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A Mayoral Election Sends Political Waves Across the Nation

Riordan's victory shows voters tired of urban status quo

THE election of the first Republican mayor of Los Angeles in 36 years may portend a shift in urban American politics with implications from New York City to the White House.

While the victory of millionaire businessman Richard Riordan was driven more by personal preferences than party or ideology, it nevertheless shows a penchant for change among voters in an era of urban fiscal and social disrepair.

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With Democrats at the helm of so many big cities, the frustrations could bring shifts in direction and new faces. "This was a referendum on the decline of the city," says William Schneider, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "What Riordan did was successfully portray [City Councilman] Michael Woo as the incumbent.... This was not a move to the right, but dissatisfaction with the status quo. Democrats are linked to the status quo in most cities."

In the city's first open election in 64 years, voters rejected the heir apparent to outgoing Mayor Tom Bradley's biracial coalition of blacks, Latinos, and Jews. Mr. Woo, a liberal Democrat, had portrayed himself as the one best able to unify the city's multiethnic melange.

Instead, they opted for a conservative who stressed the themes of fighting crime and rebuilding the economy. Though aided by $6 million of his own money, Mr. Riordan was viewed by voters as the lesser of two evils. Those who supported him cited his financial acumen.

He won with a coalition of suburban San Fernando Valley Republicans and Democratic centrists that represent a new majority in the city. It is these kinds of groups and issues that Republican Rudolph Giuliani is expected to tap in his likely challenge of New York Mayor David Dinkins (D) later this year. If Mr. Giuliani were to triumph, three of the nation's most liberal bastions - New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco - would be ruled either by Republicans or a conservative Democrat (Frank Jordan in Sa n Francisco).

"So much of the liberal agenda for the last 20 years was an entitlement ethic," says Steven Erie, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego. "You can't do that anymore."

Mr. Riordan's victory hasn't gone unnoticed in Washington. Though President Clinton's late endorsement of Mr. Woo was tepid and though neither the president nor his policies were an issue in the nonpartisan race, the councilman's loss means there won't be a Democrat reining in the largest city in a state crucial to Mr. Clinton in 1996. Coming in the wake of the Democrats' drubbing in the Texas Senate contest, it "confirms the image of no-clout Clinton," says Mr. Schneider.

Not too much should be read into this, though. Mr. Riordan has worked with and for Democrats in the past. His transition chairman was a Clinton operative. The two also need each other. Clinton needs to maintain a political base in Los Angeles while Riordan needs money from Washington, which he vows to lobby harder for than his predecessors.

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Yesterday, the mayor-elect, who doesn't take office for three weeks, journeyed to Sacramento to begin pressing for funds from another source, the state. It is a propitious move. Mr. Riordan's top challenge will be the city's fiscal crisis. Los Angeles faces as much as a $500-million deficit. Overcoming parsimony in Sacramento will be critical to limiting the red ink.

He promises to make the city "friendly to business," though there are limits to what a mayor can do in turning around an economy. "I don't know if anybody can pull a rabbit out of the hat at this point," says H. Eric Schockman, a University of Southern California political scientist.

Crime will be another top concern. Mr. Riordan vows to put 3,000 more police officers on the street. To pay for this, he suggests leasing Los Angeles International Airport and privatizing city services.

Perhaps his most sensitive task will be uniting what is arguably the most ethnically diverse city in the world. Though Mr. Riordan received the backing of some Latinos and prominent blacks, his main base of support is among suburban Anglos. He promises an administration of every political affiliation, race, creed, and color.

"He is going to have to be patient and build coalitions," says Mike Hernandez, a Councilman who supported Mr. Woo.

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