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Debate Leaves No Doubt Foes Will Hammer Hahn

Times Staff Writers

If there was any doubt that allegations of corrupt contracting in City Hall would play a central role in the March mayoral election, it was probably erased in the campaign’s opening debate Thursday.

Mayor James K. Hahn’s four leading opponents mentioned “scandal,” “special interests” and “contracts” more than 20 times during the 60-minute televised debate.

But against a mayor who diligently sticks to his message that he has reduced crime -- as Hahn did Thursday -- it remains unclear if the attacks will prove powerful enough to make Hahn the first incumbent Los Angeles mayor to lose in 32 years.

“It comes down to public safety versus the conflict-of-interest questions,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political scientist who has written extensively about Los Angeles politics.

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Debates alone rarely decide elections, and only about 229,000 households watched Thursday, according to KNBC-TV Channel 4.

And beyond labeling the mayor as corrupt, a successful challenger will probably have to provide a substantive alternative to Hahn’s leadership.

Still, several political observers said that Thursday’s debate vividly illustrated what will probably be the central dynamic of this mayoral campaign. And it provided some hints of how the five candidates may pursue their campaigns in the three months before the March 8 election.

Hahn, as he has been doing for months, took every opportunity Thursday to talk about dramatic drops in crime and the successful tenure of the popular police chief he appointed two years ago.

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Hahn’s opening statements Thursday focused on Chief William J. Bratton, whom Hahn labeled the “finest police professional in America.”

Hahn linked education and the economy to public safety. And he repeatedly plugged his plan to raise taxes to expand the police force.

If Hahn can keep the focus on public safety throughout the campaign, he stands a better chance of winning reelection, Sonenshein and others said.

But the criminal probes into city contracting remain a wild card in the race.

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Local and federal prosecutors have spent much of the past year looking into alleged links between campaign contributions and contracting decisions at the port, airport and Department of Water and Power.

And although it is unclear if or when there will be any criminal charges, authorities have pushed their investigations closer to the mayor, and several members of his administration have resigned.

More recently, the mayor also has been forced to defend his close relationship with Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations firm accused of overbilling the DWP by more than $4 million.

That has given Hahn’s opponents potent ammunition to attack him, which all did at Thursday’s debate.

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“What this is is basically an audition for the opinion makers, the media, and the contributors,” said political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. “And if they get nervous about the issue of corruption and it maintains, it might get to be a little difficult.”

State Sen. Richard Alarcon, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and Councilmen Bernard C. Parks and Antonio Villaraigosa all hammered away at the mayor for allowing campaign contributors to get city contracts.

Three of the men made the issue the focus of their opening remarks. And Villaraigosa even repeated in both his opening and closing statements that the city had been “paralyzed by scandal” under Hahn.

“It was an incredible barrage of attacks, just one after another after another,” said local political consultant Kerman Maddox.

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But Maddox said those attacks alone will not deliver the election for any of Hahn’s four opponents. “At the first debate, if you are the challenger, you want to establish yourself as the guy who is the real alternative.”

By that measure, the challengers’ records were more mixed, Maddox and others said.

Hertzberg made it clear that he would try to build his campaign around his recently announced proposal to break up the Los Angeles Unified School District into smaller neighborhood districts.

That is a message that seems likely to resonate most in Hertzberg’s native San Fernando Valley, where similar efforts have been tried before.

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Many political strategists say Hertzberg, who is not as well-known as his opponents, must win strong support in the Valley to get into a mayoral runoff.

Alarcon and Parks, who have the least financial resources of the five major candidates, hit on more populist themes, emphasizing their interest in opening up City Hall to average citizens.

Only Alarcon provided a specific proposal, however.

The soft-spoken former city councilman from the East Valley proposed a ballot measure to ban contributions from city contractors and developers, a plan similar to one Hahn proposed earlier this year.

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Villaraigosa, who lost a fiercely fought race against Hahn in 2001 is widely considered to be the mayor’s strongest challenger in this election.

The former Assembly speaker last week proposed his own plan to hire more police officers by raising the county sales tax in 2006.

And he said Thursday that he would make education his top priority as mayor.

But several observers said they were surprised that Villaraigosa was not more focused Thursday. “Antonio is looking for a defining issue” he can use to “both criticize the mayor and say who he is,” Sonenshein said. “I don’t think he’s found it yet.”

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