Colorful race relieves London gray

Times Staff Writer

One candidate, an old-line leftist-turned-globalizer known as Red Ken, called the U.S. ambassador to Britain a "chiseling little crook" and recently acknowledged fathering five children by three women.

The other, an upper-crust conservative with a shock of pale blond hair permanently askew, called the London Underground an "armpit-nuzzling hell" and said he tried cocaine during college but sneezed.

Is this any way to run a city?

London may think of itself as the new global economy's Wall Street and the most urbane of international capitals, but the only two men who have a prayer of running it after the mayoral election today quite often come off as loony and loonier.

Welcome to the Ken and Boris show. It is a contest that has focused as much on the issues as on the larger-than-life candidates who practically have been tripping over each other at down-and-out neighborhood youth centers and arguing about police deployments in public debates that, for once, the public is actually watching.

The reason is not just the general concern over lawless adolescents on street corners, the miserably crowded subways or two-bedroom apartments a millionaire couldn't afford. It's the candidates themselves -- a pair of eccentrics who couldn't be more different, neither of them one of the bland, measured, so very thoughtful politicians who seem to populate so much of the British political landscape these days.

Ken Livingstone, the 62-year-old Labor Party incumbent, is an only partly reformed veteran of the old, hard left, an inclination he has had to square with his responsibility for presiding over the creation of the world's leading banking and financial services center and, in the process, becoming a champion of multinational corporations and globalization.

He has opened the door to a rash of new skyscrapers in London while holding developers' feet to the fire to make 50% of the city's new housing affordable. He made a no-holds-barred successful appeal to bring the 2012 Summer Olympics to London, even while he was striking a deal with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to buy subsidized fuel for the capital's buses and planning a citywide celebration next year to mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.

Boris Johnson, 43, is a lawmaker with the staid Conservative Party and former editor of the right-of-center Spectator magazine. He is a prankster who only pretends to be a buffoon -- he's a classics scholar and former Oxford debating society president who has a knack for the self-effacing quip that often does a good deal of collateral damage to whoever happens to be sitting straight-faced next to him on the podium.

A distant third in the 10-candidate field is Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick, an openly gay former deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police who refers to Johnson as a "clown," but who has taken flak for being soft on marijuana during his time with the police.

For all the quips and posturing, all three leading candidates are smart and fundamentally serious politicians with measurably divergent policy programs that could help determine whether London continues to thrive as a global financial capital or gets stuck in a quagmire of congestion, crime and ethnically divided communities that throttles the city's long economic boom.

At stake is more than the mayor's office and the $20.9-billion budget it controls.

Losing London to the Tories could be a devastating blow to the Labor Party, which is struggling to maintain its 11-year-long grip on power across Britain. Political analysts say the outcome could be determined less by who wants to do what for London than by whom Londoners like most -- or, framed the way most political conversations seem to go these days, whom they hate least.

"There's no question that personalities will play a part in this race, and were designed to. This is an American model of presidential politics that has been grafted onto the British body politic, and it was done by Tony Blair quite explicitly and deliberately," said Tony Travers, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, talking of the directly elected post, created in 2000, when Livingstone first won the position as an independent.

The two front-runners come down to the wire quite close in the polls, and with relatively equal loads of baggage. Livingstone launched a preemptive strike early last month, confessing before an expected news media expose that his offspring ("love children," the tabloids quickly called them) numbered several more than the two with his current partner.

"I don't think anybody in this city will be shocked by what two consenting adults do, as long as you don't include children, animals and vegetables," the mayor said defiantly.

Johnson already had weathered his personal expose in 2004 when he was dumped from the Conservative front bench for lying about an affair with another journalist. The take-home image from that incident was of Johnson, who had only recently dismissed the allegations as "an inverted pyramid of piffle," assuring journalists in front of his house that he intended to save his marriage, and turning back to find the front door locked.

But he has been dogged by his own mouth -- or pen, as the case may be.

He took a huge amount of flak for using the words "watermelon smiles" and "flag-waving pickaninnies" to describe colonialists being visited by "tribal chief" Tony Blair and the queen, and describing the city of Portsmouth as "arguably too full of drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labor MPs." In an unsigned editorial on his watch, Liverpool was described as "wallowing in victimhood" after a man from the city was beheaded in Iraq by militants.

"He's the sort of person who 200 years ago would have died aged 30 leading a cavalry charge into a volcano," Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle once said of Johnson.

Livingstone, whom Johnson prefers to call "Mayor Leaving-Soon," has had foot-in-mouth issues of his own, and not just his famous condemnation of the U.S. ambassador for pleading diplomatic immunity and refusing to pay a controversial city tax.

It hardly counts that he called President Bush "the greatest threat to life on this planet" and "the most corrupt American president since Harding in the '20s"; a good many Londoners would agree. But the mayor was nearly suspended once for comparing a Jewish journalist to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

The crime problem, though, has made for more sober reflection on the part of all the candidates, not least because the headlines in London these days are so appalling.

Livingstone says that homicides in the city have been declining since 2003, but acknowledges that more needs to be done to divert adolescents from the streets. He has pledged 1,000 new police officers over the next year and an expanded $158-million program to help break the hold of gang culture by increasing youth facilities.

Johnson wants to take money from the city's abundant stock of millionaires and billionaires and channel it, sometimes through private faith organizations, to new programs for troubled teens -- a proposal Livingstone criticizes as "a throwback to Charles Dickens' 19th century world."

One recent morning, Johnson visited a church-operated youth center at one of the city's most troubled public housing projects, Grahame Park Estate, and aimed a barrage of cheerful questions at a group of youngsters there. As so many Johnson encounters seem to do, the event quickly veered off script.

"The No. 1 thing I want to do for London is make sure it is safer. . . . Do you get scared sometimes?" he asked the boys.

"Yes," many of them said in unison.

"Who thinks the gangs are good?" Johnson asked.

Several hands went up. Johnson's unflappable grin started looking a bit shaky.

"It's sort of good," explained one boy in a gray-and-white hooded sweatshirt, "because if you know somebody in the gang, they'll be there to protect you."

"Let's be realistic," Johnson tried. "Maybe it's more fun in the gangs. Is that possible?"

The program directors winced. Whichever way the election goes, there would be a lot of educating to do.

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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