Survey the political terrain of this, America's second-largest city, on the eve of the April 10 mayoral vote, and the only possible conclusion is: What a Difference a Decade Makes. When deep-pockets Republican businessman Richard Riordan came seemingly out of nowhere to win the 1993 election for mayor, he persuaded a riot-traumatized and recession-battered city that he was "tough enough" to turn things around and that his first priority would be to beef up the LAPD with 3,000 more cops. Meanwhile his opponent, moderate Democrat Mike Woo, found himself pilloried by white-dominated homeowner groups enraged over his opposition to the death penalty, hardly within a mayor's purview.
That was then. This is now. California's anti-immigrant Prop 187 has since come and gone. Latino immigrants (and Asians, too) have continued to arrive, permanently changing the hue of Los Angeles. And with the military contractor-based economy now barely a memory, the city's work force increasingly grapples with lower-wage service jobs while it transforms LA into the union-organizing capital of America. All of a sudden, in the electoral arena, a powerful labor/Latino alliance, unthinkable in 1993, can credibly challenge the homeowner groups for power.
Consequently, the dozens of mayoral forums held these past few months have been marked by an emerging popular agenda: education, low-income housing, mass transit, environmental protection, expansion of the living wage and not just police but police reform. In a field of a half-dozen rivals, progressive Los Angeles even has its own candidate--one who might even win. Antonio Villaraigosa, 48, a former State Assembly speaker, former trade unionist and former president of the Southern California ACLU, has met the challenge of LA's balkanization by successfully creating a citywide, multiracial coalition. Villaraigosa has the support of major Democratic financial backers like Ron Burkle and Eli Broad, and his endorsements range from the Democratic Party itself and politically cautious Governor Gray Davis to the Sierra Club, NOW, the largest gay Democratic club and the powerhouse LA County Federation of Labor. Not only is labor cranking up the phone banks and deploying a street army of canvassers--it's also reportedly putting up as much as $1 million in an independent expenditure campaign on Villaraigosa's behalf. "Finally we have a candidate who not only supports us but is truly one of our own," says a federation official. "We are pulling out all the stops for Antonio."
Villaraigosa can't win this coming election outright--because of the crowded field, no single candidate is in a position to garner 50 percent of the ballots. So the ultimate winner will be chosen in a June runoff. The real contest in this first round is for second place. The top spot seems reserved for Democrat James "Jimmy" Hahn, LA's affable but lackluster city attorney. For four decades, Hahn's father was a popular liberal county supervisor representing much of Central Los Angeles, and he built a granite-solid base among African-Americans. His son has inherited both his enormous name recognition and the lock on the black vote. The campaigns of the two other Democrats in the race have failed to ignite: State Controller Kathleen Connell didn't even win the support of NOW, while liberal US Representative Xavier Becerra has done little except nibble away at Latino support for Villaraigosa.
Even among the two candidates vying for support from the white, wealthier and more suburbanized voters there's a whiff of new politics. Veteran City Councilman Joel Wachs, a former Republican turned Independent, is waging a middle-class populist campaign banking on his record of opposing public subsidies for big private development. Wachs, who would be the first openly gay mayor of a major US city, has also gone the furthest in criticizing embattled LAPD Chief Bernard Parks, saying he would not reappoint him to a second term. Running the most conservative campaign is Steve Soboroff, Mayor Riordan's handpicked successor. Soboroff, a wealthy real estate dealmaker, portrays himself in expensive TV commercials as a "can do" businessman and elsewhere as a moderate, pro-choice Republican. Still, he is the only candidate who has come out against the consent decree recently imposed by the federal government to spur LA police reform. At first lagging in the polls, Soboroff has recently surged.
A few days out from the voting, it's impossible to predict who will take second place to face Hahn in the June runoffs. A Soboroff-Hahn race would polarize the city along conventional partisan, class and color lines. But a Villaraigosa-Hahn matchup would force the city to choose between two Democrats: a moderate liberal and an authentic progressive. Just what the doctor ordered after eight years of Riordan's uninterrupted pro-business administration.