LOCAL ELECTIONS / L.A. MAYOR : Forums Rewrite Rules of Campaigning

TIMES STAFF WRITER

GTE has sponsored one. So has the American Institute of Architects, the Adat Ari El Men's Club and--the latest player in the mayoral forum derby--Mensa, the club for the super-smart.

Whether the recent spate of candidate debates adds up to democracy gone wild or just plain self-interest on the part of organizations across the city, the forums are proliferating, taking on a life of their own in the days leading up to the April 20 primary.

"Anyone can have one," said Michael Collins, the treasurer for candidate Julian Nava. "I look in my calendar and see small events at retirement homes. We walk in and there (are) . . . six or seven senior citizens."

Scores of groups, large and small, are organizing their own independent events, resulting in multiple forums on the same evening, forums in which the candidates have nearly outnumbered the organizers and forums so specialized that questions have strayed far from mainstream city affairs.

Take Friday night's Mensa forum before a group of two dozen people with bona fide high IQs. Sure, some might call it an unfair matchup, something akin to the old joke about staging a battle of wits with an unarmed man.

As it was, many of the best and brightest of the L.A. mayoral crop chose to skip this particular session. In fact, the only candidates brave enough to face the local Mensa chapter were Nava, Councilman Nate Holden and a representative for multimillionaire Richard Riordan.

Holden, tailoring his message to his audience, plugged the master's degree he received from West Coast University. "You guys are the smartest people in the world," he said, "so you have to know when someone is putting you on or not."

Nava, a history professor at Cal State Northridge, reminded the audience three times that he is an educator. Riordan aide Lewis R. Linet Jr., a motivational speaker who gives seminars for car dealers, launched into a spirited defense of Riordan and car salesmen.

Most of the candidates' comments were met with blank stares. But then, some of the listeners' questions prompted the same response from the candidates. After all, neither Ronald Reagan Administration trade policies nor post-riot macroeconomic theory had come up at any of the estimated 60 or more previous mayoral forums.

"I'm certainly not inspired," sniffed one brain, psychotherapist Gilbert Simons. "It's generalities. I'm bored."

The campaign trail has become so congested with invitations that some campaign staffers wonder whether anyone at all can gather up a few friends, invite the field of mayoral hopefuls, and label the gathering a candidates forum.

"A lot of these forums are coming from groups that I don't think existed before," said Greg Nelson, an aide to Councilman Joel Wachs. "Groups like Heal L.A. '93, groups we've never heard of. You don't know who the membership is. A group could be one person working out of the back of his car."

Wachs had the distinction of being the sole participant in a forum Thursday night sponsored by the American Institute of Architects. Holden, transportation official Nick Patsaouras and Councilman Michael Woo had confirmed but did not show up, leaving 200 architects feeling snubbed.

Wachs got some laughs earlier this month when he brought an empty chair with Woo's name on it to an event held by three homeowners' groups that Woo had skipped. The Woo camp responded by saying it would be impossible to attend every such event.

Candidates sometimes send aides to monitor the meetings or, if the rules permit, to represent their candidates before the crowd.

That tactic has its advantages, as Riordan's representative demonstrated at the Mensa forum.

"Unfortunately," Linet said, deftly sidestepping one abstract question, "as I am not the candidate, I cannot answer that."

There is disagreement as to whether the crush of forums constitutes a veritable field of grass-roots democracy or the political equivalent of a Tupperware party where it is the sponsors who are doing the sales job.

"This year's mayoral campaign has become a smorgasbord of special interests," Collins said. the "It's almost comical to hear some candidates cater their answers."

However, Pete Taylor, the campaign manager for Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Panorama City), sees the forums as an outpouring of interest in city affairs.

"Every group in town wants to have one of these," he said. "You're getting people who don't feel like they've been a part of the process. This is one way for them to get direct answers."

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