Los Angeles

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.”

So far, Villaraigosa has refused to retaliate with any negative campaigning. Instead he says, “My candidacy is simply about opening up the city. Not only to Latinos and African-Americans but to Israelis and Armenians and everyone who lives in LA.” And he’s banking on his long record of bipartisan deal-making in the State Assembly to win over reticent Republicans. Record-size parks and school bond measures were passed while he was Speaker, and with Republican support. And when bilingual education came under ballot-initiative attack, Villaraigosa went across the aisle trying–unsuccessfully–to fashion a compromise. A handful of key Republican legislative leaders have joined in endorsing his campaign.

The decisive battle of this campaign is being waged in the northern suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. Though much more Latino and much more Democratic than ever before, “the Valley” is still home to the deepest pool of white, swing and right-leaning voters within the city limits. In the six-way primary round, this territory gave real estate millionaire Steve Soboroff, the only declared Republican in the race and Mayor Richard Riordan’s handpicked successor, more votes than anyone else.

Though Riordan and Soboroff are ideologically closer to Hahn, Riordan endorsed Villaraigosa and Soboroff is expected to as well. The motivation is complex. Soboroff seemed to genuinely bond with Villaraigosa during their dozens of campaign forums and debates. And as for Riordan, well, there’s little love lost between him and Hahn. Moreover, Riordan’s top economic backer and power broker, builder Eli Broad, has been enthusiastically supporting Villaraigosa. And there’s another reason for Riordan, who has recently been courted as a potential challenger to Democratic Governor Gray Davis, to go with Villaraigosa. “Dick Riordan is no dummy,” says a local GOP consultant. “And he’d have to be not only dumb but deaf and blind not to see that Antonio embodies the rising hopes of Latinos. Whatever future Dick sees in politics, he sees the need for Latino support.”

There’s a strong anti-City Hall fault line that tears through the Valley, and it might just be wide enough to give Villaraigosa the edge. A number of leaders of the middle class and nearly all-white hillside homeowner clubs in the Valley have endorsed him–mostly because they identify James Hahn with an ossified and unresponsive downtown. And while Villaraigosa demonstrated impressive skills in navigating the inside channels of power in the state legislature, in Los Angeles he is viewed as the “outsider” candidate. “Right or wrong, Antonio is a man of action,” says Gordon Murley, president of the upper-middle-class Woodland Hills Homeowners Organization. “I’ve worked with a lot of these politicians, and he’s the only one of these guys I have worked with whose words match his actions. We might disagree sometimes, but Antonio is the only one you can trust and work with.”

Given that these suburban homeowner associations have in the recent past been incubators for some virulent xenophobia and specifically anti-Latino sentiment, their support for Villaraigosa is particularly remarkable. “These Valley folks’ supporting Antonio shows you just how much this city is changing,” says the GOP consultant. “Even some of these groups that were warm to [the 1994 anti-immigrant] Prop 187 now recognize the inevitability of Latinos’ gaining political power. Very quietly, this is a historic moment.”

The other key front on which Villaraigosa must fight is in South Central’s African-American community, where, his strategists figure, he needs to get 25-30 percent of the black vote in order to carry the city. And here he is at a disadvantage. Hahn’s deceased father, Kenneth, represented this community for four decades as a powerful and nearly revered county supervisor. Kenny Hahn was so fierce a politician that he was rumored to carry a ceremonial shovel in the back of his car, always ready for a groundbreaking photo op. Twenty years ago his son James cashed in on the family name to become city controller, going on from there to serve four terms as city attorney. No accident that in the current mayor’s race James Hahn made sure his ballot listing included his middle name–Kenneth.

Today the Hahn family name stands directly in the way of more deeply integrating African-American voters into the progressive Villaraigosa alliance. “It is an accident of candidacy that the African-American community is not a bigger part of this coalition,” says Fernando Guerra.

But Hahn has used more than his name to woo black voters. His law-and-order rhetoric appeals to older African-American voters, who were his largest single bloc of supporters in the primary. Hahn also points out that he has sued the gun companies and has taken on the Feds for undercounting blacks in the 2000 census. And mostly, he argues, he is the trusted and seasoned local choice–one with no surprises.

To counter Hahn’s advantages, Villaraigosa’s campaign has brought on board some of the most talented organizers in South Central, including seasoned coalition-builder Anthony Thigpen. Meanwhile, a war of endorsements has erupted. Early on, Hahn picked up the backing of important local black elected officials, including Representative Maxine Waters. But Villaraigosa bagged the Rev. Jesse Jackson as well as LA’s senior African-American councilman, Mark Ridley-Thomas. Thomas appeared at a mid-May press conference with nearly fifty other black community leaders and clergy who are supporting Villaraigosa, and they went right for Hahn’s weak spot–his cozy relations as city attorney with the tainted LAPD. “I can’t think of a single area where [Hahn] has offered the city any leadership in terms of building communities or justice,” said the Rev. James Lawson, the city’s undisputed top civil rights leader. “In the area of racial profiling and police abuse, where he is the head lawyer for the city, I have not seen any leadership.”

