In the 1993 race for mayor of Los Angeles, I served as campaign communications director for then-City Councilman Michael Woo, running against a rich, White Republican businessman, Richard Riordan. The coming fall face-off between Rep. Karen Bass and billionaire shopping-center magnate Rick Caruso is giving me an uncomfortable sense of deja vue.
Woo was the first Asian American to serve on the L.A. City Council, and the first ever to run for mayor. In that campaign, I witnessed firsthand and had to fight back against the racial stereotypes and innuendo that were used by the Riordan campaign to damage the candidacy and unfairly impugn the integrity of a minority candidate.
During the months leading up to the primary election, Woo had been leading the candidate field in the polls, just as was Bass in the run-up to last Tuesday’s primary. A startling amount of the opposition to Woo took on an undeniable anti-Asian tone, some of it 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 unbelievably racist line that startled a lot of people walking or driving by. (The irony? Woo was actually born in the U.S. and didn’t even speak Chinese.)
In the runoff election, the Riordan campaign 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 founded by the native-born Woo’s immigrant father to serve the Chinese community, had opened a branch in Hong Kong. The hit pieces were a cheap shot and a classic example of playing to racial fears.
One TV ad the Riordan campaign ran featured a freeze-frame still picture of Woo’s face at the end, and it pushed in to focus on one of his eyes, so that the last thing the viewers saw was a giant picture of one of his eyes staring at them. We thought it was odd, and when we played the ad for focus groups, participants re-affirmed our suspicions – many of them saying something like, “Oh, I guess that’s to remind voters he’s a slanty-eyed Asian.”
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 big Riordan friend and supporter, was on a jihad against Woo.
In that on-air conversation, Gates actually accused the Woo campaign of being financed surreptitiously by Chinese gangs (tongs) in Chinatown, “laundered in his dad’s bank,” he outrageously alleged.
“You can say you don’t know,” Gates went on, “but, hey, I been dealing with Chinatown for years, do you know there are tongs? Has Woo not gone all over the nation going to Chinese and asking for money?
Ultimately, Woo lost to Riordan fairly handily, with 67 percent of Anglos voting against him. Any wonder why?
Now, we have another history-making minority candidate in the mayor’s race, the first Black female to run for mayor of L.A. And another rich, White, Republican businessman running against the minority candidate.
(Oh, I know Caruso re-registered as a Democrat 15 minutes before he filed for mayor, but don’t be fooled, he is otherwise a lifelong Republican, just like Riordan). See the parallels?
Some may say, well, there won’t be subtle racial appeals or innuendo, because Caruso has hired high-profile Democratic consultants to run his campaign, which is true. But ironically, so did Riordan.
The latter’s campaign was managed by an equally prominent Democratic consultant from San Francisco, of all places, who had no shame in using racial symbolism or appeals.
And even in the multi-candidate primary, Caruso spent some of his unprecedented $40 million running ads against Bass using grainy, undulating, black-and-white pictures of her – artificially and intentionally darkened, by the way; what was that about? — that made her look for all the world like a Black bag lady. The ads implied she was personally responsible for homelessness and crime and accused her of being a crooked politician.
I hope against hope that this mayoral run-off doesn’t degenerate into the same racial quagmire as the ’93 race, but only time will tell. As someone who has been running campaigns for more than 40 years, my advice to Caruso is there are worse things than losing an election. One is to sully your own name by using subtle or overt racial appeals against a minority opponent, dividing the city you claim you love so much.
There’s an old saying in campaigns: You sometimes fall into the grave you’re digging for someone else. It’s an admonition that would be well heeded by Caruso and his Democratic campaign operatives.
Garry South is a veteran California Democratic strategist who has been a senior advisor to campaigns for president, governor and lieutenant governor. He has no role in the Bass for mayor campaign.