Pollsters and political experts have been insisting that mayoral candidate Michael Woo, the son of Chinese immigrants, is wasting his time campaigning in the African-American community.
But at the first mayoral forum in South-Central Los Angeles, Woo proved the experts wrong. If applause were votes, Woo would have outpolled the opposition, including two well-known black candidates who were among the 14 mayoral contenders taking part in the event.
“A lot of people tell me I should ignore the African-American community in this campaign,” Woo told an African-American audience of about 300 at the forum at the West Angeles Church of God. “They tell me the votes are really out in the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley. Some people tell me that African-American voters will never support a Chinese-American running for mayor of this city. Well, I say they are wrong. I say I will receive serious support from the African-American community because I have earned that support.”
Just hours later in a strikingly different setting--before a predominantly Anglo group of Westside environmentalists--Woo made an equally strong showing. Pledging to be an “environmental mayor,” he drew frequent applause, particularly when he promised to oppose a massive coastal development project near Marina del Rey.
Woo was part of a pack of candidates that moved about town with different messages for different audiences Saturday.
At the South-Central forum, Woo pointedly reminded the audience that he was the first member of the City Council to call for former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates to resign after the police beating of Rodney G. King. Woo also spoke of his support for an ordinance aimed at reducing the number of liquor licenses in South-Central Los Angeles.
However, during the past week, Woo made no mention of his call for Gates’ resignation at several appearances before predominantly Anglo audiences. He did tell those groups about his plan to raise property taxes to pay for more police--something he left out of his pitch Saturday.
Some of the other candidates at the South-Central event also avoided the rhetoric about crime and the economy that have marked their speeches to Westside and Valley audiences.
Investor-lawyer Richard Riordan talked about the considerable investment he has made as a citizen in computer labs for 300 inner-city schools. Contending that the campaign is about the issue of leadership, he asked “Where were you?” to a number of his opponents who held government office as the problems of crime, graffiti and workers’ compensation fraud grew worse.
But Riordan never mentioned his campaign slogan, “Tough enough to turn L.A. around.” Nor did he talk about his plan to pay for 4,000 more police officers by slashing City Hall budgets and privatizing city services--a move that, according to members of his own staff, could cost a significant job loss for city workers, many of whom are minorities.
City Councilman Joel Wachs described the centerpiece of his campaign, his proposal to create a network of more than 100 neighborhood councils that would give people a more direct say in government decisions regarding police deployment, planning and budget decisions. But Wachs did not repeat his call for breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District even though each candidate was asked to address that issue.
Although Woo was by no means the only candidate to oppose the district breakup, his comments on the issue seemed to impress the audience most.
“I will be opposed to any reorganization that ghettoizes African-American kids and Latino kids in older, overcrowded, decrepit classrooms while other parts of the city have nicer facilities and better funding,” Woo said.
The candidates were asked frequently to explain how they would deal with the ailing economy and the plight of the poor.
Assemblyman Richard Katz, a San Fernando Valley Democrat, said he would see to it that city pension funds were invested in ways that would stimulate the production of low-income housing. And Katz said that he would require that city contracts favor firms that hire local people, pay taxes here and purchase goods and services from local sources.
Linda Griego, the city’s former deputy mayor for economic development, stressed her background as an entrepreneur who knows how to create jobs.
“I’ve been a small business owner. I’ve met a payroll,” she said. And she pointed out that when one of the other candidates sought to cut through the City Hall red tape and get a business up and running in South-Central after last year’s riots, he came to her for help: “When Dick Riordan needed permits for his market, he called me.”
Councilman Nate Holden, one of the two major African-American candidates, stressed his kinship with the audience: “I have lived the problems and I know what they are.” He said that his experience representing one of the most ethnically diverse districts in the city qualified him to handle the problems of a racially tense city.
And, parting company with Woo, he defended his belief that the school district ought to be split up, even if it means that African-American children are educated in the black community.
“We want our kids back where we can teach them,” he said.
Lawyer Stan Sanders, the other prominent African-American candidate, said that as mayor he would focus on efforts to make capital available to minority-owned small businesses. Describing local schools as “the flash point” of race relations, he said he would propose a program of student relations to ease ethnic tensions.
Across town at the forum sponsored by the environmental group Heal the Bay, the hot issue was the Playa Vista project, a proposed mini-city for the fields south of Marina del Rey that would house 28,000 people and create workplaces for nearly 20,000 more.
Woo drew resounding applause from the audience of about 150 when he said: “I believe the city should not approve any project of this magnitude on that site. It is unimaginable.”
Katz played up the environmental legislation he has authored--particularly a bill to protect ground water that he described as the “toughest in the nation” and a law that could send up to $44 million to Los Angeles for water reclamation.
Holden pledged to freeze all development on the nearly 1,000-acre Playa Vista property until environmental groups could review plans.
Staff writer Marc Lacey contributed to this story.