The Strange Dance That Elects the L.A. Mayor

I watched with interest L.A.'s mayoral campaign in its fading weeks, not because of its intellectual pull or its visionary politics, but because of its sleaze.

As a newspaper columnist, I am drawn to sleaze like a buzzard to carrion, perched on a limb waiting for the smell of rot to lure me to the feast.

In the case of Little Jimmy Hahn versus Tough Tony Villaraigosa, I felt there was very little to dine on, even though our editorial writers were shocked, shocked!, at the quality of the campaign waged by Hahn.

Given the sensitive, high-strung nature of our E.W.s, I can understand how they might have been startled, astonished or even saddened by the tactics, but blown away? I can't see why. The whole election was pretty much business as usual.

To more or less reprise some of the low points of the campaign that just ended, Hahn called Villaraigosa a friend of drug dealers and child molesters, and Villaraigosa called Hahn a liar and maybe a crook. Cool.

Then they laughed, shook hands, patted each other on the back and returned to romancing the voters.

But off and on, Villaraigosa expressed outrage and indignation, two old election standbys, at the scurrilous level of Hahn's attacks, especially mailers that featured a pile of cocaine captioned, "Why We Can't Trust Antonio Villaraigosa."

Responding to the outrage, the new mayor of L.A. summarized politics for future generations by replying, "Campaigns are not prom dates."

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I have been waiting an entire career for someone to properly define electioneering in America, and now, at last, someone has. It is artful imagery and perfect dichotomization.

Hahn could have said campaigns are not fishing trips or dates with a Hooters waitress or lunch with the girls, but he chose instead to appeal to those who will be our future voters.

Any of the metaphors would have been adequate. Hahn, however, wisely opted to place the comparison on a level that even a teenager could understand, thereby establishing a universal plane of acceptance that included everyone.

The only problem here is that it raises the question among dumber teens, why wasn't the Hahn-Villaraigosa campaign like a prom? Was it because:

A. The candidates weren't wearing corsages?

B. Tony wouldn't let Jimmy lead when they danced?

C. Jimmy wouldn't get into the back seat of the car with Tony?

D. Tony wouldn't say he loved Jimmy?

None of the above, of course. A campaign is not a prom date because, contrary to what might be true, proms are looked upon as special celebrations of youth and fun, while elections are all about swimming through sewage on the way to Bali Hai.

Placed in another universal context, a prom is a kiss, an election a grope.

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Charges of drugs, sex, lies and other felonious pursuits during the swim for mayor not only emphasized the difference between a campaign and a prom, but made the campaign a lot more interesting than a prom.

Without a little mudslinging (that was mud, wasn't it?), we would not have begun wondering just what in the hell was going on and thereby would not have become familiar with each candidate's particular brand of mud, or whatever. How can you possibly vote for the greater of two evils unless you know which of the evils is lesser?

Historically, the job of mayor is not noted for its heroic figures, except in Oakland, where they elected a saint. Just recently, a Camden, N.J., mayor was convicted of corruption (the city's third in 20 years), the mayor of Compton was convicted of extortion, the mayor of Folsom was arrested for trying to buy sex with drugs and the mayor of Miami was jailed for allegedly bopping his wife on the head with a terra-cotta teapot.

And there is always the first campaign of Dick Riordan, who was revealed to have been arrested twice for drunk driving. Riordan shrugged and said it was actually three times and we elected him anyhow.

Americans have been known to elect dead people to public office, so why not a guy who is said to have refined sleaze-slinging to a fine art?

Just as we savor television shows that take humans to the brink of death, so we prefer extremes in politics that can hold our fickle interests to the end, and this one pretty much did. Think of it as "Survivor in L.A." The last man standing won.

At least, our mayors have managed to stay out of jail during the last two decades with which I am familiar. I guess that brings our campaigns closer to a prom than a dance with the devil. But there are still no good-night kisses.

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Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He is at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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