The tone of the 10th District City Council race was set earlier this month on the fourth anniversary of the police beating of Rodney G. King: In a demonstration in front of incumbent Nate Holden's City Hall office, candidate Stan Sanders claimed that the councilman was too sympathetic toward former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, who initially lamented the action of the officers but later was critical of King.
The shouting match that followed ended that morning--both Holden and Sanders called each other crooks--but began a cycle of insults and rancor that dominates the campaign as the April 11 primary draws closer.
At block club meetings and coffee hours throughout the district, Sanders has accused Holden of really living in Marina del Rey, which the councilman denies (though he does maintain a condo there.) Holden calls his opponent "Jailhouse Stan Sanders" because of an ongoing investigation by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission into Sanders' possible misuse of campaign funds from his 1993 mayoral run.
The candidates blame each other for starting the negative campaigning. Holden says Sanders' visit to City Hall soured the mood of the race, whereas Sanders contends that Holden kept the campaign in the mud by sending out a flyer attacking Sanders' record.
Such antics frustrate many voters in the district, which includes parts of the Crenshaw District, Koreatown and West Adams. Although there has been plenty of sniping, some say there have been few chances to see the candidates debate such important district concerns as crime and poverty.
"I want them to do away with the bashing and get into the issues," said Jackie Calloway, 70, after watching a debate a week ago among Sanders, Holden and the third candidate, prosecutor Kevin Ross.
The March 19 meeting sponsored by the Wellington Square Neighborhood Assn. was the first time voters were able to see all of the candidates together for a debate.
But the 40 or so in attendance, many of whom were Holden and Sanders campaign workers, didn't hear much beyond oft-repeated personal attacks.
Among other charges, Sanders said Holden is not able to work with the rest of the City Council to bring economic development projects to the district.
Holden accused Sanders, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority board member, of lying when, in response to a question from a Holden campaign worker, Sanders said he did not vote to increase bus fares. Sanders voted against the fare hike but only after proposing and voting for a smaller increase.
"I will never lie to you. I will never deceive you," Holden thundered.
Several times during the debate, the candidates were cut off by audience members shouting "Time!" or "Answer the question!" when the trio's responses seemed to ramble.
An appearance by all three candidates on radio station KCRW-FM's "Which Way L.A.?" also slipped into absurdity when Sanders said Holden lied about having finished the Los Angeles Marathon.
As host Warren Olney tried to cut the two men off, Sanders said Holden's marathon record was a campaign issue because Holden pledged that he would never lie to voters, and Holden angrily insisted that he finished the race.
"Stan Sanders is the one who started and didn't finish. I've got the medals, and you can call the marathon office to see if I finished," Holden said angrily before reading the marathon's office phone number over the air. L.A. Marathon officials confirmed that Holden finished in 1990 and 1991.
Neighborhood and interest groups in the district have tried to use debates to shift the attention of the race back to issues.
But groups have had trouble getting Holden to participate. At least two debates had been arranged by other groups, but Holden, who had earlier agreed to appear, did not show up, citing last-minute scheduling conflicts. Sanders and Ross did attend.
Others who have tried to organize debates say Holden has turned them down.
Charles Kim, a former Holden aide who is the executive director of the Korean American Coalition, said his group also tried to arrange a debate but was turned down by Holden, who said he would meet with the group individually. Holden said he tries to appear at debates but admitted that he doesn't think they are productive.
"Usually there are less than 10 people there who haven't already made up their minds," he said.
Holden also said he doesn't like appearing with the other candidates because they use the events to steal his ideas. "They take notes and later repeat what I say as their own ideas," he said, an allegation Sanders and Ross disputed.
Holden did agree, however, to attend a debate to have taken place Saturday and sponsored by the Southwest Assn. of Neighborhoods.
But two debates are hardly enough, many voters and neighborhood leaders say.
"I know that, as an incumbent, Holden doesn't want to give his opponents free publicity, but there are only three weeks to go and voters don't know what the candidates stand for," Kim said. "Some last-minute mailers aren't enough."