With the candidates for Los Angeles mayor increasingly invoking the name of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the campaign trail, a buzz is
breaking out over whether Schwarzenegger will endorse any of the challengers to Mayor James Hahn. Such a move could hurt more than help him, but political considerations alone may not dictate this unusual governor's decision.
There are big reasons for Schwarzenegger to stay out. First, even embattled incumbents like Hahn hold an advantage, and Schwarzenegger needs to work with Hahn if the mayor is re-elected. Beyond that, endorsements rarely sway voters.
If Schwarzenegger's endorsement backfired and his guy lost, the governor would look weak. If his candidate won, how, realistically, could the new mayor help Sacramento?
Schwarzenegger's mum on the topic. Nevertheless, he is already a key figure in the race, earning frequent mentions -- generally quite negative -- from the mostly pro-labor union candidates for mayor.
At a recent debate sponsored by the League of Conservation Voters, for example, state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Van Nuys) accused Hahn of cutting a deal with Schwarzenegger that failed to quickly recover for Los Angeles a pot of local taxpayer funds that were diverted to the state budget.
Although he defended himself, Hahn failed to note a crucial fact: It was Alarcon and his colleagues in Sacramento, not Hahn or Schwarzenegger, who for years voted to divert that tax money out of Los Angeles and into the ever-growing state spending budget.
Bill Carrick, campaign consultant to Hahn, noted of Alarcon's claim: "These legislators have been stealing the city's damn money, and then they get up on the stage and blame Jim?"
Further, such controversies are likely to erupt as Schwarzenegger's quasi-presence in the race looms larger and charges fly. Consider that although the five leading candidates for mayor are all Democrats, one of them -- former California Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg -- is a trusted adviser to the governor, while another -- Hahn -- works closely with Schwarzenegger on fiscal issues.
Even more intriguing is the fact that three mayoral candidates -- Alarcon, Hertzberg and City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa (another former Assembly speaker) -- played roles in the massive deficit Schwarzenegger inherited, although Villaraigosa left Sacramento in 2000, before the crisis. Add these elements together, and you've got a recipe for bizarre alliances, not to mention efforts to blast the governor and shift some blame for Los Angeles' troubles his way.
The only candidate with little to gain from Arnold-obsessing seems to be City Councilman Bernard Parks. One of only two candidates not directly involved in running up the $35 billion California budget deficit under Gov. Gray Davis (the other is Hahn), Parks sticks to skewering those who spend local funds in ways he finds troubling -- Hahn and the L.A. City Council.
Hertzberg may be the only candidate who can clearly gain by linking himself in a positive way to Schwarzenegger. Largely unknown outside the San Fernando Valley, he's a moderate, pro-business type who might appeal to Schwarzenegger Democrats -- if they knew who Hertzberg was. But Hertzberg suffers from "low name I.D.," as does Alarcon.
And that's why Schwarzenegger might be tempted to endorse his friend and adviser Hertzberg, despite the potential pitfalls. In politics, the antidote to low name I.D. is spending large sums to introduce the candidate to voters via TV and other advertising. Hertzberg, who has already raised more than $2 million, could become a household name in Los Angeles if Schwarzenegger kicked in some major cash.
Hertzberg's campaign consultant, John Shallman, noted, "We have not asked Gov. Schwarzenegger to endorse Bob, and Bob probably would never ask and would leave that to the governor."
Kevin Spillane, a Republican consultant, said, "Endorsements are always overrated, and very few endorsements swing any voters one way or another -- it's the financial support they generate."
In other words, if Arnold gives a lot to Hertzberg, others will give money, too.
In fact, money is so key to this race that Walter Moore, a successful Republican attorney also running for mayor, lent himself $100,000 -- in hopes of proving to the media and civic groups, which have barred him from key mayoral debates -- that he is a genuine candidate for mayor.
Rich Lichtenstein, a Democratic consultant not representing any candidate, said he'd bet that "if Arnold sees movement in Bob's [poll] numbers, Arnold would put a chunk of change in to put him over the top. Bob Hertzberg is the most viable candidate for mayor, in terms of who the Schwarzenegger administration thinks is the right person. While it's true you do not want to alienate whoever might be the future mayor of L.A., Arnold is an extremely loyal guy, and Bob Hertzberg has cultivated a relationship with him."
Clearly, most political consultants would advise the governor against getting into the L.A. mayoral race. Lichtenstein called it "sticking his nose in," and, perhaps understandably, Hahn's consultant, Carrick, said, "I don't think it would be a very good idea."
But as we've seen, the governor has a strange way of conducting politics. He has a lot to lose if he backs his friend Hertzberg, and he doesn't have all that much to win. In other words, don't be surprised if he follows conventional wisdom. Just don't be surprised if he defies it.
Syndicated columnist Jill Stewart writes a monthly column for The Journal. She can be reached at www.jillstewart.net.
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