City Of Euphemisms

How many of you have thought about leaving Los Angeles, or know someone who has?" Assemblyman Richard Katz asks audiences as he traverses the ambrosia and despair of the nation's most perplexing city. Katz is one of the more than 50 quasi-rational human beings hoping to be elected mayor in June, and his is the question of the moment. People giggle, gasp; most raise their hands. The civic life of the place, once marked by a lassitude unrivaled since Eden, has suddenly become tense, edgy, depressed. There is unemployment, congestion, public anarchy. ("I know three people who've had their Mercedes carjacked at gunpoint!" says a prominent lawyer.) And, above all, there is the situation that Dare Not Speak Its Name-the thing that happened last spring.

Public discourse in the City of Euphemisms has become so Balkanized that you can't just call a riot a riot. Many public figures refer to last April's "events." Those with a more active fantasy life call it the "uprising" or "insurrection." "Well, if you call it a riot," says Maxine Waters, the rambunctious South-Central congresswoman, "it sounds like it was just a bunch of crazy people who went out and did bad things for no reason. I maintain it was somewhat understandable, if not acceptable. So I call it a rebellion."

But then, public discourse in Los Angeles bears only a passing resemblance to real life. Despite the headlines grabbed by assorted silver-screen egolitarians, most natives are conscientious objectors when it comes to civic matters: It's sunny. Surf's up. Don't hassle me. And the disconnect has become even more pronounced in recent years: the electorate doesn't much resemble the populace anymore. Anglos are two thirds of all voters, but only 40 percent of the population; blacks are also overly civic-21 percent of voters vs. 13 percent, more or less, of the populace. Blacks have had disproportionate success in local politics. Tom Bradley, a hologram now, was a popular mayor for nearly two decades; more important, blacks hold about a third of all local government jobs. By contrast, Latinos and Asians vote less than their full potential (Latinos, especially: 40 percent of the populace and only 11 percent of the polity), but they've been hyperactive in the private sector, starting new businesses, building a cosmopolitan metropolis that seems a different place from the Los Angeles portrayed on the evening news.

Richard Katz's question seems almost laughable in the new Los Angeles, where the real issue is: how many of your relatives are dying to come here? The specter of this tidal wave reinforces the line of demarcation, uniting the xenophobic, middle-class, white-bread San Fernando Valley and the meanest streets of the "hood" against furriners who work cheap and crowd schools and overrun ... everything.

These dueling trajectories-people ready to leave and desperate to arrive-represent the gulf between New and Old in L.A. and a near-insuperable political challenge. So, it's probably no accident that the politician who currently holds a large lead in the mayor's race, City Council member Michael Woo, 41, is the one best positioned to seduce both constituencies.

Woo seems an Asian version of Bill Clinton: lots of ideas and no edges. He is a prince of the New city, the son of a prominent Chinese banking family, but he has worked hard to build trust among Old L.A. constituencies, especially blacks and Jews. Much of this "support" is mere name recognition, earned when Woo came out early against former police chief Daryl Gates, The mayoral race has barely begun-the field will be winnowed to two ("Woo and who," says a local analyst) in April--and any of his opponents could catch fire, but Woo has been very successful raising money and has fixed on what may become the dominant political style of the '90s: wonkery leavened by empathy. He is an urban planner by trade and can sling policy--electric cars, public-private whatchamacallits-with the best of them. Woo is also optimistic-a clever stance in a city of pessimists-about L.A.'s entrepreneurial future as the capital of a vibrant Latin and Pacific trading bloc.

The empathy is more soporific than luminous. Woo is a unifier. He doesn't offend anyone. "I wouldn't be uncomfortable voting for him," offered one store owner, a typically Wooish endorsement. Indeed, a vote for Woo seems a safe investment in the symbolic reunification of the city. But empathy by any other name is pandering, and Woo has a reputation of telling audiences what they want to hear. This may not be a disadvantage in the City of Euphemisms, but it probably won't lead to anything resembling real civic comity, either. When I asked him what he called the recent unpleasantness, Woo was remarkably candid: "The uprising, in African-American neighborhoods-and the riot in other parts of the city." Truly, a mayor for the '90s.