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Villaraigosa's Hot in Los Angeles | The Nation

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Villaraigosa's Hot in Los Angeles

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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.

When mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa strolled into a recent campaign "meet 'n' greet" cocktail party on the fifty-fourth floor of a downtown skyscraper, he made a beeline for the uniformed Latino wait staff and effusively embraced and thanked them all before so much as acknowledging his suit-and-tie crowd of supporters.

And that gesture was wholly appropriate. Finishing first with 30 percent in a first round of voting on April 10, and now streaking toward a June 5 runoff vote, the boyishly handsome 48-year-old Villaraigosa, a former State Assembly Speaker, union organizer and president of the local ACLU, owes his meteoric rise to the swelling local power of both Latinos and organized labor. But not only to them. Villaraigosa also won broad support from Jewish voters and liberals on LA's tony West Side, and from a long list of key endorsers ranging from the Sierra Club, NOW and local gay organizations to Governor Gray Davis and the state Democratic Party. Villaraigosa's agenda of a living wage, more public housing, opposition to suburban secession, more parks and green spaces, and beefed-up civilian oversight of the LAPD makes his campaign platform the most progressive in modern city history.

"This is the most important LA coalition in forty years," says Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "For the first time we have an electoral coalition in tune not only with the electorate, which can be small, but also with the whole city itself."

Over the past decade, a mounting wave of immigration, the consequent change in color of the electorate, the booming unionization of lower-paid, mostly Latino service workers and a vibrant living-wage campaign all paved the way for the coming of Villaraigosa. Born on the poor East Side of LA, Villaraigosa was expelled from one high school and dropped out of another. He eventually made it into UCLA, then into the teachers' union and finally, almost unnoticed, into the State Assembly in 1994. He prospered in the legislature, relying not only on a network of newly elected Latino colleagues but also on his abundant charisma--even rivals acknowledge his infectious, upbeat personality. Though his name recognition in LA was almost nil as recently as a year ago, his mayoral candidacy ignited an untapped energy that had been building for years in the city's growing immigrant neighborhoods and crystallized hopes that turbulent class- and race-torn LA could finally come together in a new politics.

Villaraigosa doesn't hesitate to use his personal story to make his political case--that if America can make room for him, then it should make room for everybody. "It's not enough when you come from adversity, it's not enough to just make it to the top of the mountain," he tells me. Recalling the night of his primary victory, he says, "There were 1,500 people crammed inside our party at Union Station, and another 500 outside. And you could just feel the energy, the yearning in this city to finally come together."

Villaraigosa's campaign embodies not just the hopes for a rising Los Angeles progressive politics; it has taken on national significance as well. "LA has become a national bully pulpit in fighting for working families across the country. If we are successful in electing a mayor who can expand the middle class, then it will become a national watershed," says Martin Ludlow, political director of the County Federation of Labor and Villaraigosa's former legislative chief of staff. "If we can prove we can do it here in what was traditionally a labor-unfriendly city, then we can do it anywhere in America." Labor has spent upward of a million dollars to assist Villaraigosa and will field as many as a thousand canvassers in a get-out-the-vote campaign. Villaraigosa has also gotten economic support from local billionaires Eli Broad and Ron Burkle.

But while Villaraigosa's campaign crackles with vigor and momentum, his election is in no way guaranteed. Recent polls show him neck and neck with 50-year-old James Hahn, an establishment Democrat and the current city attorney. The most common description attached to Hahn is "lackluster." But his campaign has proudly emphasized his blandness, trying to position him as a safe and experienced choice--in contrast to Villaraigosa, whose only elected stint has been in Sacramento. "I have experience where it counts, right here in my hometown," Hahn said in a recent interview. Hahn is also the scion of a local political dynasty that has, despite its Anglo complexion, deep roots in South Central's African-American community. (In the first round of voting Hahn won 71 percent of the black vote, compared with 12 percent for Villaraigosa.)

While the primary campaign took a rather refreshingly gentle tone and focused more on reform than on the city's legendary acrimony, the final runoff stretch is getting ugly. Running against a fellow Democrat in this nominally nonpartisan race, and with conservative votes up for grabs, Hahn has tried to cleave the electorate with a traditional right/left appeal. With heavy support from black voters, including some key public-employee unions, Hahn has eschewed any racial subtext in his message while attacking Villaraigosa for demonstrating a "lack of concern for and a lack of compassion for victims of crime." Hahn also picked up support from the Police Protective League when he endorsed a controversial proposal to allow LAPD officers to schedule a workweek of three twelve-hour shifts.

In a city that has been more focused recently on an industrial-size police corruption scandal than on law and order, Hahn's gambit is risky. By attempting to portray Villaraigosa's solid public safety record as somehow soft on crime, he implicitly offers himself as the natural choice for all those Republican voters who otherwise would have no one to vote for in a field of two Democrats. Hahn's strategy is an old standby in American politics: Portray your rival as too liberal. "I think most people consider themselves moderates," Hahn says. "They don't like labels like liberal or conservative."

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