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.”