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The Finely Tuned Politics of Discontent

Meet Anthony Galeoto of Harbor City, a neighborhood between Torrance and San Pedro that is a particular target of Richard Riordan’s campaign for mayor.

Galeoto can’t stand President Bill Clinton. He’s mad as hell about immigrants. And he thinks Mayor Tom Bradley should be in jail.

Riordan, campaigning door to door, listened sympathetically. Wisely, he didn’t mention that he was a big fan of Bradley. At least big enough for him and his family to bundle up contributions to the mayor in 1990 and 1991 totaling $8,500.

He wouldn’t want to antagonize such voters, these angry, conservative Angelenos who are the heart and soul of the constituency Riordan is trying to build.

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Nor did Riordan advertise that he, a Republican, is relying on some political pros who might make Mr. Galeoto the slightest bit uncomfortable--young Democratic veterans of Clinton’s presidential campaign.

In politics, they say Democrats know how to party and walk precincts. Republicans used to have these valuable skills. I know, having partied with them many nights. But their years in power removed the hunger that drives workers to walk door to door. And the GOP’s takeover by the religious right emptied the bar.

Another reason Riordan hired Democrats is that L.A. is a heavily Democratic city. So it made sense for Riordan to hire veterans of recent Democratic efforts. Having made millions from the practice of law and various business deals, he had money for the best. And the Democratic hired guns, at loose ends after last year’s election, were glad to get the work.

On Saturday, I accompanied Riordan and his crew as they walked the Harbor City precinct in a slightly hilly area east of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The Times Marketing Research Department had given me a demographic rundown: Average income in the area is $48,410; more than half the people have attended or graduated from college; more than 60% are white-collar workers; almost 30% are over the age of 45; the area is 81.3% white.

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A Riordan aide gave me more information. This particular precinct was Democratic, 320-293. But it was one of those Southern California neighborhoods where events, such as crime and the recession, are more important than party registration. The aide said the area went for George Bush in 1988 and Bill Clinton last year. Ross Perot did well.

While the mayor’s race is nonpartisan, party registration is important to the tacticians who plan campaigns. Party registration helps define political beliefs. Combine party registration and votes in past elections with income, race, age and other demographic factors and you can make a pretty good guess as to how these people might vote.

The word might is important. Technology doesn’t work unless it’s followed by relentless campaigning. That was why the young Riordan crew that greeted me at the corner was so intent on their work.

One of them was press secretary Annette Castro, a Clinton campaign veteran. Another was Mark Dodd, one of the few Republican field workers in the campaign. Directing these efforts from Riordan’s San Fernando Valley headquarters was campaign manager Jadine Nielsen, who was Clinton’s California scheduling director last year. Helping her with the field work was Mike Dolan, who ran “Rock the Vote.” His group’s mobilization of young voters was a big help to Clinton.

Soon, Riordan stepped out of his Ford Explorer and joined us. He wore a blue button-down shirt, tie and suit pants. Instead of the millionaire he is, he looked as down-home as the people he was about to meet.

The neighborhood had been prepared. Riordan’s campaign spending makes a difference here. All voters had been mailed a copy of his paperback booklet outlining his plans for L.A., plus another mailing. The themes of the mailings, plus his television ads, had the same message: L.A.'s going to hell and only Riordan is tough enough to save it.

The voters Riordan talked to were as angry as Anthony Galeoto. They complained about graffiti on nearby streets, bad schools, crime, overworked police, immigrants. Riordan’s campaign material, arriving just a few days before, had told them he is a sympathetic spirit. Using a sophisticated computer program that compiles voting records, party registration and demographic material on voters and neighborhoods, the Riordan workers are combing the city for such voters. Republicans and conservative Democrats, older people, homeowners, Angelenos who look around their city and don’t like what they see.

Riordan’s Democratic team had learned in 1992 how to play the politics of discontent. As Bill Clinton found out, anger can be turned into a powerful weapon.

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