No Clear Favorite in Race for Mayor
Alleged improprieties in city contracting and campaign fundraising have damaged Mayor James K. Hahn’s public standing, and the Los Angeles mayor’s race is up for grabs with nearly a third of likely voters yet to decide among him and his challengers, a Times poll has found.
None of the five top contenders holds a wide lead, although the mayor and City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, who lost to Hahn in 2001, are distinctly ahead of the others.
The contest on the March 8 ballot remains volatile: Even among voters who have picked a candidate, a third say they might switch. That instability heightens the importance of the upcoming TV ad clash in shaping perceptions of a campaign that so far has sparked little public interest, according to the survey.
For Hahn, signs of trouble abound. Among all registered voters, just 50% say they approve of his job performance, putting him right at the traditional danger threshold for an incumbent. Among those most likely to vote, he does worse, with just 44% approving.
The poll found that Hahn had failed to recover from his steep slide in popularity among African Americans, a bloc crucial to his 2001 victory: Barely a quarter of black voters back his reelection.
Beyond that is the taint of the corruption investigation by county and federal prosecutors: More than a third of likely voters say Hahn, who has denied wrongdoing, lacks the honesty and integrity to serve as mayor. Nearly four in 10 say alleged improprieties in city contracting make them less likely to vote for Hahn. And among those who give him negative job ratings, the top reasons involve doubts about his ethics and campaign fundraising.
“I don’t feel comfortable with him anymore,” said Bette Levy of Tarzana, a 69-year-old Republican homemaker who voted for Hahn four years ago but does not plan to do so again.
Hahn is by no means mortally wounded. His popularity among Latinos has risen. His political base is geographically diverse. He is almost equally popular among liberals, moderates and conservatives -- a breadth of support that could prove important in a runoff. He also scores well on the economy.
Yet even with broad powers of incumbency at his disposal, the poll shows that Hahn has failed, at least so far, to consolidate even a fourth of city voters behind him. His accomplishments remain a mystery to most voters. And three of his foes -- Villaraigosa, City Councilman Bernard C. Parks and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg -- are complicating the mayor’s task by laying claim to niches of the electorate.
Among likely voters, Hahn and Villaraigosa are locked in a statistical tie, the poll found, with 21% and 20% respectively. The second tier of candidates is also in a statistical dead heat, with Parks at 13% and Hertzberg at 12%. State Sen. Richard Alarcon of Sun Valley trails with 3%.
Hahn’s lead is slightly wider in the broader pool of registered voters, roughly two-thirds of whom are expected not to cast ballots. In either case, three in 10 voters remain undecided.
“It’s been kind of a snooze-fest so far,” said Larissa Merriman, 34, a Fairfax district accountant leaning toward Villaraigosa. “I’m not that excited about any of them.”
If no one wins a majority March 8, a runoff election between the top two vote-getters will occur May 17. Strategists for the leading candidates have worked for months on the calculus for winning a final, two-person race under various scenarios.
But the poll underscores the vast uncertainties of those efforts, because no candidate emerges as a clear favorite on the question of whom voters prefer as their second choice.
“Right now voters are not paying any attention to the election, and it’s anybody’s guess as to who will make the runoff,” said Times pollster Susan Pinkus.
The poll, supervised by Pinkus, was conducted by telephone from Jan. 26 to Feb. 3. It surveyed 2,045 Los Angeles adults, including 1,454 registered voters. Among them were 695 voters deemed likely to cast ballots in the March election. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for registered voters and 4 for likely voters.
Despite Hahn’s troubles, each of his challengers faces liabilities too. Hertzberg, like Alarcon, is little known. Parks’ influence is largely limited to African Americans. And Villaraigosa’s hold on Latinos has weakened.
Of the challengers, however, Villaraigosa is in the strongest shape. One of the most widely known candidates, he finished first in the April 2001 mayoral election before losing the runoff to Hahn.
In the current race, likely voters have a better impression of Villaraigosa than of any other candidate. They see him as best suited to improve public schools, a key advantage because they name education as their top priority for L.A.'s next mayor.
The councilman, whose district stretches from south of Boyle Heights to Eagle Rock, is the favorite of Latinos, Democrats, liberals and residents of the Westside and Central Los Angeles. He splits white voters with Hahn and Hertzberg.
A former labor organizer, Villaraigosa is also the top choice of union members, despite Hahn’s endorsement by the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
Younger voters, the least apt to show up at the polls, also favor Villaraigosa; he is the top choice of likely voters under 45 years old.
“He just seems in tune with the city,” said Carlos Munoz, 19, a student who lives just east of downtown.
Among Villaraigosa’s weak spots: Barely any black voters back him. More worrisome for him, his support among likely Latino voters has dropped to 30%. In the April 2001 election, 62% of Latino voters backed him.
