Mudslinging Works--for a While


Over a year ago, Richard Riordan ordered some of his supporters to dig up dirt--on himself.

Riordan told me about the operation a while back. He had asked his associates to examine the records of his personal life as well as his dealings as an attorney and businessman. He said he wanted to be prepared when the dirt hit during his campaign for mayor of Los Angeles.

Snooping is part of today’s politics. The snoopers look for material to use in the attack advertisements that clutter up your television screen and your mailbox. In the grimy world of politics, the activity has been given the elevated title of “negative research.”


It turned out that Riordan made a smart move in doing negative research on himself as well as his opponent, Councilman Michael Woo. For they are locked in a campaign that in its final days is turning increasingly dirty.


The escalation has been evident all through May. Earlier in the month, Riordan supporters took over the microphones during a debate question-and-answer period, a move I thought had dirty tricks written all over it. Wednesday, Riordan was the victim.

During a debate on KABC radio, a woman in the audience at the Beverly Hilton asked if either of the two candidates had been arrested.

Riordan knew, at some point, the question would be asked about experiences that must have been singularly unpleasant: arrests for drunk driving and interfering with a friend’s arrest.

Primed, he answered calmly and quickly. “I was arrested a couple of times,” he said. The incidents occurred about 25 years ago, he said at the time, though he later disclosed there were actually three arrests from 1964 to 1975.

After the debate, the revelations unleashed the campaign press corps. We dashed up to the stage after the debate to ask follow-up questions. He provided a few more details and then walked away. He laughed as the reporters followed, throwing questions at him. But there was no laughter in his eyes.


It was a strange question. I’ve covered some rough political campaigns, but I’ve never heard anyone ask candidates whether they’ve been arrested. Reporters asked the questioner if the Woo campaign put her up to the job. She denied it. “And I’m the queen of England,” a cynical veteran of many campaigns commented later.

The incident was unusual only in the sense that it involved a live event, rather than television and mailed advertising, which is how the attacks usually reach the public. And some of the ads are really rough.

“Mike Woo broke his promise to protect women from crime,” proclaimed a Riordan pamphlet that arrived in the mail last week. On the cover is a panel of colored pictures all showing the same woman. On the bottom picture, we see a red stain, presumably blood. On the inside is a large picture of what appears to be a body, presumably the woman’s, with a large red stain on it. In case you don’t get it, the text proclaims: “Mike Woo: A record on crime that could kill you.”

Woo was in the mail the same week with his own mean message: “Dick Riordan--destroying jobs to make a quick buck.” It concluded with the central message of the Woo campaign: “You just can’t trust Dick Riordan to make L.A. work.”


“Punch, counterpunch” is how the process is described by campaign consultant Richard Lichtenstein, who isn’t involved in the mayoral race. “What it does to the average voter is to muddy up the waters.”

In other words, the process is designed to breed confusion, and it’s easy to do in this particular mayoral election. Despite the newspapers’ heavy coverage, television’s lack of interest in the election has left voters short of information. And each candidate has liabilities.


Riordan’s is that he started out the campaign relatively unknown. Woo’s liability is that he has built up negative images in the voters’ minds while serving as a councilman during some of the city’s roughest years.

“Mike has a difficult message to craft because he is the insider,” Lichtenstein said. “He has to assume responsibility for what is going on. Dick runs for change. Woo has to go after Riordan in a more personal way, (to say) that he doesn’t have the capacity to run government.”

That explains the theme of the Woo campaign: Who can you trust to run L.A.? Woo told me that the approach has worked. He said his advertising stopped the push that Riordan was given by his strong showing in the primary. He said his polls show a tightening race where Riordan once looked likely to run away with it. Reading similar polls, Riordan is firing back. Thus his bloody attack on Woo on the all-important crime issue.

Political managers argue that negative campaigning works. So hold your nose. It’s going to get worse.

But it doesn’t really work. The new mayor will stagger into office with a reputation slightly less tattered than that of the loser. And after the candidates have devoted so much time to attack, I wonder if they’ll have the energy to come up with something positive.

It’s sad. The negative research snoops are generally pretty intelligent. Too bad their brains aren’t unleashed on reviving our economy.