two five-year terms for the Los Angeles police chief.

Hernandez and Lowe--who got 42% and 21% of the vote, respectively, in the June 4 primary--are happy for the attention generated by the ACLU because the campaign has received scant notice while the King controversy has dominated the news.

“I’m glad they’re doing it,” Hernandez said. “It’s stimulating interest.”

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Until the ACLU effort, the race to fill the vacancy created in February when Molina was elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors focused on local issues in the mostly inner-city district. Candidate forums and door-to-door campaigning have been dominated mostly by demands for better police protection and complaints that developers hold too much sway at City Hall and that the area is not getting its fair share of municipal services.

In the primary, schoolteacher Maria Liz Munoz built her candidacy on a call for Gates’ immediate ouster. She finished last in the six-candidate field.

The ACLU, wanting to ensure a thorough discussion of the King issue in the runoff race, decided several months ago to act, said Ripston, who emphasized that the ACLU would not make an endorsement in the runoff. She said the ACLU, as a nonprofit group, would endanger its tax-exempt status by making an election endorsement.

Although it is unusual for the ACLU to involve itself in a political campaign, state officials see nothing wrong with it so long as the organization remains neutral.

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“What they’re doing is akin to what the League of Women Voters does (in campaigns),” said Ben Davidian, chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which probes improper campaign tactics.

Using the names of persons who responded to an ACLU full-page ad that appeared in The Times in March, ACLU officials are urging 1st District residents to fill out preprinted postcards asking Hernandez, 38, and Lowe, 36, for their positions.

The result has been a deluge of postcards--nearly 2,000 in the last two weeks--arriving at Lowe’s Chinatown headquarters and Hernandez’s offices in Highland Park. In response to the constituents, the two campaigns have sent back typewritten answers to the ACLU’s 12 questions.

Ripston said the organization also sent volunteers into the district--stretching west of downtown from the Pico-Union area on the south to Highland Park on the north--to ask voters to press the candidates for their thoughts on the controversy.

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In addition, the organization asked the two to respond to 12 questions on the situation. Ripston said the answers, summarized in the candidates’ own words, will be sent out on the eve of the election to residents who responded to the ACLU campaign.

In an area where there are only 33,000 registered voters out of a population of 250,000, the response has pleasantly surprised the ACLU and the candidates. Lowe, who admits she is running an uphill battle on a limited budget, has joked that the ACLU campaign could hurt her pocketbook.

“I hope I have enough stamps,” said Lowe, whose campaign has raised about $28,700, compared to Hernandez’s $296,000.

While Hernandez and Lowe said they support Gates’ departure and the major recommendations of the Christopher Commission, the two differ on several points, according to the responses to the ACLU:

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* Police chief’s term of office: Hernandez favors two five-year terms, but adds that the mayor, with the approval of two-thirds of the 15-member City Council, should have the option to renew a chief’s term for one more year. Lowe, on the other hand, favors four-year terms for the chief and members of the Police Commission, saying this would be more consistent with the terms of office for the mayor and council members.

* Civilian oversight of the Police Department: Hernandez agrees with the Christopher report that the Police Commission’s powers should be expanded. He adds that it should have its own staff to ensure its independence from the Police Department. Lowe agrees that the Police Commission’s powers should be expanded, but she also favors a civilian review board system. She rejects the Christopher Commission’s conclusion that such a body would increase an “us against them” attitude among Los Angeles police officers.

* LAPD training to address the problems cited in the Christopher report: Hernandez favors periodic psychological evaluations to identify officers under stress and those with a propensity for violence. In addition, Hernandez says, officers should be reminded that they should serve all segments of society. Lowe says “community sensitizing” of officers must be part of a officer’s training, especially after they leave the Police Academy. The idea of a cop on the beat should be emphasized at every opportunity, she says.


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