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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.

After nearly two years' absence from politics, Southern California's most popular progressive politician, Antonio Villaraigosa, is back on the stump. This time he's running for a City Council seat, and he's making no bones about eventually trying for a second time to become Mayor of LA.

In 2001, the former California State Speaker was handed a bitter defeat in his first mayoral quest. Then City Attorney and rival candidate James Hahn, a moderate Democrat assisted by Indian gambling money, buried Villaraigosa under an avalanche of racially tinged negative campaigning and walked away with a nine-point victory.

Villaraigosa's defeat stunned LA progressives who had pulled out the stops in campaigning and canvassing for their candidate, a former ACLU president and union organizer. More than 9,000 fans and supporters poured out to overflow Villaraigosa's campaign headquarters on election night, even though all polls predicted his loss. "The city had never seen anything like that before, nor has it since," Villaraigosa said proudly in a recent interview. "That night I knew I was going to run for mayor again." But then, he says, after some reflection he decided he would not immediately challenge Hahn to a rematch. "It occurred to me that as a city councilman I could accomplish many of the things I wanted to do as mayor," he says. "And if elected I will serve out the four-year term. And then," he says with a wide smile, "we'll see where to go from there."

So on this coming March 4, municipal election day, the 50-year-old Villaraigosa will try to wrest the 14th District Council seat from Nick Pacheco, a younger and more conservative incumbent. "This is make it or break it time for Antonio," says one of his enthusiastic labor supporters. "If he wins, he's on his way again. If he loses, well...we're going to make sure he isn't going to lose."

Indeed, as it did during the 2001 mayoral race, the powerful County Federation of Labor is putting all its street muscle into the Villaraigosa campaign. And though City Council incumbents are hard to beat in LA, most observers give challenger Villaraigosa the edge.

But it will be no cakewalk. No sooner did the campaign begin a few months ago than the heavily Latino district was flooded with sleazy attack mailers, questioning Villaraigosa's commitment to his Latino heritage and chiding him as an adulterer. Incumbent Pacheco condemned the sleaze, even though the individual who took credit for the attack was one of his close associates.

As he did for his mayoral run, Villaraigosa has assembled a classic progressive coalition. "I'm not going to take the easy route," he says. "Even though they're going to attack me for it, I'm still opposing the death penalty, still opposing three strikes and still opposing those who want to declare war on our youth." Throughout his career in the state legislature, Villaraigosa held an ideological position far to the left of center, yet he demonstrated a consistent knack for working with Republicans. As Assembly Speaker he was able to engineer bipartisan support for massive educational and park bonds, which were the crown jewels of his legislative career.

If Villaraigosa is elected next month, he will becme one of the more prominent members of a City Council packed with potential for fireworks. He will have to work with or challenge Mayor Hahn. And Villaraigosa readily admits that he and his family are still feeling the sting from the negative attacks launched during the mayoral race. Also sure to join the Council as a result of the election is Bernard Parks, the African-American and very controversial former LAPD chief whom Mayor Hahn refused to rehire last year.

Parks, a close friend of sports star and local investor Magic Johnson, is the new darling of LA's black political establishment. And while Parks was a punching bag for civil libertarians when he was LAPD chief, he nevertheless has the full political support of the most liberal local African-American elected officials, including US Representative Maxine Waters. That said, it's not impossible to glimpse a near future in which Parks and Villaraigosa could be battling each other for mayor and splitting progressive voters right down the middle. It's not as unlikely a scenario as some imagine: In the 2001 election the black electorate favored Hahn, whose father had been a popular South Los Angeles county supervisor. And that same black constituency quickly and angrily deserted Mayor Hahn's base as soon as he didn't rehire Chief Parks.

But while we're speculating, Villaraigosa's most loyal fans have even bigger visions. Just this week, for the first time since the mid-1800s, Latino births in California are outstripping Anglo births. And it's estimated that by 2019, Latinos will become 51 percent of the California electorate. "Antonio will only be 65 in that year," says that ardent labor supporter of his. "Why not Governor Villaraigosa?"

First things first. Villaraigosa must first win that City Council seat next month. And he cannot be but haunted by the memory of what happened to fellow progressive Tom Hayden in the 2001 election. After nearly two decades in the state legislature, Hayden failed in his bid for a Los Angeles City Council seat by only 350 votes. Villaraigosa would prefer not to repeat that nightmare.

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