Hahn Ad Sets Off Brawl on Airwaves
Five days before the Los Angeles election, Mayor James K. Hahn touched off an exchange of explosive campaign television ads Thursday with a spot slamming challengers Bob Hertzberg and Antonio Villaraigosa for seeking the early prison release of a drug trafficker.
Villaraigosa responded with an ad pounding Hahn for “corruption” and “scandals” at City Hall, citing a grand jury subpoena of the mayor’s personal e-mails, resignations of three top officials and the indictment of a public-relations executive accused of overbilling the city.
Striking a lighter note, Hertzberg came back with an ad featuring himself as a towering giant whose oversized black shoe crushes a tiny television showing the Hahn spot.
“I’m Bob Hertzberg, and that’s just plain wrong,” the enlarged candidate says in his first ad attacking the incumbent by name. “Another Jim Hahn excuse, like Jim Hahn saying a mayor can’t do anything to fix our schools -- or that we need a tax increase to hire more police officers.”
The charges and counter-charges set up an all-out campaign brawl for the days leading to Tuesday’s election. Until Thursday, the candidates had refrained from direct attacks in television ads, the main vehicle for reaching voters in an L.A. mayoral race, even as they sniped in mailers and public forums. But Hahn, the city’s first mayor in 32 years to face a serious threat of losing a run for reelection, decided to risk the potential voter fallout.
The double blast at Hertzberg and Villaraigosa reflects the difficult task Hahn faces in capturing enough votes Tuesday to win one of two spots in the expected May 17 runoff. A Times poll completed Sunday found the three locked in a statistical tie for the lead. Also in the race are City Councilman Bernard C. Parks and state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley), but polls have found neither likely to make the runoff.
For Hahn, the candidate posing the biggest strategic threat is Hertzberg, a Sherman Oaks lawyer who has emerged as the favorite of voting blocs once allied with Hahn -- whites, San Fernando Valley residents, Republicans and Jewish voters.
By targeting Hertzberg and Villaraigosa simultaneously, Hahn appears to be trying to minimize the chance that voters who sour on Hertzberg might shun the mayor too and defect to Villaraigosa. But the dual hit also made Hahn the target of simultaneous televised responses from both opponents. Echoing the attack on Hahn is Parks, who went up with an ad Thursday saying he would “restore integrity to the mayor’s office.”
The late timing of the negative turn could limit its impact. By Thursday, the city clerk’s office had received more than 67,000 ballots in the mail, and more were presumably en route. Fewer than 500,000 voters cast ballots in the April 2001 mayoral election.
Also, “buyer beware” is often the prevailing outlook of voters seeing an onslaught of TV ads the weekend before the election, said Allan Hoffenblum, a veteran Republican consultant. A negative ad can influence voters, he said, “but it has to be credible.”
“They have to believe the source it’s coming from,” he said. “If last-minute attacks on a candidate are perceived as politics as usual, they’re not totally ineffective, but they are less effective.”
With sinister music playing in the background, Hahn’s ad shows Hertzberg and Villaraigosa, both former Assembly speakers, on a split screen.
Reprising the theme of a controversial ad that Hahn ran against Villaraigosa in the 2001 mayoral runoff, an announcer says Villaraigosa and Hertzberg “wrote official letters to get a convicted crack cocaine dealer pardoned,” referring to Carlos Vignali.
Convicted in 1994 of conspiring to sell 800 pounds of cocaine, Vignali was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison. His father, Horacio Carlos Vignali, enlisted Villaraigosa, Hertzberg and other Los Angeles politicians and public figures in his campaign to free his son from prison. The father made $5,794 in campaign contributions to Villaraigosa and $1,000 to Hertzberg.
The two each wrote letters to the White House urging consideration of Vignali’s request for early release. On his last day in office in 2001, President Clinton granted Vignali clemency, but not a pardon.
In the mayoral campaign that year, Hahn’s ad about Vignali showed a crack pipe and grainy pictures of Villaraigosa, leading to charges of racism, which Hahn has denied. The new ad, however, does not contain those images.
“I think that both Mr. Hertzberg and Mr. Villaraigosa exhibited very poor judgment when they let a campaign contributor talk them into writing letters to pardon a convicted crack cocaine dealer,” Hahn said Thursday as he unveiled new security cameras at a park near downtown.
At a campaign stop in Boyle Heights, Villaraigosa called Hahn “a desperate politician,” saying the mayor “had a long history of sleazy campaigns.”
“He clearly is furiously trying to hold his job, and he’ll say almost anything to get reelected,” said Villaraigosa, who repeated the essence of those remarks in Spanish for the Spanish-language media.
“Desperate candidates do desperate things,” he told reporters outside City Hall, before leaving on a rush-hour race across Los Angeles against former Mayor Richard Riordan that was meant to spotlight the candidate’s plans to ease traffic congestion. “It’s five days before the election. We knew this was going to hit. We knew he would make something up. He did it last time to Antonio Villaraigosa.”
Still, Hahn succeeded -- at least partly -- in putting his rivals on the defensive at a time when they would have preferred to stick to their own agendas. Villaraigosa told reporters he regretted writing his letter seeking an early release for Vignali. And Hertzberg, when asked about his own Vignali letter, said: “I made a mistake. I wish I wouldn’t have done it.”
Hahn’s ad introduces Villaraigosa and Hertzberg as “Sacramento politicians” and says that “they raided hundreds of millions from L.A. taxpayers to bail out Sacramento.”
Invoking the California energy crisis of 2000 and 2001, an announcer says that “both took thousands of dollars in contributions from Enron,” the power trader later accused of market manipulation that led to electricity shortages. The Enron Corp. logo, a favorite image of campaign attack ads, flashes on screen as the announcer says Villaraigosa “backed Enron’s deregulation bill” and Hertzberg “secretly worked with Enron” to protect the company from losses in the energy crisis.
Villaraigosa, who along with the rest of the Legislature voted for the 1996 legislation that helped deregulate California’s energy market, accepted $18,000 in campaign donations from Enron before the power crisis.
Hertzberg, who received $13,000 in Enron campaign money, dealt extensively with the company during the electricity crunch, but said this week that the firm was just one of many players whose views he weighed in seeking to end the crisis.
The response ad from Villaraigosa, who was criticized four years ago for not reacting quickly and forcefully to Hahn’s Vignali ad, was at least as harsh as the mayor’s.
“Because of corruption in his administration, Jim Hahn’s campaign’s in trouble, so now he’s slinging mud, attacking his opponents with more false charges,” the ad says. “Can we really trust Jim Hahn?”
It shows grainy black-and-white images of Hahn, along with headlines on the criminal investigation of city contracting and the mayor’s campaign fundraising. Villaraigosa is also continuing to run a spot featuring a testimonial from his wife and a pledge from the candidate “to restore people’s trust in their government.”
As for Hertzberg, his approach in responding to Hahn was to build on the unusual ad theme he has used to capture attention. Casting himself as a candidate who would “think big” as mayor, and by implication that Hahn does not, Hertzberg has appeared as a giant strolling through L.A. as he rattles off plans to break apart the Los Angeles Unified School District and hire more police without raising taxes.
In his new spot, the giant candidate stomps on the TV set, then reiterates those vows and says the city deserves “a mayor who thinks big for a change.”
Larry N. Gerston, a San Jose State political scientist, called Hahn’s approach typical of an incumbent fighting to stay in office. In essence, he said, it suggests that Hahn’s sense of the race is: “I’m in trouble here, and I better find some way to separate myself from the pack fast.”
Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak, Jessica Garrison, Matea Gold, Patrick McGreevy and Jeffrey L. Rabin contributed to this report.