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L.A.'s `High Octane' Mayoral Race

LOS ANGELES, America's second largest city, will by the summer get something it has not had for two decades - a new mayor.

Mayor Tom Bradley will not run in the April 20 elections, which, with 52 announced candidates, is expected to result in a June runoff.

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Los Angeles itself, a city of dreams built in a desert, is rich in symbols and metaphor. It is the multicultural capital of the US, a seedbed of defense contractors, America's tie to the Pacific rim, and a trendsetter, featuring both Hollywood wealth and style and South-Central race and poverty.

The election will be a high-octane blend of ethnic politics, class, and power - with a dramatic backdrop: the federal trial of the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating, which will be taking place downtown. L.A. needs both a consensus builder and an activist - someone who will continue Mayor Bradley's emphasis on keeping whites, Latinos, Asians, and blacks in a dialogue. The riots showed how easily racial bickering and factionalism can explode.

The problem is that L.A. has a weak-mayor form of government. Real power lies in the City Council - which runs the city as a set of 15 fiefdoms. A sad lesson Koreans learned last April as their shops burned is that police response was coordinated through the council, not the mayor or the police - and they had not developed political ties. Another reason L.A. should change its charter and give the mayor more power: Bradley could not fire Police Chief Daryl Gates. Had he been able to, it is doubtful the L. A. riots would ever have raged so uncontrollably. Both police and school reform are needed, and that takes a strong mayor.

Michael Woo, who is being called a Chinese Bill Clinton, appears the frontrunner. He is young and dynamic and has shown himself capable of outwitting white, black, and Jewish candidates even in their own regions. Race, however, should not be overplayed. In a recent poll, only 12 percent of Angelenos said they would vote on racial lines.

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