Lots of Jabs, but No Haymakers

Times Staff Writers

The leading candidates for mayor of Los Angeles edged closer Tuesday to an all-out assault against one another, but they stopped short of launching the ad war that each is prepared to wage in the closing days of the race.

As the candidates sniped over police hiring plans and political tactics, Mayor James K. Hahn delivered either a hint of things to come or an indication of his frustration -- this on the day that a new Times poll showed him in a statistical tie with challengers Bob Hertzberg and Antonio Villaraigosa.

“I’m losing my patience with the mudslinging that’s going on, and I’m not just going to sit here and take it forever,” Hahn said, referring to mailings from his competitors.


People who “make the kind of baseless charges that Mr. Villaraigosa and Mr. Hertzberg are making are going to have to defend their own records too,” Hahn said.

At an afternoon news conference in Eagle Rock, Hertzberg returned the jab.

“I can tell you the people are losing patience with the failure to fix traffic,” Hertzberg said. “The people are losing patience -- how many kids have been affected in the last four years in our education system that’s failing?”

Still, in the growing onslaught of campaign television ads, Hahn and his challengers in next week’s election stuck to largely positive spots Tuesday, with mostly subtle, indirect swipes at rivals.

In a Villaraigosa ad released Tuesday, the city councilman refers elliptically to the criminal investigation of city contracting under Hahn. “The next mayor’s most fundamental job will be working to restore people’s trust in their government,” Villaraigosa says in the ad.

In remarks to reporters, Villaraigosa was more blunt about the mayor, saying the new poll showed that many voters were concerned about “the scandal surrounding his administration.”

The tight nature of the race was evident in a tit-for-tat tussle between Villaraigosa and Hahn over plans to expand the Los Angeles Police Department. Neither plan was detailed, and both appeared aimed at casting the candidates as crime fighters.


In the morning, Villaraigosa and other members of the City Council stood in front of Parker Center to propose hiring 90 police officers with new budget savings.

“We’ll make a major new step forward in giving Chief [William J.] Bratton the officers he needs to crack down on gangs and make our neighborhoods safer,” said Villaraigosa, invoking the popular police chief whose hiring Hahn touts at every turn in the campaign.

Hours later, Deputy Mayor Doane Liu announced that Hahn had agreed to put money for hiring 720 new officers in the city budget that he will propose in April. Liu did not say how a city on a tight budget could pay for the new officers, but suggested that spending cuts were possible, and that an improving economy could produce new tax revenue.

Hertzberg has promised to hire 3,000 officers without raising taxes, a plan that critics have dismissed as unrealistic.

The vague police pledges and mutual taunting Tuesday came as the candidates’ strategists weighed the risks of starting a full-scale fight of negative TV ads. But the crowded field of candidates -- five of them are running TV ads in the mayoral race -- has left each waiting for another to make the first move, lest it backfire.

“When you have multiple candidates in a race, you never know, if you go negative on Smith or Jones, do the votes come back to you?” said Republican strategist Arnold Steinberg.


For instance, if Hahn were to attack Hertzberg, who shares much of the mayor’s political base, some voters might abandon Hertzberg but back Villaraigosa instead of Hahn, Steinberg said.

“If Hahn goes negative,” he said, “does he benefit or does one of his opponents benefit?”

Responding to Hahn’s remarks Tuesday, Hertzberg strategist John Shallman said the mayor and his campaign advisors were “desperate and have no other option” but to go on the attack, given that only two candidates will make it into a May runoff.

“We’re prepared to defend ourselves,” Shallman said. “But we believe voters want to know how we’re going to improve the quality of their lives, not get down in the mud.”

Villaraigosa campaign manager Ace Smith scoffed at Hahn’s assertion that the attacks on him were “baseless,” naming four law enforcement agencies investigating his administration.

“Jim Hahn, the man who ran one of the sleaziest campaigns in American history, claiming people are throwing mud at him is nonsense,” said Smith, alluding to Hahn’s attacks on Villaraigosa in the 2001 mayoral runoff.

Smith said that Hahn “did everything short of announcing he’s going to run a negative campaign” Tuesday.


In remarks to the news media at an environmental announcement in Los Feliz, Hahn hammered Hertzberg and Villaraigosa for campaign mailings that attack the mayor on ethics. Hahn has denied any wrongdoing and said that anyone who broke the law should be punished.

“I’m not going to sit here and take the kind of abuse that’s baseless and groundless day after day after day from these people without responding,” Hahn said, with the green hills of Griffith Park as his backdrop.

In his only attack so far in a TV ad, Hahn says he “stopped Sacramento politicians from raiding our tax dollars, money L.A. needs for our police, firefighters and local services,” an apparent reference to Villaraigosa and Hertzberg, both former Assembly speakers, and state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley), whom the Times poll found trailing in fifth place.

Hertzberg’s latest spot, which shows the candidate as a giant strolling across a tiny city, takes more nuanced shots at Hahn. Implying that Hahn’s vision for Los Angeles is small, Hertzberg says, “You deserve a mayor who thinks big for a change.”

Another candidate, City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, has run the most aggressive TV ad yet. It calls Los Angeles “a city with corruption and a rising homicide rate,” and shows a newspaper headline that reads, “Hahn Team Is Focus of Grand Jury.”

At Hahn’s campaign event, the mayor said it was irresponsible for opponents to draw conclusions from the ongoing investigation, which has resulted in no charges against city officials. He also defended efforts by officials to have the city pay legal bills stemming from the investigation.


“There’s no scandal,” Hahn said. “There’s no corruption that’s been found.”

Times staff writers Michael Finnegan, Noam N. Levey and Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.