For Parks, a former Los Angeles police chief, the main challenge is reaching beyond his strong base of fellow African Americans, the poll suggests. He has made some progress. Among likely voters, Parks captures 14% of Latinos and 18% of conservatives.
Working to his advantage is Parks’ career in the Police Department. He scores better than any other candidate on who is best fit to hold down crime, the No. 2 priority for likely voters after education, and the No. 1 priority for blacks.
Parks also ranks highest on who has the honesty and integrity to serve as mayor. Overall, a narrow majority of voters has a favorable impression of Parks.
His bulwark, however, is African American voters. Many of them have abandoned Hahn in favor of the South L.A. councilman. More than four in 10 likely African American voters support Parks, while Hahn’s share of the black vote has plunged to roughly a quarter. (In the April 2001 mayoral contest, Hahn received 71% of the black vote.) Roughly three in 10 black voters remain undecided.
Hahn’s support for dumping Parks as police chief in 2002 explains much of the shift of his black supporters to Parks: More than four in 10 black likely voters say Hahn’s move against Parks makes them less likely to back the mayor for reelection.
“I was very upset about that,” said Gingi Robinson, 26, a black Westchester voter leaning toward Parks or Villaraigosa. She said Parks “knows what the police are out there seeing every day, so he can probably come up with new ideas to help them get the crime down.”
Another Parks advantage is the firmness of his base: Roughly three-fourths of his supporters are certain they will stick with him -- the most solid foundation of any candidate. That could help offset his lag in fundraising, which has left Parks unable to run the kind of broad TV advertising that Hahn, Villaraigosa and Hertzberg anticipate airing.
For Hertzberg, the overriding challenge remains to make himself known to voters who have never heard of him. Nearly three in five likely voters say they have no impression -- positive or negative -- of Hertzberg. He began running a TV ad last week, toward the end of the survey.
The poll clearly defines Hertzberg’s strengths. The Sherman Oaks lawyer is the narrow favorite of likely San Fernando Valley voters, an especially sturdy base given the Valley’s disproportionately high turnout in Los Angeles elections. The Valley made up 42% of the April 2001 electorate.
With 21% of the Valley’s votes, Hertzberg runs just ahead of Hahn, 18%; and Villaraigosa, 15%; followed by Parks, 10%; and Alarcon, a Valley lawmaker who scores just 5% of the vote there.
Among Valley residents who voted to secede from the city of Los Angeles in 2002, Hertzberg’s lead is even more decisive at 29%. Overall, roughly one in five Valley voters say Hahn’s leadership of the successful campaign against secession made them less likely to vote for him. One of them is Tarzana resident Levy, the former Hahn supporter.
“I’ve swung from Hahn to Parks to Hertzberg,” said Levy, who sees Hertzberg as a “damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead” type of mayor. “He has the kind of personality that can get things done.”
Still, Hertzberg’s support is narrow. He has almost no black or Latino backing; more than 90% of his supporters are white. He has no support in South L.A. and has also made almost no mark on the central city or Westside.
Hertzberg, who like each of the other major candidates is a Democrat, is favored by 18% of likely Republican voters, one of his main targets, putting him just behind Hahn among that group. Hertzberg advisors hope his pledge to hire more police officers without raising taxes will help him make inroads among Republicans.
But so far he has failed to consolidate another bloc he has aggressively courted: Jewish voters, whom he splits with Villaraigosa.
As for issues, Hertzberg’s signature campaign pledge -- to break apart the Los Angeles Unified School District -- draws wide support, although the mayor has no power to carry it out. The poll found that 54% of likely voters favor a breakup and 28% oppose the idea. The proposal is most popular among key Hertzberg constituencies -- Republicans, whites and Valley residents -- and least popular among blacks.
The candidate with nothing but bleak news in the poll is Alarcon. The lawmaker has failed to reach double-digit numbers among any major constituency, and his relative dearth of campaign money will make it hard for him to build support. Among the city’s biggest voting blocs, his best performance is among Latinos, but even there, competing against Villaraigosa and the others, he gets just 8%.
For Hahn, the poll illustrates dangers ahead as rivals press their two main arguments against him: that the investigation of his administration shows a pattern of ethical lapses and that Hahn has failed as a leader.
Aware of Graft Probes
The poll found that 61% of likely voters had heard or read about the Fleishman-Hillard public relations executive who was indicted last month on fraud charges for allegedly overbilling city agencies. And 70% had heard or read about the investigation into allegations that city contracts were awarded in exchange for donations to Hahn’s political committees.
“I just don’t trust him,” said Seira de la Croix, 42, a Westside antiques dealer leaning toward Villaraigosa. “I just feel like there’s too much controversy.”
Hahn has vowed to seek punishment of anyone guilty of misdeeds. No administration official has been charged in the probes.
