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Left Coast Notes

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Los Angeles

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

Almost a thousand boisterous supporters--most of them unionized Latino service workers--showed up on March 4 at the vote-counting and subsequent victory party for new City Councilman-elect Antonio Villaraigosa. That size of a party for one of fifteen Council members is extraordinary under any circumstances. Doubly so in a citywide election that drew only a 13 percent voter turnout.

But Villaraigosa is an extraordinary political force in Los Angeles. The 50-year-old former Speaker of the State Assembly ran for mayor two years ago on an unabashedly liberal and progressive platform and came within a handful of points of victory.

His successful challenge to incumbent Councilman Nick Pacheco was a political do-or-die for the highly charismatic Villaraigosa, and many observers believed it would be impossible for him to unseat a sitting Council member who had a reputation for solid constituent service. But Villaraigosa's sweeping 56-to-40 percent victory in a three-way race reminded observers of the formidable resonance he has among new Latino voters. And it was an equally convincing demonstration of the political clout that organized labor has in the City of Angels.

"We're back in business again," said a beaming Miguel Contreras, head of the Couny Federation of Labor, as he emceed the Villaraigosa victory rally. The County Fed had poured huge financial and canvassing resources into the campaign of Villaraigosa--who was once himself a union activist and organizer. (He is also a former head of the Southern California ACLU.)

Villaraigosa's presence on the Council will give an extra push to issues like expansion of the living wage, police reform and affordable housing. Indeed, his dramatic political resurrection is bound to redraw all Los Angeles politics. It's assumed he will now become the most powerful member of a City Council made up completely of relative newcomers (thanks to term limits). Just as it is assumed he will become the pole of opposition to Mayor James Hahn, the centrist Democrat who beat Villaraigosa in 2001 with a racially tainted negative campaign.

Villaraigosa says he will serve out his four-year term as Councilman and not run against Hahn in 2005--but that's a long time from now, and many City Hall insiders are already licking their chops in anticipation of a showdown between the two. There's already open talk that as soon as he is seated, Villaraigosa will be elected by his peers as City Council president. That seat is currently held by Alex Padilla, a young Latino politician who is a darling of the right-of-center Democratic Leadership Council. Padilla has been a strong ally of Hahn and had endorsed Villaraigosa rival Pacheco in last week's balloting. Padilla has been vying with LA's City Attorney, Democrat Rocky Delgadillo for the unofficial mantle of local leading Latino politician--an enviable spot in a city where the most common name of a newborn is Jos&ecaute;.

But Villaraigosa's landslide victory unquestionably positions him as the most likely local--and most progressive--Latino politician to ascend to higher office (some of his more ardent supporters are looking beyond City Hall to the governor's mansion).

One twist to all this is that joining Villaraigosa on the city council is former LAPD Chief Bernard Parks. Parks is enormously popular in his African-American community and is also a bitter rival of Mayor Hahn, who sacked him as police chief last year. Parks's true politics are unknown but much of his campaign rhetoric positioned him as more pro-business than pro-labor. The big question now is whether Parks and Villaraigosa will be allies or rivals in their opposition to Hahn. Nor should anyone rule out a possible mayoral run by Parks himself, who has the backing of the black political establishment as well as that of powerful developer and sports star Magic Johnson.

This election not only marked the end of Mayor Hahn's extended honeymoon but also the waning of the political clout of his predecessor, Richard Riordan. Riordan and billionaire businessman Eli Broad spent considerable cash and political capital to maintain what they called a "reform" majority on the Los Angeles Unified School Board. But that majority seems to have evaporated as two of the Riordan-backed incumbents were knocked off in last week's vote by teachers' union-backed challengers. A third union-supported member apparently has retained his seat, fending off another Riordan-backed rival.

"Look at these results and you can really say LA is now a union city," said a top official of the Service Employees International Union. "Organized labor can now successfully challenge the power of a sitting Democratic mayor and of a wealthy former Republican mayor. Not too shabby."

Indeed. But with one caveat. While labor has demonstrated that it can effectively turn out a decisive, progressive and predominantly Latino vote, the question of mandate remains way up the air. Winning 51 percent of 15 percent of the electorate is still a long way from political hegemony.

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