Racial Politics Could Sully Mayoral Campaign

As campaign communications director for City Councilman Michael Wood in the 1993 Los Angeles mayor’s race, I witnessed firsthand how racial stereotypes and innuendo are used to damage the candidacy and unfairly impugn the integrity of a minority candidate.

And as Mayor James Hahn gets more desperate in his campaign against City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, I fear that I’m about to see more of the same.

During the months leading up to the 1993 primary election, Woo, the first Asian-American to run for mayor, had been leading the 52-candidate field. An “anybody but Woo” movement gained a head of steam, and disgruntled constituents from his Hollywood-based council district began showing up to heckle and harass Woo pretty much wherever he went. Much of the criticism had an undeniable anti-Asian tone; some of it was blatant.

At one anti-Woo rally held at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, in the heart of Woo’s district, yahoos were coursing back and forth on the boulevard with hand-lettered signs that said, “Honk if you want to send Mike Woo back to China on a slow boat”- an almost unbelievable racist line that startled a number of people walking or driving by.

In the runoff election, the campaign of Richard Riordan, led by Democratic consultant Clint Reilly, who should have been ashamed of himself, began pumping out ads and mail pieces falsely insinuating that Hong Kong banks were financing the Woo campaign. In case anyone missed the point, they included a four-color shot of the Hong Kong skyline.

The basis: Cathay Bank, a Chinatown-based financial institution found by the native-born Woo’s immigrant father to serve the Chinese community, had opened a branch in Hong Kong for Americans of Chinese descent who traveled to and did business in that Asian economic center. The hit pieces were a cheap shot and a classic example of playing to racial fears.

Could it have gotten worse? Actually, it did.

In early June, just five days before the runoff, I debated former L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates on his KFI-AM radio show. Woo had been the first elected official to call for Gates to resign after the infamous Rodney King beating, and Gates, a Riordan friend and supporter, was on a jihad against Woo.

At one point, here’s how the conversation went:

Gates: As you know, early in (Woo’s) campaign there was a lot of cash coming from people in Chinatown into his campaign, and then being laundered in his dad’s bank.

Me: No, that’s not true either.

Gates: Did any of that money come from the tongs (Chinese gangs) in Chinatown?

Me: That is an absolutely despicable accusation and I can’t believe you would make it on air.

Gates: You can say you don’t know. Hey, I have been dealing with Chinatown for years, do you know there are tongs? Has Michael Woo not gone all over the nation going to Chinese and asking for money?

Me: Well, so what?

Gates: Do you know that tongs exist?

Me: What are you trying to say? Are you trying to link Mike Wood in some fashion to organized crime?

Gates: I simply have said, cash came into his campaign. And I’ve simply asked if any of that money came from tongs.

Me: Of course, it did not. What are you trying to suggest?

Gates: I’m not suggesting – I asked the question. Because I know tongs and I know tongs give cash money and that comes from years of experience. And I just asked you the question.

Uh, huh, no harm in asking.

Ultimately, of course, Woo lost to Riordan fairly handily, with 67 percent of Anglos voting against him. Any wonder why?

Fast forward to 2001. IN the mayoral runoff between James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa, the Hahn campaign — led by two well-known Democratic consultants who also should have known better – aired an ad implying that Villaraigosa condoned drug trafficking.

The spot, featuring grainy pictures of cocaine being cut on a mirror and a crack pipe held to a flame, plus a menacing-looking picture of Villaraigosa, criticized the candidate for writing a letter in 1996 supporting a review of the sentence of the son of Los Angeles auto dealer and Democratic donor who was in prison for dealing drugs.

Joining Villaraigosa in sending such letters were, among many others, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, then-Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg and other prominent Latino politicians. Villaraigosa made clear at the time that sending the letter was a mistake and that he didn’t do enough homework in looking into the case. And he has said so many times since.

The ad was a contemptible and divisive act, clearly intended to raise doubts among Anglo voters by raising ugly stereotypes about the Latino candidate.

It was no accident that the person on whose behalf the missive was sent also had a Hispanic surname.

The message: Hey, white voters, you can’t trust the brown-faced guy from the barrio to protect you from crime.

Hahm triumphed, pulling away from Villaraigosa in the last few weeks before the runoff – and winning nearly 60 percent of white voters.

Just a few days before this March’s primary election, Hahn reprised the attack, this time directing it at both Villaraigosa and Hertzberg. It obviously had less effect, since Villaraigosa beat Hahn by almost 10 points, and Hertzberg came with 1 percent of denying the incumbent mayor a spot in the runoff.

Now, Hahn is lagging badly in the polls, after having received a shockingly low 24 percent of the primary vote. Desperate candidates often do desperate things. And the question of the hour is, will Hahn again take the low road and employ racially tinged advertising to besmirch Villaraigosa and raise doubts about his character?

If the mayor and his team do go ballistic, there ought to be massive condemnation of such an effort, particularly from Democrats.

And his Democratic consultants, who also handle Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s campaigns, ought to be put on notice, too, that any recycling of the racially oriented 2001 attacks will be remembered by Democrats for a long, long time.

As someone who has been running campaigns for more than 30 years, my advice to Mr. Hahn would be: There are worse things than losing elections. One is to sully your own good family name. Another is to divide the city you lead by pitting one racial group against another in an effort to save your own skin.

There’s an old saying in campaigns: You sometimes fall into the grave you’re digging for someone else. It is an admonition that this time would be well-heeded by the mayor and his operatives.