The bright spotlight of the Los Angeles mayor’s race has attracted a cast of nationally known political consultants, including strategists who played key roles in the presidential campaigns of Howard Dean, Richard Gephardt, Wesley Clark and Al Gore.
The contest will also be a rematch for local political tacticians who went toe-to-toe in the 2001 mayoral election, one of the costliest and hardest-fought in city history.
“These are the same hired guns as last time,” said Joel Kotkin, an urban historian and fellow at the New American Foundation. “They are gunfighters. They are people you hire to win an election by destroying other people.”
The caliber of the political consultants has a lot to do with the high-profile nature of the race for Los Angeles mayor, occurring in an environment flush with money during what is otherwise an off year in politics.
Mayor James K. Hahn faces challenges from four major opponents: state Sen. Richard Alarcon, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and City Councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa and Bernard C. Parks.
Hahn returns with a team led by two veterans going for their third mayoral win in a row, including their work to reelect Republican Richard Riordan in 1997. Villaraigosa’s team, which lost a runoff to Hahn’s four years ago, is back to avenge Hahn’s use of a controversial attack ad that the Villaraigosa forces partly blame for their loss.
Hertzberg has brought in the political guru behind Dean’s meteoric -- if failed -- presidential campaign, and Parks’ team includes a strategist who helped make Clark briefly a presidential contender.
By the time the race is over, the top five mayoral candidates are expected to have spent almost $15 million, much of it on strategists and media experts. The election is on March 8; if no one candidate reaches more than 50%, a runoff will be held in May.
“With the exception of New York, Los Angeles is the only city that attracts this kind of national talent,” said political strategist Dan Schnur, who is not involved in the mayor’s race.
If campaign consultants are, as Kotkin said, hired guns, then Bill Carrick is the one all the others want to shoot down.
Before running Hahn’s 2001 campaign, Carrick was a strategist for Hahn’s successful bids for city attorney in 1993 and 1997, and Riordan’s mayoral reelection in 1997. Hahn’s unpaid campaign chairman, attorney Bill Wardlaw, worked with lead consultant Carrick on the last two mayoral wins.
Carrick was credited with helping Hahn kill the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood secession efforts in 2002 with his “roulette wheel” ads, which suggested the gamble involved. Carrick’s clients include U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.
His highest-profile campaign this year, Gephardt’s run for president, ended with a loss; the Missouri congressman dropped out after placing fourth in Iowa.
A native of South Carolina who now lives in Beachwood Canyon, Carrick, 54, speaks with an easy Southern drawl that can come off as folksy, even when he is going for the jugular.
When Parks, a former police chief, held a news conference recently with the relatives of homicide victims to complain about the lack of policing under Hahn, Carrick went on the attack.
“He brings these people to come validate his argument when they were actually victims of crime when he was chief,” Carrick said, calling Parks a failure as police chief.
In 2001, Carrick infuriated Villaraigosa supporters by creating and running a television ad that used grainy footage of Villaraigosa and an image of a crack-cocaine pipe to criticize Villaraigosa’s letter to the White House on behalf of convicted drug dealer Carlos Vignali. Villaraigosa complained at the time that the ad unfairly painted him as soft on drugs and played on ethnic stereotypes.
Ace Smith, Villaraigosa’s campaign manager this time, said he fully expects mudslinging in this race, based on history.
“Clearly, the over-the-top and negative ads played a role last time, but I think we will be prepared for it this time,” said Smith, a San Francisco-based consultant.
Smith worked on Villaraigosa’s 2001 runoff after first managing the campaign of Republican Steve Soboroff, who placed third in the mayoral election that year. He is being assisted by campaign consultant Parke Skelton, who headed Villaraigosa’s campaign in 2001.
Smith, 45, has made a national name for himself by digging opponents’ skeletons from closets.
“He’s got a reputation as the best opposition research guy in the country,” said Joe Trippi, who employed Smith this year in Dean’s campaign. “The question you have to ask yourself is, who’s he going to be doing it to in this race?”
