L.A.'S Jittery Election

Trapped between its fears of renewed violence and its hopes for a better future, Los Angeles last week seemed to be slouching toward a kind of civic meltdown. In the new federal building downtown, jurors in the second Rodney King trial were deliberating on a case that has dominated the news-while everywhere else, frustrated mayoral candidates were struggling to keep the voters' attention on what could easily be the most important municipal election in decades. There is a powerful irony here: the 1993 mayoral campaign, with its vast implications for the nation's most ethnically diverse city, is being upstaged by anxiety about the verdict and its aftermath. Primary day is only a week away-but the situation is so uncertain that the election may be postponed if there is disruption.

The five-term incumbent mayor, Tom Bradley, strove to assure the city that wouldn't happen. Bradley-- soft-spoken and liberal, a symbol of the city's easygoing politics for the past 20 years-chose not to run for a sixth term in 1993. His retirement set up a political free-for-all among 24 mayoral wanna-bes who are now forced to compete with the news media's saturation coverage of the King trial for their 15 minutes of fame.

This quest is infinitely complicated by the city's ethnic diversity. L.A. is 40 percent Anglo, 40 percent Latino, 13 percent African-American and 7 percent everything else-a campaign strategist's nightmare of demographic uncertainties. Although mayoral candidates run citywide, most of this year's hopefuls are competing for tightly targeted ethnic blocs. But Anglo voters still make up the biggest single bloc on Election Day, and that may be the key to this election. The election is nonpartisan and proceeds in two stages. The primary, scheduled for April 20, will winnow the field of 24 to two front runners. The general election, scheduled for June 8, will pick the winner.

It is a measure of the voters' present discontent that virtually all the candidates are trying to run as outsiders. Richard Katz, a 12-year veteran of the state Assembly, says he's running against "the city-hall crowd." Linda Griego, once a deputy mayor under Bradley, opened her ad campaign by criticizing the "guys at city hall." In addition to its vivid memories of the last year's burning, L.A. now has 10 percent unemployment, a raging education crisis and a $500 million municipal deficit. All the important indicators are headed down, and the city's self-confidence is in tatters. The Bradley legacy, an era of good feelings at little or no political cost, seems like ancient history now.

But the primary issue is crime. It may be, as some critics charge, that the local news media are exaggerating the threat to public safety. But voters are clearly restive at the Bradley administration's inability to control the streets, and most candidates are playing to the public's concern. "Our streets, our homes, our lives are not safe," councilman and mayoral candidate Nate Holden says in a TV commercial. Indeed, the primary point of contention among the leading contenders is not whether to expand the LAPD, but by how much-1,000 new cops, 2,000 new cops or even 3,000 new cops.

The two front runners, each with about 20 percent in recent polls, are Councilman Michael Woo and Richard Riordan, a lawyer, venture capitalist and self-made millionaire. Woo, 41, is boyish, personable and upbeat. As a Chinese-American, he personifies L.A.'s ethnic diversity, and he gets applause by reminding voters that he was the first city official to call for former police chief Daryl Gates's ouster after the riots. Riordan, 62, is Woo's antithesis--a little-known candidate who is spending $3 million of his own money to tell voters he is "tough enough to turn L.A. around." L.A., Riordan likes to say, "is a dysfunctional city" that needs "a strong leader." With his call for 3,000 more cops, Riordan has trumped the mayoral field-and with L.A.'s jittery mood, he has moved upward in the polls to near parity with the better-known Woo. Some political insiders say Riordan could be ahead when new polls come out this week-which is probably why Woo and others have begun to attack Riordan in their television advertising.

The unspoken but all-important question is just what impact the Rodney King verdict, if it comes this week, will have on the election. The answer is plenty, but no one knows which way. If the four cops are convicted of violating King's civil rights, Woo and other centrist-liberals may succeed in their attempt to preach healing to the factionalized electorate. But if the police officers are acquitted and some form of violence occurs, hard-liners like Riordan could benefit from a backlash vote. Virtually all of the candidates have expressed confidence that there will be no rioting this time. But no one doubts that the Rodney King case and this year's mayoral election are inextricably linked-or that the city itself is on trial.