NEWS ANALYSIS / THE LOS ANGELES MAYOR'S RACE : The Middle Ground Becomes the Battleground


Everybody wants a piece of Ben Reznik.

Middle-age, professional, Jewish, a lifelong social liberal with a conservative streak when it comes to crime and the economy, Reznik is a paradigm of the swing voter in the Los Angeles mayor's race.

The two candidates, Richard Riordan and Michael Woo, began building their bases of support at opposite ends of the political spectrum and are now converging in the middle, homing in on people like Reznik.

A campaign once expected to divide the city along racial lines and pit rich neighborhoods against poor is instead becoming a battle for the hearts and minds of the people in the middle.

In a largely Democratic city, some Democrats say the race is causing them to reassess their political identities and forcing them to choose between competing values.

"It is a strange dilemma for me," said Reznik, who describes himself as a lifelong Democratic activist.

"When it comes to the issues that are on my mind right now, like crime and the city's deplorable business climate, Riordan hits on all cylinders," Reznik said. "But when you get to the emotional things, issues like gun control or choice that I've been active in for a decade, you are more sympathetic to Woo.

"When it comes down to asking yourself who would be the best person to run the city, it's a gut-wrenching decision."

Riordan, a Republican, may have won an important round in the struggle to lure Democrats when he gained the endorsement earlier this week of Stan Sanders, the most successful black candidate in last month's mayoral primary.

But Reznik said it would take more than that to get his support in the June 8 runoff.

"If it's going to be palatable to support Dick Riordan, it is going to take more than one endorsement," he said.

It is no accident that Reznik is feeling pressured by the election. He is the chairman of the San Fernando Valley's most prominent civic organization, the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., and his endorsement would help either candidate. He is also a member of a larger but even more politically desirable group: the 200,000 or so voters who chose somebody other than Riordan or Woo in the primary. Viewed as moderate or independent-minded Democrats, these are people who voted for the likes of City Councilman Joel Wachs, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) or former Deputy Mayor Linda Griego, who finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively, in the April primary. Reznik supported Katz.

"No doubt about it, the key to winning this election is winning the middle--those voters who think of themselves as social liberals and fiscal conservatives," said one of Riordan's top advisers, who asked not to be identified.

When campaign strategists look at someone like Ben Reznik, they think they recognize a type of voter in Los Angeles--a person in the throes of change, at odds with himself over what matters most in life, trying to decide who stands for his better nature: Woo and his appeal to progressive values or Riordan and his appeal to fiscal conservatism.

"The thing about courting voters in Los Angeles is that you cannot ask them to violate what is a cherished sense of political identity," Jay Severin said. A New York-based consultant who worked for Wachs in the primary, Severin is a Republican who has made a career of figuring out how to get urban, liberal voters to vote for Republican candidates.

"In New York and Los Angeles, more than any other places, you are defined by the way you vote," Severin said. "You don't want to be seen voting for someone who is uncool. You can't afford to be seen as making the politically incorrect choice. You don't want friends and colleagues to say, 'How could you?' Imagine being a typical West L.A. voter 30 days before the presidential election, walking into a room full of people you knew and saying you had decided to vote for Bush."

For Woo, then, the task is one of making it socially unacceptable to support Riordan. He has been trying his best to do that--reminding voters that Riordan contributed to anti-abortion groups and that his vaunted fiscal prowess has cost ordinary people their jobs.

At the same time, he repeatedly tells voters of the strong support he is drawing from the Democratic Party, which has committed $200,000 to his campaign. Beyond that, Woo boasts of high-profile endorsements from party luminaries, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

But political strategists warn that Woo should take nothing for granted.

"Conservatives in city elections will often get votes of people who say one thing in public and do something different in the voting booth," Severin said.

Riordan appeared to face the tougher challenge.

The Riordan adviser who spoke in confidence outlined the task.

"Let's say there is a Jewish guy sitting there thinking of voting for Riordan. He's a guy in his 40s who maybe marched with Martin Luther King or protested the war in Vietnam and has never voted for a Republican in his life. But he's worried about what is happening to the city, the crime, the middle-class flight, business getting squeezed out.

"It helps him to know that Riordan is beginning to attract black support. But it would help more to know that people like him are going to vote for Riordan."

Jeff Levine is that kind of voter.

"I'm a Hubert Humphrey liberal," said Levine, who at 42 runs a small, family-owned manufacturing business. "I think that government programs can make a difference in society. And I've always thought that Republicans stood for a sort of mean-spirited, what's-mine-is-mine kind of philosophy.

"Three weeks ago, I wouldn't have mentioned . . . I was considering Riordan. But since then, I have been at parties where people have said they were considering Riordan. They were surprised at themselves. . . . To think that I would be considering voting for a Republican for any office is a very new experience for me."

Like Reznik, Levine is worried about the business climate in Los Angeles. "We must have a society that is secure before we can have economic stability. . . . Riordan speaks to that concern."

Still, Levine said he remains in a quandary.

"Woo does a better job of reaching out to all of the ethnic communities. Riordan reaches out to the business community. What you need is a combination of those traits. I wish we could have co-mayors," he said.

Some experts say that a tumultuous year such as the one the city has experienced predisposes people to change habits. That could help Riordan.

"There is an unfreezing that can happen," said Anthony Pratkanis, a UC Santa Cruz professor of social psychology who specializes in political behavior.

"A precipitating incident, a crisis of some kind--in L.A., the riots, for example--could be a launching pad for people to behave differently."

Against a backdrop of the riots and a rising crime rate, Dan Landau finds himself rebelling against the strictures of political correctness and wondering if he will vote for a Republican for the first time in his life.

"I call myself a liberal," said Landau, 37, an English professor at Santa Monica College. "I mean an old-fashioned Martin Luther King sort of person. Nowadays, that kind of liberalism is out of fashion. The new left is all about political correctness, and Michael Woo presents himself as a '90s PC kind of guy.

"A lot of it goes against my grain. To say you are worried about crime is seen by the new left as a code word for racism. People say that when a middle-class person worries about crime, he is just afraid for his material possessions. But I don't think that's true. I'm middle class and I think it's very upsetting to read about children in East L.A. or South-Central getting shot in a drive-by shooting."

Not that Landau warms all that much to Riordan. "He is a Republican, a rich Republican. He bothers me for the same reason that Ross Perot bothered me. The way he made his money.

"It would be a first," Landau said, "voting for a Republican. It would make me feel like I'm getting old." But he said was impressed by the Sanders endorsement.

"It was very interesting. It makes it harder for people to call him the racists' candidate."

And Landau, like other Democrats, said some of his friends were beginning to talk about voting for Riordan.

"I know one couple on the Westside. Both liberals. They sort of made this agreement in the primary. One would vote for Woo. One would vote for Riordan. I don't know what they're going to do next time. I don't know what I'm going to do."

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