The top contenders for mayor of Los Angeles have jostled for months to make a favorable impression on Eric Bauman.
Four have courted Bauman over lunch: Mayor James K. Hahn at Pete’s Cafe near City Hall, Antonio Villaraigosa at an East L.A. taco stand, Bob Hertzberg at Art’s Deli in Studio City, Bernard C. Parks at Smeraldi’s downtown. A fifth, Richard Alarcon, buttonholed him at a Universal City luncheon.
Though unknown to most voters, Bauman is among the scores of players in Los Angeles politics who have drawn personal attention from the candidates. Cajoled and flattered by Hahn and his challengers, they are billionaires, labor leaders, celebrities, politicians, business owners and party activists like Bauman, the Los Angeles County Democratic chairman.
Some have hundreds of campaign volunteers at their disposal. Others command loyal followings of voters who could tip the March election or May runoff in a close race. A few, including former basketball star Magic Johnson, offer platinum personal validation. Many, if not most, are sources of a campaign’s lifeblood: money.
“No matter what anyone tells you, money is No. 1,” said Rick Taylor, a Los Angeles lobbyist and campaign strategist.
Largely hidden from public view, the fiercely competitive drive to line up supporters early has laid a foundation for the more visible aspects of the campaign to come: debates, television ads and local news coverage.
With the public distracted by the presidential race -- and now by year-end holidays -- the candidates have elbowed for advantage quietly, with phone calls, meals and private visits with the powerful.
For each of the five top contenders -- all Democrats -- the goal of this insiders’ contest has been to build an ever more formidable roster of supporters, which serves in turn as a tool to recruit even more.
“It’s a viability game,” said John Shallman, a Hertzberg strategist.
None of the candidates is new to the game. Villaraigosa, a city councilman, and Hertzberg are former state Assembly speakers. Parks is also on the City Council. Alarcon is a state senator.
Each has played to natural strengths. Hertzberg has assembled a broad coalition of Jewish community leaders, while Villaraigosa and Alarcon have drawn on their deep roots in the city’s Latino politics. Parks has cultivated fellow African Americans.
But as the well-known sitting mayor, Hahn holds an edge. Beyond his power to shape the public agenda, the mayor wields enormous clout with the wide network of people doing business with City Hall, a prime source of campaign support.
“The incumbent has all kinds of advantages -- even a wounded incumbent like Hahn,” said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., alluding to grand jury investigations of the mayor’s administration.
Incumbency could work to Hahn’s benefit most notably in his push to stop key leaders of organized labor and the Democratic Party from backing Villaraigosa. Those groups were twin pillars of Villaraigosa’s campaign against Hahn in the 2001 mayoral runoff.
For months, Hahn has lobbied hard to erode Villaraigosa’s advantage with both groups. And labor has begun tilting heavily toward the mayor.
Miguel Contreras, leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, which represents 420,000 city residents, applauded Hahn’s push to expand Los Angeles International Airport, a construction jobs bonanza. He also welcomed Hahn’s stands on labor contracts for municipal employees and his support for striking longshoremen and grocery workers.
“By any means, you can say he’s been good to labor,” said Contreras, who had lunch with Hahn recently at a Mexican restaurant in Boyle Heights.
In 2001, the federation put 1,800 campaign workers on the streets for Villaraigosa, Contreras said, and plowed hundreds of thousands of dollars into mailings and other efforts on his behalf.
But Hahn has already locked down the support of enough union locals to block the Eastside councilman from capturing the federation’s support again. It remains unclear whether Hahn can score the full federation’s endorsement, but “he’s been aggressive at working it,” Contreras said.
To solicit Contreras’ support, Hahn, Villaraigosa and Alarcon have paid personal visits to his office near MacArthur Park.
Contreras plans no personal endorsement but can influence the federation’s vote. He described Villaraigosa as labor’s “go-to guy” on the Council and praised Alarcon’s record as Senate Labor Committee chairman. That job makes Alarcon the gatekeeper for union legislation in Sacramento -- and “he’s called up some of the unions to remind them,” Contreras said.