Smith most recently ran the campaign that defeated state Proposition 67 -- a measure that would have levied a surcharge on telephone bills to finance emergency medical care. He has also played key roles in campaigns for U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.
He dismisses the notion that negative attacks alone will dictate the outcome. “You can’t be elected mayor without having your own programs, your own set of beliefs, a plan for what you intend to do as mayor,” he said. “You have to present an alternative.”
Still, Smith has been known to get charged up. During the 2001 mayoral race, Smith dropped in on other candidates’ news conferences to challenge what they were saying.
“He would come and yell at our news conferences,” said Kam Kuwata, a consultant for Hahn.
John Shallman, the 40-year-old campaign manager for Hertzberg, is also hoping to do better this time around. In 2001, he ran the campaign for then-state Controller Kathleen Connell, who finished sixth in the mayor’s race.
He will be aided by Trippi, the Maryland-based consultant brought in to handle media buys and Internet operations for Hertzberg. Trippi pioneered the use of the Internet as Dean’s campaign manager.
Shallman, who is based in Sherman Oaks, is coming off a string of wins in local races, including those of council members Tom LaBonge, Wendy Greuel and Martin Ludlow, as well as Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.
He said Hertzberg’s campaign will make heavy use of the Internet to reach voters, in addition to sending Hertzberg out to meet with every neighborhood council in the city.
“The issue isn’t what campaigns you were involved in nationally. It’s what campaigns have you won locally,” Shallman said.
For his race, Alarcon is going with the familiar in the form of Richie Ross, who has managed each of Alarcon’s campaigns going back to his 1993 race for the L.A. City Council.
Ross, 55, is based in Sacramento but for years has operated in Los Angeles’ Latino political circles. He has managed more than 300 campaigns in 30 years, helping to elect Lockyer, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and outgoing Senate President Pro Tem John Burton. He has also had some spectacular defeats -- he was campaign manager for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante’s failed gubernatorial run in last year’s recall election.
In the years since he moved from New York in 1970 to work for Cesar Chavez, Ross has played a role in the election or reelection of the mayors of Sacramento, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and Houston.
“He is a scorched-earth consultant but a formidable one,” Trippi said.
Indeed, Ross ended up apologizing in 1998 for a mailer he created that attacked Richard Katz, then engaged in a heated state Senate contest with Alarcon.
The mailer falsely linked Katz to a 1988 incident in Orange County in which Republican candidates posted guards at polling places to intimidate Latinos. Katz, a Democrat, actually led a lawsuit against the Republicans involved, but the Ross mailer was devastating in the heavily Latino district, and Alarcon won by 29 votes.
Parks, like Alarcon, has gone out of town to hire consultants. After local consultant Joseph Rouzan Jr. quit as his campaign manager this summer, Parks brought in Carol Butler from Austin, Texas.
In 2000, Butler, 44, managed Debbie Stabenow’s upset victory in the U.S. Senate race in Michigan. In 1997, she ran Kirk Watson’s campaign for mayor of Austin, in which Watson won a come-from-behind victory against seven other candidates.
But there have been setbacks as well. In July, she was fired as campaign manager for South Carolina Senate candidate Inez Tenenbaum, who went on to lose the general election.
Since she moved to Brentwood to oversee Parks’ campaign, Butler has encouraged Parks to aggressively attack Hahn. Parks has worked to position himself as an ethics watchdog at City Hall.
“He is certainly pointing out differences, but he is also talking about his ideas for the city,” Butler said.
Butler is being assisted by media strategist Eric Jaye, who oversaw Newsom’s successful campaign for mayor of San Francisco, and Chris Lehane, who worked on Gore’s 2000 campaign for president and on Clark’s effort this year.
The involvement of out-of-towners has revived the debate over whether candidates in city elections benefit more from a hometown strategist or someone with national fame from distant races.
Republican Schnur, whose party does not have a major candidate in the race, said it is risky for Los Angeles candidates to bring in consultants who do not have an intimate knowledge of the city.
“Better to have a good local campaign manager than to have a superstar strategist who’s only in town twice a month,” Schnur said.
Times staff writer Noam Levey contributed to this report.