While the campaign and its concurrent political realignments have stirred black-Latino tensions, such tensions are nuanced–nowhere near the sparking levels found in, say, Miami. For twenty years, once solidly black South Central has been turning brown; nowadays it’s a lot easier to find a taqueria on Central Avenue than a soul-food eatery. But that is not to say tensions don’t exist. Los Angeles Latinos are a population rising both in numbers and in economic and political aspirations, while African-Americans are shrinking in numbers and as a presence in local government. “Many blacks view it as a zero-sum calculation,” recently wrote Madison Shockley, a board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. African-American voters, he said, “must begin to see Villaraigosa as an individual, not as a symbol of their deep fears and prejudices, like the ones we heard during the debate over Proposition 187.” (Nearly 50 percent of black voters supported that measure.) Villaraigosa organizer Thigpen acknowledges that “no doubt there is a racial element in play here. But in South LA, blacks and Latinos have lived easily side by side for the past ten years. It all works at the neighborhood level, and now the challenge is to make it come together at the higher level.”

Villaraigosa’s rise to political prominence is a direct product of burgeoning Latino political power, but he has gotten there without making appeals to race or positioning himself as a race-based leader. And in some key tense moments in recent city politicking when powerful Latino politicians pandered to race, Villaraigosa openly dissented. Certainly there is a pragmatic and strategic calculation here: If Villaraigosa were to proclaim himself as the Latino candidate, he could unleash a lethal white (and black) backlash. But beyond that electoral expediency, a review of Villaraigosa’s record reveals a deep-seated commitment to transcend racial politics. For this reason, political analyst Gregory Rodriguez recently observed that Villaraigosa should be seen not so much as LA’s “first Latino mayor” in more than a hundred years–as the national press has unfailingly put it–but rather as potentially the city’s first “postethnic” mayor.

The crosstown, left-of-center coalition put together by Villaraigosa is of more than symbolic importance. It will help determine on whose terms this decade’s political discourse will be framed. During the past eight years of the Riordan administration, that discourse has been dominated by white, corporate and developer interests. But Villaraigosa’s emergence means that even if Hahn is elected, there are new and more populist political forces that any city administration will have to accommodate to be successful.

If Villaraigosa wins, the challenge will be to translate the electoral victory into palpable progressive policy. The powerful fifteen-member Los Angeles City Council will also have an important say in LA’s future. The Council’s political composition would render it more friendly to Villaraigosa than it has been to Riordan, with whom it has regularly battled. (And the probable election of former State Senator Tom Hayden to a Council seat in the June 5 runoff would push it even further in Villaraigosa’s direction.) Most crucial is just how rooted the new progressive coalition will be in real-life, ground-level politics. “What we call coalitions are sometimes really just voting blocs that come together to support a candidate and are not sustainable in the long term,” says Bill Zimmerman, a Santa Monica-based political consultant who helped elect Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago in 1983. That’s arguably what happened to the Tom Bradley coalition that governed Los Angeles for two decades (and of which both Villaraigosa and Hahn claim to be progeny).

Bradley’s election in 1973 with the backing of a black-Jewish alliance broke open a political system previously monopolized by the white establishment. And while blacks quickly gained a toe-hold in political office, Bradley eventually focused his efforts on downtown business development. For all the schmaltzy lip service currently being paid to the Bradley coalition by both mayoral campaigns, conveniently overlooked is the fact that Bradley’s tenure overlapped with the deindustrialization of the city and the rise of the Daryl Gates-dominated LAPD, and that the culminating event in that administration was the fiery riots of 1992.

All of which raises the question of just how Villaraigosa, if elected, would relate to big business, and vice versa. That a Villaraigosa administration and corporate Los Angeles would find a mutual accommodation is a given. The question is, on what terms? Villaraigosa’s answer: on very new ones. “Dick Riordan has done a great job as a cheerleader, selling the idea that LA is a great place to do business,” he says. “But if LA’s going to be a truly great city, then you have to raise more people up, you have to raise them up from the bottom. You have to support investment, but you have to support unionization. You have to make sure business has what it needs to prosper, but you also need a living wage.”

Says Thigpen, “We should have no illusions about the last thirty years, about what happened under Bradley and even what would happen under Villaraigosa. Corporate power is disproportionately strong in city life. Electing Antonio will give us access; it will open up the system. And that can all lead to better public policy. But either way, we will still have to wage the battle. This will be a beginning–not an end.”