Responding to ethics attacks by Hertzberg and Villaraigosa, another former Assembly speaker, Hahn has cast both as “Sacramento politicians” who traded favors in the state capital for campaign money. But just 5% of likely voters say service in the Legislature would make them less likely to support a candidate, and 21% say it would make them more likely to do so.
On leadership qualities, Hahn holds a narrow lead over his opponents. A plurality of likely voters want the next mayor to be a strong manager, and Hahn is their favorite.
“He’s not the most dynamic guy in the world, but in my book, he’s better than the other four running against him,” said retired Tarzana grocer Allan Arnold, 88. “He’s been in the city long enough to know all the angles.”
But among the 48% who disapprove of Hahn’s job performance, the reason cited second most often -- after doubts about his ethics and campaign fundraising -- is that he is not a strong leader.
“This Hahn -- I never see him,” said retired Tarzana teacher Edith Goldfinger. “Why doesn’t he appear sometimes on television? Make a little speech or something so we know what he does? I hardly know what he looks like.”
When all likely voters were asked to name Hahn’s most important accomplishments over the last four years, nearly two-thirds could not name one.
Just 5% mentioned what Hahn trumpets as his top accomplishment: the drop in crime on his watch. And only 14% of likely voters say they feel safer in Los Angeles than they did four years ago, with 26% saying less safe and 58% saying neither.
To publicize crime reduction, Hahn has appeared at frequent public events with Police Chief William J. Bratton. The poll indicates that tactic carries potential to help the mayor: Bratton’s approval rating among likely voters is a stratospheric 75%.
Times Poll Associate Director Jill Darling Richardson and data management supervisor Claudia Vaughn contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Mayor’s race heats up
Los Angeles residents who are likely to vote in the upcoming
mayoral election were asked:
Q: For whom would you vote in the March 8 primary for mayor of Los Angeles?
James K. Hahn: 23%
Antonio Villaraigosa: 20%
Bernard C. Parks: 13%
Bob Hertzberg: 12%
Richard Alarcon: 3%
Dont’ know: 33%
Q: What issues should be on the next mayor’s priority list?*
All likely voters
More police: 15%
Traffic congestion: 14%
More police: 13%
Traffic congestion: 23%
San Fernando Valley
More police: 18%
Traffic congestion: 17%
Central Los Angeles
More police: 13%
Traffic congestion: 12%
South Los Angeles
More police: 19%
Traffic congestion: 2%
Q: Which candidate would be best at:
Don’t know: 20%
Promoting economic prosperity
Don’t know: 26%
Holding down crime
Don’t know: 20%
Don’t know: 28%
Improving city’s public schools
Don’t know: 27%
Q: Do you think each of the following candidates has the honesty and integrity to serve as the mayor of Los Angeles?
Not honest: 17%
Don’t know: 50%
Not honest: 34%
Don’t know: 18%
Not honest: 9%
Don’t know: 55%
Not honest: 25%
Don’t know: 23%
Not honest: 21%
Don’t know: 29%
Q: What is your impression of:
Not aware: 47%
Don’t know: 6%
Not aware: 5%
Don’t know: 3%
Not aware: 54%
Don’t know: 6%
Not aware: 13%
Don’t know: 3%
Not aware: 20%
Don’t know: 4%
Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the way Mayor James Hahn is handling his job?
Don’t know: 8%
Q: Why do you approve of the way Hahn is handling his job? (top five responses)*
(Asked of voters who approve)
No particular reason: 25%
Has done a good job: 17%
Has honesty/intgrety: 8%
Cares about L.A.: 8%
Is a strong leader: 7%
Q: Why do you disapprove of the way Hahn is handling his job? (top five responses)*
(Asked of voters who disapprove)
Doubts about ethics: 33%
Includes the following:
Lacks honesty/integrity: 15%
City contracting scandal: 14%
Beholden to special interests: 9%
Is not a strong leader: 21%
* Up to two responses accepted
Note: Results may not add up to 100% where some answer categories are not shown.
Times Poll results are also available at www.latimes.com/timespoll.
How the poll was conducted: The Times Poll contacted 2,045 adults in the city of Los Angeles by telephone Jan. 26 through Feb. 3. Among that group 1,454 were registered to vote, including 695 deemed likely to vote in the March election. Likely voters were determined by a screening process that included questions on intention to vote, certainty of vote, interest in the campaign, whether the respondent was a first-time voter and past voting history. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the city, and random digit dialing techniques allowed listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. Multiple attempts were made to contact each number. Adults were weighted slightly to conform with their respective census proportions by sex, ethnicity, age, education, city region and party registration. The margin of sampling error for likely voters is plus or minus 4 percentage points. For certain subgroups, the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results may also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented. Interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish.
Source: Times Poll