It’s not that L.A. doesn’t care about city politics, but it’s pretty hard to listen to talk about potholes and synchronized traffic lights when your house is sliding down a hill and there’s a Siberian tiger on the loose.
So Bob Hertzberg, candidate for mayor, was wearing foundation makeup and verging on giddy when his car pulled up for a meeting the other day at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Santa Monica office.
Hertzberg was there to announce -- again -- the governor’s support for his plan to break up the Los Angeles Unified School District, which Schwarzenegger had actually announced a week earlier, only there weren’t any cameras around at that time.
The pair stood side-by-side, the governor in his blood-red cowboy boots, the candidate in his lawyerly black shoes, amid photographers so hungry for a shot of someone their viewers might actually recognize that aides got out the duct tape to hold them back. (The portly Hertzberg, whose propensity for throwing his arms around people has earned him the handle “Huggy Bear,” is hardly averse to close contact, but the governor likes his space.)
“I have just had a wonderful conversation with Bob Hertzberg. He gave me his whole binder and his whole folder and I am looking forward to going through that,” Schwarzenegger said, holding up a photocopied opus that looked about as inviting to read as the phone book.
“This is what Jim Hahn should be doing,” Hertzberg exulted, seizing yet another opportunity to zing the incumbent he and his rivals want so badly to defeat in the election March 8.
The attention was an anomaly. It’s been a tough stretch for the men who would be mayor. They’ve competed with a train derailment, torrential rains, the unfortunate tiger and Oscar night for the attention of weary voters who, in a little more than a year, have experienced a gubernatorial recall, a presidential primary and a general election that didn’t turn out the way most of them had hoped.
Some of the electorate’s failure to focus on choosing the next leader of the nation’s second-largest city is based on the misconception that this contest is a colossal bore. In fact, it’s anything but.
If you slog past all of the pothole counting -- challenger Bernard C. Parks says he filled 3,995 in a year, incumbent James K. Hahn claims 2,642 since the recent storms -- this contest is a regular soap opera. Indeed, there are so many unsettled scores among the candidates, a less-civilized group would have taken it outside by now.
There is Hahn, the mayor who fended off two secession drives and oversaw a reduction in crime yet continues to walk (with more zip than usual if his latest TV ad is any indication) in the long shadow of his legendary father. Not to mention a looming ethics scandal.
There is Parks, the peeved ex-police chief pushed from his dream job by Hahn, who not only has never regretted the move but has made a commercial telling everyone how much better things got after Parks left.
There is Hertzberg, the thrice-married Huggy Bear and wealthy attorney who sued his father and collected from the estate and later petitioned ex-wife No. 2 to cut his child support payments as he ramped up his run for mayor.
There is Antonio Villaraigosa, back for a rematch with Hahn, who he believes stole the last race with a grainy TV ad that showed him, a razor blade, cocaine and a pipe. The vanquished Villaraigosa settled for a council seat in 2003, which he won by promising not to run for mayor in 2005. Never mind.
And finally there is Richard Alarcon, the courtly state senator who lives with his mother in Sun Valley when he’s not in Sacramento and speaks with 1960s idealism about saving the environment and ending poverty, for which he has a master plan. He regularly praises his opponents and never fights dirty, and observers say he makes the most sense at debates. As a result, his campaign is broke, and he can best be described as a longshot.
While most of the challengers are united in their disdain for Hahn -- a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” sort of thing -- they aren’t exactly crazy about one another, either.
Take Hertzberg and Villaraigosa -- roommates while serving in the state Assembly until the former challenged the latter for the speaker’s seat sooner than the latter cared to be challenged. Now they hardly speak, except for the occasional public hug, when Hertzberg whispers something mysterious in Villaraigosa’s ear, the content of which we can only guess at.
But since most people are not aware of how mesmerizing they are, the candidates have had to fight hard to call attention to themselves. Saturday morning, Parks straddled a Harley-Davidson in the parking lot of a Krispy Kreme, strengthening his reputation as a dapper dresser by revealing his chic, sheer black nylon hose.
At a recent convention of animal rights activists in Sherman Oaks, they all shared stories about pets they have known and loved. A morning talk jock last week asked them what’s the worst food they ever had to eat in front of somebody and pretend to like. (Hertzberg: a fish head in Hong Kong. Parks: something red in Little Tokyo that made him cry.)
Indeed, the candidates occasionally try so hard to sound fascinating that they don’t make much sense. But this being L.A. and not New York, no one has the heart to tell them.
