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In LA Mayor's Race, Democracy Lost

PHOTOS: JM
Top: Candidates Jennerjahn, Dogg, and Rubin conclude a debate
Bottom: Candidates Jennerjahn, Hernandez, Alvarez, Rubin

Though this campaign cycle, until the final week before Tuesday's election, media have used the occasion of the election not to evaluate candidates, but to evaluate the Mayor alone.

When I saw what was happening, I dedicated my own efforts towards reminding voters that the election was not a one-man race.

Here is the Times editorial from over a month ago that said the exercise of interviewing local candidates often "veers towards pointlessness."

Here is Marc Cooper's op-ed on the Mayor's race, published in the Times the Friday before the election, mentioning no rival candidates.

Here is Patt Morrison's, published in the Times over a month ago, in which she called on the Mayor to debate the "measly opposition" without mentioning any challenger candidates by name.

Here's a Steve Lopez column that called for a debate between the Mayor and Walter Moore and mentioning no other candidates. That call came over a month ago.

Here is Earl Ofari Hutchinson's first op-ed, published in the Daily News last weekend, mentioning no rival candidates. And here is his second, mentioning no rival candidates.

And following, here's the final incarnation of mine, unpublished anywhere, which mentions some other candidates vying for the job.
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In LA Mayor's Race, Democracy Lost


by JOSEPH MAILANDER


If you live in the city of Los Angeles, sense that you’re worse off now than you were four years ago, and are wondering why, you should talk to some of the people brash enough run for Mayor against The Honorable and formidably bankrolled Antonio Villaraigosa.

“The Mayor is destroying the city,” Phil Jennerjahn says.

“The Mayor sabotaged the School District,” David Hernandez says.

“This guy lies about everything,” Craig X. Rubin says.

Walter Moore’s website includes pie-charts demonstrating that the Mayor finished the 2001 and 2005 primaries with only 30 and 33% of the vote. “And that was before they knew for sure how awful he is,” the website adds.

The Mayor needs to secure 50% of the vote in next Tuesday’s election to avoid the embarrassment of a runoff. Villaraigosa scared off more formidable contenders by amassing a two-million-dollar war chest for his re-electoral bid early on. Then, his consultants scared a job-panicked local print media from paying too much attention to the race by painting the Mayor’s opponents as gadflies, suggesting that merely mentioning their names would be irresponsible.

Neither the Mayor’s office nor the media, with very limited exceptions, have been very interested in serving the broader interest of democracy in this election. But that has done nothing to deter a pack of determined civic activists from trying their luck at forcing a runoff against the Mayor.

All the challengers are well acquainted with the fact that Mayor Villaraigosa benefited in 2005 from a perfect storm of anger at former Mayor James Hahn, and all point to the fact that the Mayor has inspired widespread contempt because of the messy unraveling of his marriage and his inability to deliver meaningful results to the city’s beleaguered and shrinking middle class.

“Hahn caught the Valley’s anger at the failed secession movement, and he caught South LA’s anger at the firing of Bernie Parks,” David Hernandez says. “But this time around, that anger is directed at Villaraigosa himself.”

“There’s anger,” extreme longshot candidate and medical marijuana advocate Pastor Craig X. Rubin said. “Latinos feel like he’s using them.”

That the Mayor is vulnerable in the city’s African-American community comes as no surprise. The firings of local traffic czarina Gloria Jeff and School Superintendent Vice Admiral David Brewer alerted local African Americans to the fact that Villaraigosa possesses no special soft spot for black administrators. And candidate Walter Moore tapped into disenchantment in the black community early last year, supporting a failed petition effort that largely targeted Latino gangs.

But recent grumblings that the Mayor has done little for the city’s diminished middle class demonstrate the Mayor’s vulnerability in other demographics as well.

With Hernandez and Moore courting the Mayor’s significant numbers of disenchanted former supporters, Jennerjahn playing especially to conservative law-and-order types, and activist Zuma Dogg cherry-picking from the city’s vast population of politically disenfranchised, Villaraigosa finds his own most dependable support in a powerful but peculiar double-base.

The Mayor's team especially keeps up contact with Spanish-speaking Latinos, who remain politically content with the fact that one of America’s best known Latinos is Mayor of their city. And it also makes sure that the Mayor devotes special attention to westside Jews, whom Villaraigosa has especially courted throughout his mayoralty with very regular appearances at westside synagogues and even a highly-publicized trip to Israel last year.

Moore appeals to neither of the Mayor’s core groups, even if he shares many slow-growth sentiments with westsiders. "I'm a NIMBY and I'm proud," he often says. He likely leads by a sizeable margin among the challengers, and has even bought tv spots in the campaign's final weeks.

He especially gained notoriety among anti-immigrant groups in 2008 in formulating Jamiel’s Law, named for black teenager Jamiel Shaw, Jr. who was killed early last year allegedly by a non-resident Latino released from jail the day before the killing. The proposed law would ease current restrictions on police when inquiring about a suspect’s citizenship status.

But Moore is also a practicing attorney, possessed of all the attendant personality shortcomings that make attorneys difficult for ordinary people to deal with. He is prickly, arrogant, and unpopular with local media. In a recent debate, when asked with other challengers to say something in Spanish to the people of Los Angeles, he defiantly spoke French. He has also spent much of his money on radio spots that preach to his likeliest choir: conservative AM talk-radio stations owned by Clear Channel—whose billboard division he has occasionally represented in legal disputes.

The Mayor’s campaign team, of course, is populated by some of the top political consultants in the state. Aware of Moore's unpopularity with local media, they were quick to seize the opportunity to discredit all the candidates collectively by using Moore as their sole exemplar.

“We’re not going to debate Walter Moore—we’re not going to debate Lyndon LaRouche either,” Ace Smith, the Mayor’s chief political tactician, told media last month.

In the context of political tactics, it was flawless; but in the context of democratic process, it was an enormous disservice. The media generally acquiesced to Smith’s wishes, and few pressed for a debate either with Moore or including anyone else. Nor did print media give the challengers as much coverage as they devoted to the council race in District 5—the city’s wealthiest, and the one whose citizens the Mayor has courted the most.

The math for any of the top three challengers to make it into a runoff against the Mayor is prohibitive. The top vote getter would likely have to pull a minimum of 17 percent, even while defeating his closest rivals narrowly, for any one of the challengers to find his way into a runoff.

“I’m speaking all the time in South Los Angeles,” Hernandez, of Valley Village, says.

Of the four leading challengers, Hernandez has the most civic experience. Moore is the most rhetorically glib, though Rubin’s rapid-fire delivery—he was once a stand-up comic—is peppered with strong soundbites. Phil Jennerjahn, a conservative and NRA member who wants to make it easier for citizens to acquire concealed weapons permits, is the most purely ideological challenger.

And Dogg, a veteran of the City’s public access channel, fetches the most media exposure, even if some of that exposure is of greater entertainment than political value.

“Hey,” Dogg told me on the steps of City Hall. “If I pull enough votes to force a runoff for another candidate—mission accomplished!”