Ask most political consultants to comment on the hottest campaign so far this year and it's understood you're talking about the race for the 5th District City Council seat, the only campaign in which the candidates are expected to raise more than $1 million collectively.
Candidates have been raising money and positioning themselves to represent the 5th District almost since the day last year that 19-year council veteran Zev Yaroslavsky announced that he would vacate the seat to become a member of the County Board of Supervisors.
"Clearly, it's the highest profile race of the season," political consultant Richard Lichtenstein said.
The race has drawn the most attention, in part because the contest is being fought by a field of sophisticated, well-financed candidates who, unlike other council candidates in the city, do not face the uphill battle of unseating an incumbent, he said.
Adding to the drama is the candidacy of Zev Yaroslavsky's wife, Barbara, 47, whose strong showing has raised the specter of a new political dynasty in Los Angeles.
But she faces formidable competition from candidates Roberta Weintraub, 59, a former school board member; Mike Feuer, 36, the former head of a free legal clinic, and Jeff Brain, 35, a Sherman Oaks realtor and activist.
The 5th District, which straddles the Santa Monica Mountains, stretching from Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley to Fairfax and Brentwood in West Los Angeles, is considered one of the most affluent and politically active districts in the city.
For most of the campaign, the candidates have focused on promoting their qualifications: Yaroslavsky has talked about her 15 years as a volunteer at the Los Angeles Free Clinic, Weintraub points to her 14 years on the school board, Feuer talks about his eight years as director of the Bet Tzedek legal services program, and Brain cites his work on behalf of the community as president of the Sherman Oaks Chamber of Commerce.
But in the final weeks before the Tuesday primary, the race has gained new momentum as candidates shifted away from promoting themselves to taking shots at each other and issuing campaign promises.
For instance, last week Feuer fired off a bruising campaign mailer that accuses Weintraub of voting to double her salary as a school board member, allowing a private contractor to divert more than $700,000 from the school district and with falling asleep during teacher contract negotiations, among other accusations.
Weintraub refuted the charges and fired back at Feuer, accusing him of starting a mud-slinging campaign. At a televised debate Friday, Weintraub said she expects the Feuer mailer to set the tone for the rest of the race.
"Hold on to your hats folks because you ain't seen nothing yet," she said.
Barbara Yaroslavsky has also taken some shots, primarily from Weintraub and Brain who have accused her of purposely missing about 10 candidates' forums in an effort to win the race based solely on her money and her husband's name recognition.
Yaroslavsky, who is clearly sensitive about questions regarding her husband's role in the race, has rejected such charges, saying she has attended about a dozen forums so far but missed some simply due to scheduling conflicts.
Political observers see Yaroslavsky as the front-runner, due in part to her husband's name recognition and her endorsements from such political heavyweights as Mayor Richard Riordan and Supervisor Gloria Molina. She also leads the fund-raising contest with $360,000 in donations.
As is evident by the heated exchanges between Weintraub and Feuer, the battle now appears to be for second place and the opportunity to face Yaroslavsky in a June 6 runoff.
"I see a runoff and I see Yaroslavsky as the front-runner," Valley-based political consultant Paul Clarke said. "Who will be in second is the question."
Steve Afriat, a political consultant who lives in the 5th District and has received many campaign mailers, agrees: "It's certainly gotten nasty between Feuer and Weintraub in the battle for second place."
In between exchanging barbs, the candidates have also issued promises to reduce the influence of contributors in city government.
Last week, all four candidates went on record in vowing to abstain from any council decision that would benefit one of their campaign contributors. But when pressed, some of the candidates said they may vote on an issue impacting a contributor but only after returning that contributor's money.
Feuer and Weintraub went one step further. Feuer has promised that if elected he would not accept lobbyist money for his officeholder account, while Weintraub has vowed to refuse all lobbyist money during and after the campaign.
"I think money corrupts politicians," Weintraub said.
Despite such pronouncements, the contributions raised by the candidates total about $975,600 as of March 31--far surpassing the total for any of the seven other council races in the city, according to campaign statements.
Yaroslavsky leads the fund-raising contest with $360,700 while Feuer has raised $300,000, including $100,000 in city matching funds, according to campaign statements for the period up to March 31. Weintraub has come in third with $274,000, including $87,000 in matching funds, and Brain has $42,000.
According to a Times analysis of contributions raised as of Jan. 1, 15% of Yaroslavsky's contributions came from attorneys, 15% from non-employed contributors, such as homemakers and retired people, about 7% from investors and bankers, 6% from developers and about 5% from employees of the real estate industry.
Thirty-five percent of Feuer's contributions came from attorneys, 11% from non-employed contributors, 10% from employees of the entertainment industry, 5% from political action committees and loans, and about 4% from contributors who declined to identify their occupation, according to the analysis for that period.
For her part, 18% of Weintraub's contributions came from non-employed contributors, 11% from political action committees and loans, 10% from teachers and other contributors in the education field, 9% from donors giving less than $100, and 7% from donors in the medical industry, according to the analysis.
Twenty-six percent of Brain's contributions came from personal loans he made to his campaign, 20% from contributors in the real estate industry, 19% from contributors of less than $100, and 7% from retail industry employees, according to the analysis.
All four candidates have clearly made crime their top issue. But each has offered his or her own solutions.
Feuer, for instance, has suggested establishing a series of police substations that can be staffed by reserve officers who are paid a nominal stipend. Yaroslavsky has suggested adding more bicycle and foot patrols and increasing after-school programs to keep youths out of trouble. Weintraub and Brain have both talked about improving the city's efforts to keep officers from leaving Los Angeles for police jobs in other cities.
According to political pundits, Feuer, Weintraub and Yaroslavsky share the same base of support: liberal, Jewish Democrats in the Westside. But Weintraub, they said, also generates some support from conservative voters because of the anti-busing stand she took early in her tenure on the school board.
Brain, however, is the only candidate living in the Valley and the only Republican in the field--a fact he said he hopes will help him squeeze into the June runoff. He is also the only candidate to propose turning over more public service jobs to private companies, a policy that Riordan has advocated in the past.
Afriat said he believes the final few weeks of a campaign are crucial because he guesses that about 60% to 80% of voters decide on a candidate after reading the mailers and news accounts that begin to come out toward the end of the race.
"I think the field is pretty strong and they are all trying to carve out their niche," he said.
"I think anything can happen next week."
* FINAL PUSH: Campaigns shift into high gear in last week. B4