At a mixer last week at the landmark Hollywood Museum, housed inside the Max Factor glamour palace, Parks and Hertzberg were doing their best to make landfills and Japanese business management techniques sound riveting. But it was hard to concentrate once you discovered that right downstairs were the very rooms where Lucy first became a redhead and Marilyn a blond.
Hollywood Councilman Tom LaBonge was stumping for Hahn, who wasn’t there, explaining as most Hahn supporters do that the mayor is a regular laugh riot in private, even if he comes off like kind of a drip in front of a crowd.
“Some guys swing the bat and everybody cheers in the stadium, some guys swing the bat and everybody scores,” LaBonge said in what was either an explanation of the mayor’s reserve or an allusion to his childhood stint as an honorary Dodger bat boy.
Not to be outdone, Parks approached and offered some allegory of his own:
“You know, the Titanic wouldn’t have been a disaster if there were no passengers on board,” the councilman said.
LaBonge laughed heartily, and Parks walked away, smiling.
What did he mean by that Titanic thing?
“I don’t know,” LaBonge shrugged.
Pity the poor voter who attends one of those things in hopes of surveying the field and casting an intelligent vote. Half of the candidates usually don’t show up, and those who do arrive late or leave early, sometimes both. (Thursday night, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce rushed through its presentation of plaques to new members to let Hertzberg say a few words, only to find that when they introduced him, he was already gone.)
It is far less likely that voters’ minds will be made up by mixers and debates than by the ad blitz that has recently hit the airwaves.
An exorbitantly expensive L.A. media market and relatively meager war chest have combined to produce some of the shortest, weirdest campaign ads ever to grace municipal politics.
Hahn’s is the slickest, showing an unusually peppy mayor speed-walking down a Los Angeles street, boasting about making “gutsy decisions” -- like firing the city’s African American police chief at the beginning of Black History Month.
Alarcon, strapped for cash, has to squeeze his message into all of 15 seconds. He can be seen examining a business card and decrying the trading of campaign money for city contracts. But in the back seat of a dark car, his Xavier Cugat mustache can make it unclear to viewers whether he is the voice of honesty or the perp.
The award for the most memorable ad, though, goes to Hertzberg, who appears as a human skyscraper towering over a tiny Los Angeles, his face peeking scarily inside a school window in the district he wants to dismantle and looming over a Tonka-size traffic jam he promises to fix.
“Friends in the Hollywood business have called me and written me e-mails saying it’s fabulous, incredible, eye-catching. Others in the media say people hate it, but everybody’s talking about it,” said Hertzberg, who was so pleased with the ad that he made another one. This time he goes from a giant to a teeny person and then back to a giant.
Though some more cynical observers (political types mostly) noted the spots made Hertzberg look like Godzilla, voters seemed to love them. The first ad so captivated Eleanor Thomas, a receptionist at the Lakeside Country Club in Burbank, that she turned to her husband and said, “Whoa! We have to find out who did that commercial!”
There was no doubt in Thomas’ mind that Hertzberg should be the next mayor of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, she lives in Saugus and can’t vote.
This is a common problem for the candidates, who try mightily to impress a distracted electorate, only to find that many of those they inspire live outside the city’s amorphous borders.
Even after months of campaigning, the pack is tight and the outcome anyone’s guess. The stakes are clearly highest for Hahn, who could become the first of his family’s famous political dynasty to be ousted from office.
The stoic mayor rarely shows the strain; indeed, he seldom shows much emotion at all. Standing next to a woman sobbing over the loss of her house to a mudflow, Hahn stuck his hands in his pockets and, desperate for some words of comfort, mumbled something about the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A television reporter recently asked him if he was glamorous enough for this glamorous city.
His rivals use him for target practice at community events where he is rarely present to mount a defense. He’s instead kept himself busier than usual, calling news conferences and soaking up all the free media he can.
At an early-morning Saturday debate sponsored by the Los Angeles Sentinel, the African American audience that would have been a slam dunk for him four years ago was miffed that Hahn dumped them to walk precincts in San Pedro.
His opponents, taking full advantage of his absence, blamed the mayor for making the city less safe. There was no one to retort that crime had actually dropped on his watch -- just a placard in front of an empty chair and an unopened bottle of water that one of his rivals eventually drank.
Tonight is the last chance Los Angeles voters have to view a live debate among the top five mayoral candidates before the March 8 election.
Candidates: Mayor James K. Hahn, state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley), former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and Councilmen Bernard C. Parks and Antonio Villaraigosa.
Station: KCBS-TV Channel 2
Time: 6:30 to 8 p.m.
Los Angeles Times