Back-Room Powerbrokers Shying Away From Woo

There are a number of Democrats among the town's powerbrokers whom you might expect to support Democratic City Councilman Michael Woo out of ideological loyalty, even though the mayoral race is nonpartisan.

These are people whose faces aren't familiar on the nightly television news and who like it that way. They are lawyers, investors, executives, financial experts, developers and others who work in the back rooms shaping city policy. Often, they operate on a different, higher level than the public figures--officeholders and candidates--who are the front-room powers.

The men and women in the back room know how to raise money. Their connections help them win endorsements for their candidates. Their familiarity with all the angles of government policy make them useful advisers. And once in office, the candidate can look to them for guidance through the labyrinth of corporations, unions and other interests that wield great power in City Hall.


One such Democrat is Gilbert T. Ray, partner in the powerful law firm of O'Melveny & Myers, a man with a record that should put him firmly in the Woo camp. So when Ray told me about his recent decision to back Woo's foe, conservative Republican attorney-entrepreneur Richard Riordan, I was surprised.

Ray was Western counsel for Democrat Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign and active in Bill Clinton's campaign last year. In addition, he was executive director of the Christopher Commission, which investigated the Los Angeles Police Department after the Rodney G. King beating.

The commission was strongly critical of former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates' Administration, and that's another factor that should have cinched Ray's endorsement of Woo, the first City Council member to call for Gates' resignation. Ray backed the Christopher Commission reforms.

Ray was also a member of the citizens commission that proposed tough ethics laws for city government. Woo was the author of the legislation inspired by the commission. Furthermore, Ray is an African-American and Woo is aiming much of his campaign at carrying the black community.

I wondered why he was backing Riordan. We arranged to meet at his office.

As I waited in the reception area on the 15th floor of the O'Melveny building in downtown Los Angeles, I thought about how the firm and the power structure it belongs to have changed over the years. Here I was, waiting for a black Democrat who is a partner in a firm that was once famous for its conservatism and its membership in the old, exclusively white civic oligarchy that once ruled the city.

From the beginning of the century, the O'Melveny firm has been one of the most powerful of L.A.'s inside players, its clout undiminished through Republican and Democratic eras.

When the firm was in smaller quarters, L.A.'s oligarchs went there to map plans to bring water to the city, build a harbor and defeat Upton Sinclair, the socialist writer who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1934. In 1991, after the King beating, a liberal mayor, Tom Bradley, called O'Melveny to ask its managing partner, Democrat Warren Christopher, now secretary of state, to head the investigation of the LAPD.

In the years between Sinclair and Bradley, the firm had become more Democratic. When Ray, O'Melveny's first black lawyer, was hired in 1972, he made friends with another recruit, Bill Wardlaw, a white attorney. They worked on Democratic campaigns together.

Although not many people would recognize Wardlaw, he is a real power in the Democratic party. Yet, like Ray, he doesn't want Woo to be mayor. Wardlaw, in fact, is Riordan's campaign chairman, bringing with him his knowledge of how to communicate with Democratic voters in this Democratic city.

I asked Ray why he wasn't for Woo. "Familiarity breeds contempt," he replied. "I am really disappointed in the leadership over there in City Hall."

Like his friend Christopher, Ray prefers a clean desk, conservative clothes and a cautious approach. He'd written the points he wanted to cover with me on a yellow legal pad.

"We really need someone who can take some risks," he said. "Riordan hasn't been on the council for eight years. I've seen Michael Woo. I don't think Michael Woo can carry the day. I think his contemporaries will beat him to a pulp. Dick Riordan may not be able to carry the day . . . but it seems to me it is worth giving (City Hall) a shock, a change."


There are other powerful Democratic insiders who feel the same. One liberal Democratic fund-raiser and donor told me he didn't know what to do, whether to stay neutral or to support Woo. You can find similar Democratic fence-sitters or potential Riordonites in back rooms all over L.A.

True, Woo was endorsed by the official state Democratic Party and by some well-known Democratic officeholders. The state party has pledged up to $200,000 for his campaign.

But a major weakness for Woo has been his inability to get the support of major Los Angeles Democratic powers who know how to pull strings in town. Unless he can figure out a way of winning their trust, he's in trouble.

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