The race for Los Angeles mayor features two consummate insiders who are close to one another ideologically and disagree on few issues, posing a question: With Sacramento politics offering a clash of political tectonic plates and big, competing reforms, why is the mayor's race lacking in big ideas?
Two putative outsiders, iconoclastic City Councilman Bernard Parks and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, were rejected by voters during the primary after raising broad, visionary themes, including altering the fundamental priorities inside City Hall and shaking up the schools.
Voters instead chose two men who avoided such big themes, agreeing on many issues. At their first postprimary debate, Mayor James Hahn and Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa offered almost identical praise for Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, cited almost identical reasons for supporting driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and offered minor differences on congestion and other topics.
The area of greatest dispute is their dislike for one another, which, if you think about it, is actually a form of agreement.
So instead of wrangling over where this sprawling city-state should be heading, Hahn and Villaraigosa are both promoting parochial issues area by area and ethnic group by ethnic group.
In an appeal to black voters, Villaraigosa -- rejected by blacks who four years ago voted 80 percent for Hahn -- slammed Hahn for "disrespecting" residents of South Los Angeles. In an appeal to Jewish voters, Hahn denounced the mayor of London for anti-Semitic remarks -- after a Jewish Journal report revealed that Hahn's campaign had touted endorsements from key Jewish figures whose signatures were faked.
Analysts say this slicing and dicing of the electorate will continue. History may be made if voters choose Villaraigosa as the first Latino mayor since Abraham Lincoln's time, and Hahn becomes the first L.A. mayor since the Great Depression to be ousted after just four years. Yet, despite so much on the line for both sides, Angelenos have heard little that is visionary.
Democratic consultant Kerman Maddox, owner of Dakota Communications, said, "I don't expect to see any visionary debate or visionary ideas or global thinking at all. Just an ugly food fight, with two candidates who look only at the key target areas and just try to win votes in those target areas, while acting to try to suppress the other guy's voters."
Added Maddox: "No big ideas on transportation, unemployment, economic development. It troubles me, but I just don't see it."
Allan Hoffenblum, a Jewish moderate Republican consultant, said both men are focused on highly parochial appeals to far-flung sectors of the city.
"Nobody believes either one of them will have a subway from downtown to Santa Monica, or all of a sudden become ambassadors to the world so business will be pouring in," Hoffenblum said. "How does a mayor even fix the incredible antibusiness attitude here? So they're going to talk instead about controlling airport expansion when they're on the Westside, and denounce the mayor of London's anti-Semitic remarks when they're talking before conservative Jews."
Both candidates are aiming at voter-rich enclaves identified via computer programs that spit out the names and locations of everyone who voted in a past mayoral race. With campaigns bee-lining for those voters, the broader populace fades to the background.
This hands power to the most involved voter blocs: Jews, blacks and white conservatives. Add to that mix Latinos, not normally big voters, who may participate due to Villaraigosa. Jews will account for 10 percent to 15 percent of the vote -- more than their population percentage. It's not a bloc, since liberal Westside Jews vote differently from conservative and Valley Jews. But in a close election, the candidate with the most Jewish votes could win.
By the same token, the dwindling black population, now perhaps 11 percent of Los Angeles, is likely to make up more than 15 percent of voters.
Black residents tend to vote almost monolithically. But Hoffenblum and Maddox believe that Villaraigosa can win if he wrestles more than one-quarter of the black vote away from Hahn, by mining anger over his firing of former Police Chief Parks.
White conservatives offer another highly involved voter bloc, so both candidates hammer at law and order, though crime is down substantially. Hahn attacked Villaraigosa's past opposition to gang injunctions when he was a leader of the local American Civil Liberties Union. Today, Villaraigosa supports gang injunctions, albeit with more reservations than Hahn. But Hahn may turn out conservatives by illustrating Villaraigosa's liberal record.
Amid this targeted campaigning, Rich Lichtenstein, a Democratic consultant, said there's little chance either candidate will speak meaningfully about daunting citywide issues.
"I don't want to believe we've come to a point in time where big ideas are not going to be debated in L.A. mayoral races]," Lichtenstein said. "But if you hear any big ideas, they will come from Hahn, because he's trailing in polls, and it is almost always the trailing candidate who takes the risk to launch something that reflects some kind of vision."
So while the state is engaged in a pitched debate that could affect education, elections, and taxes, Angelenos won't be hearing much that's weighty. The mayor's race offers potential fodder for the history books. But it won't be remembered for its issues.
Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at www.jillstewart.net.