City of Angels sinks under tide of vitriol: Los Angeles votes today in a divisive mayoral contest

AMERICAN politics has never been a particularly friendly business, but historians will be hard pressed to find many parallels to the way in which the world's entertainment capital goes about its king-making.

Voters go to the polls in Los Angeles today - or at any rate, a minority will - to choose the next mayor, ending a selection process that has been every bit as ugly as a bad night in the ring at Las Vegas.

It is the first seriously contested mayoral election for 20 years, following the retirement of Tom Bradley, who battled his way into the job in the Nixon era supported by a coalition of blacks and Jewish liberals and held on to it for five successive terms, until even his more loyal supporters complained that he had grown tired and stale.

Yet Angelenos are showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm at the prospect of injecting new life into the politics of a city whose history is rank with corruption and cronyism. A recent poll revealed that the two candidates have higher negative than favourable ratings.

The choice could hardly be more different, and touches on volatile fault lines in a society that is racially divided and ghettoised by a fear of crime. Michael Woo, 41, a planner with a long record in local politics, is a third-generation Chinese-American with Democratic credentials and a yuppie's CV. Although the election is non- partisan he won the endorsement of President Bill Clinton (a doubtful blessing these days). Initially, he was the favourite.

Until, that is, the rise of Richard Riordan, a self-made multi- millionaire who, Perot-like, has spent several million dollars on his bid for power. Mr Riordan, 63, is a white, Jesuit-educated investor-lawyer. He, too, has a President's support: that of Ronald Reagan. More surprisingly, he has also enlisted a number of Clinton supporters on his staff.

On the face of it, Mr Woo, whose powerbase is precariously cobbled together from the city's multi-ethnic communities, ought to have the edge. Taken together, Hispanics, blacks and Asians easily outnumber the city's whites, who make up only 37 per cent of the 3.5m population. Furthermore, Los Angeles is traditionally Democratic turf.

But Mr Riordan has one telling advantage. His support lies in the white, conservative- inclined middle classes, many of whom have escaped the inner city to live in heavily guarded homes in the San Fernando Valley. They may only represent one segment of the city, but they vote. Recent census figures show two-thirds of the city's Anglo- Americans are voters, compared with only 11 per cent of Hispanics (who comprise 40 per cent of the population), and one in five blacks (13 per cent).

One issue has dominated all else. The city, still jittery after the riots, has a deep neurosis about personal safety, a condition fuelled by a genuinely high crime rate and, more importantly, by a local TV obsessed with muggings, knifings, drive- by shootings and hate crimes.

But in recent weeks, a new form of violence has arrived on the screen. Attack advertisement after attack advertisement has been churned out by both contestants in a tide of vitriol that has overshadowed almost all sensible political debate. These climaxed with the revelation that Mr Riordan was arrested several times in the 1960s and 1970s for drink-driving offences. How damaging this will prove to be will emerge later at the polls.

But the deeper tragedy is that in a city with a dollars 500m ( pounds 325m) deficit, an education crisis and recession, many are unlikely to take part in the election. The next mayor of the multi-ethnic City of Angels will probably be chosen by its white minority.