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Woo Lays Groundwork for Potential Race : Politics: Councilman is cultivating Asian-American donors across the country as a prelude to a possible mayoral campaign in 1993. But some raise questions about accountability.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He has yet to declare his candidacy, but City Councilman Michael Woo is aggressively cultivating potential Asian-American donors across the nation in an exploratory campaign for Los Angeles mayor.

In recent months, the Chinese-American councilman has appeared before Asian-American organizations in San Jose, Oakland, Seattle, Houston and Chicago. Next year, he plans to visit Asian-American enclaves in New York, Washington, Boston and Detroit.

Higher-level elected officials running for President, a congressional seat or governor have drawn campaign contributions from ethnic constituents nationwide for decades--President John F. Kennedy wooed the Irish, former Gov. George Deukmejian courted the Armenian community.

Now, in what campaign experts say is becoming a trend, local officials are increasingly seeking contributions from community leaders and organizations far from home that reflect their ethnicity or gender.

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Such fund raising in local political campaigns, they say, may produce fewer conflicts of interest and other problems than fund raising at home.

It is motivated, they say, as much by the high cost of running for elected office as by gender or ethnic pride.

City officials estimated that it will cost up to $2 million to run for Los Angeles mayor in the 1993 election--more than a candidate is likely to raise in the city alone.

“It’s a way of expanding their financial base,” said political consultant and lobbyist Joe Cerrell. “It’s also playing up to emotions by saying: ‘You’ve got to support me because I’m one of you.’ ”

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In his failed bid for California governor in 1986, Mayor Tom Bradley raised campaign donations from young black urban professionals in 19 cities. Similarly, David N. Dinkins raised funds from black professionals in Los Angeles during his successful campaign for New York mayor in 1989.

More recently, former Los Angeles Councilwoman Gloria Molina received contributions from national women’s organizations when she campaigned for Los Angeles County supervisor this year.

Robert Gay said he raised $30,000 from minority investment bankers in New York--some of whom have business interests in Los Angeles--during his failed bid for the 9th District council seat in June.

In Northern California, San Francisco mayoral candidate Tom Hseih raised two-thirds of his campaign funds this year from Asian-Americans outside of that city.

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Lisa Foster, spokeswoman for the political watchdog group California Common Cause, said the trend “is something that disturbs us because it makes you wonder who they are beholden to--local constituents or people from out of state?”

However, Foster added: “I find ethnic- and gender-related giving less troubling than out-of-state corporate contributions because it is usually motivated by pride. But it does raise questions about accountability.”

Herb Alexander, professor of political science at USC, agreed, saying that although “ethnic groups may want to see one of their own elected in a distant city, it may not be inconceivable that they may have real estate in (the) candidate’s community.”

Stewart Kwoh of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles said Woo is poised to benefit from a growing awareness among the nation’s 7.5 million Asian-Americans that “local offices are important as a way of laying a foundation for developing national leaders.”

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“We’ve been locked out of the political process partly because of our own inaction and because of a variety of barriers,” Kwoh said. “So, we are apt to be very supportive of qualified Asian-Americans running for local or national office.”

Woo’s decision on whether to run for mayor may hinge on whether Bradley seeks a sixth term in 1993. Bradley has not indicated whether he will run.

“The important thing is that I’ve got to do the advance work of preparing, planning ahead and thinking through this very important decision,” said Woo, 40, who expects to decide by summer.

“It is a big risk for me,” he added, “because it would mean I’d have to give up my seat on the council.”

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Woo said he has accepted invitations in recent months to speak at meetings held by the Asian Law Alliance in San Jose, the Organization of Chinese Americans in Oakland, the National Pacific Bar Assn. in Seattle and the Chinatown Service League in Chicago.

In most cases, groups have paid for his plane tickets and hotel rooms, Woo said. However, he said he has spent about $1,900 from his officeholder account on travel-related expenses since January.

“I’m not raising money from them now and I’m not even asking for commitments from them now,” Woo said. “What I am doing is going around and introducing myself, trying to answer questions, and showing that I am a potential leader nationally for Asian-Americans.”

Under the city’s ethics law, a candidate cannot solicit campaign donations without opening a campaign account with the city’s Ethics Commission, said Ben Bycel, commission executive director. Woo, he said, has not opened an account.

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“I see no ethical problem in a candidate laying the groundwork for a future election,” Bycel said. “But at the point the candidate begins to raise money for a city election, there are specific laws he or she must comply with.”

In Los Angeles, nearly a dozen politicians--including several City Council members and a state legislator--have begun assessing their chances of succeeding Bradley.

Mike Roos, former Speaker Pro Tem of the California Assembly, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), City Atty. James K. Hahn, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and attorney Richard Riordan all are considered potential mayoral candidates.

Mayoral hopefuls among City Council members include Nate Holden, who ran against Bradley two years ago, and Joy Picus, Zev Yaroslavsky, Richard Alatorre and Joan Milke-Flores.

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Some City Hall observers believe that Molina, who became Los Angeles County’s first Latina supervisor, could mount a serious campaign for mayor in 1993.

If Molina runs, she is all but certain to seek donations from women’s groups and Latino organizations across the nation, said her spokesman Robert Alaniz.

“It is unfortunate,” Alaniz said, “but to run a successful campaign for the mayoral seat would take a lot more money than could be generated in Los Angeles alone--one would have to go outside the city and the state.”


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