Another labor leader being wooed as the election nears is Bob Baker, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League.
Hahn’s approval of a policy that lets many officers work three days a week in 12-hour shifts led many to assume that the union would support his reelection, as it backed him in 2001. But the league has summoned Hahn and his challengers to appear before its leaders to “tell us why they’re the latest and the greatest,” and “no one is coming in with an edge at all,” Baker said.
All but Parks, a former Los Angeles police chief who often clashed with the league, have accepted the invitation. The union’s endorsement is no small issue in a race in which crime is a key focus.
As for the California Democratic Party, it, too, steered hundreds of thousands of dollars into promoting Villaraigosa for mayor in 2001. Hahn is trying to stop that from happening again. Hence his -- and the others’ -- courtship of Bauman, a Hahn supporter.
The endorsement decision, though, is up to nearly 300 members of the Los Angeles County Democratic committee, led by Bauman. A vote will take place in January. Hahn and Villaraigosa have made surprise visits to party meetings this fall and placed dozens of phone calls to committee members.
“You’ve just got to court them one by one,” Villaraigosa strategist Parke Skelton said.
Beyond labor and the Democratic Party, Hahn’s challengers are scrambling to exploit his vulnerabilities among African Americans and San Fernando Valley voters, the coalition that put him in office. In the 2001 runoff, Hahn won four out of five votes among blacks citywide and a solid majority of all votes cast in the Valley.
But his standing among African Americans plummeted in 2002, when he backed the ouster of Parks as police chief. And Hahn’s leadership of the campaign against Valley secession has rankled some of his former supporters there.
With that backdrop, Magic Johnson, a major investor in revitalizing black neighborhoods, is a prime object of attention by the candidates. A Johnson spokeswoman had no comment on the mayor’s race. Parks, Villaraigosa and Hahn, who won Johnson’s backing in 2001, have beseeched the Laker star-turned-business mogul for support.
“This is not a man who lends his name, his money or his time lightly,” said Parks’ campaign manager, Carol Butler, who ranks Johnson’s as one of the top endorsements.
Among the African Americans whose support Parks has already won are comedian Bill Cosby, singer Nancy Wilson, actress Cicely Tyson and County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.
One of the African Americans most sought after by the candidates is Los Angeles Rep. Maxine Waters, whose ballot recommendation cards carry weight among many black voters. Waters said it was “much too early” to discuss the mayor’s race. But Alarcon, who met with her to solicit support for his candidacy, said she “was leaning very heavily” toward Parks.
Black church pastors have also drawn the mayoral hopefuls’ attention. Four of the candidates -- all but Hahn -- appeared before more than a dozen ministers at a recent private meeting organized by Bishop Charles Blake of West Angeles Church of God in Christ.
In the Valley, the candidates are vying for support from proponents of the 2002 secession proposal.
Alarcon, whose Senate district covers much of the Valley, stopped by the Galpin Ford auto dealership in North Hills to see the owner, Burt Boeckmann, a top secession advocate. He said Boeckmann “indicated he was displeased with the performance of the mayor.”
But Boeckmann, whose business often requires cooperation from City Hall, later announced that he “wholeheartedly” backed Hahn’s reelection.
Alarcon also dropped by the Santa Monica law office of another secession movement leader, Richard Close. “When you’re in the midst of a campaign, you reach out to everybody,” Alarcon said.
But Close, who heads the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., has since opted for Hertzberg. The former Sherman Oaks assemblyman hopes Valley voters will serve as a cornerstone of his candidacy.
One of his campaign co-chairmen is Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), who won the 2002 election for mayor of the Valley city that would have been created if voters had approved secession.
In the jockeying for credibility among white voters in the Valley, candidates have also sought support from Steve Soboroff, who performed strongly among that bloc in the 2001 mayor’s race. Soboroff, now president of the vast Playa Vista project on the Westside, has stayed out of the fray so far.
In the battle among Democratic hopefuls for support from elected officials, one towers above all others: Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is a friend of Hertzberg’s -- Schwarzenegger calls him “Hertzie” -- but has shown no sign of lending his name to anyone’s campaign for mayor.