Four years ago the Los Angeles mayoral race pitted two Democrats against each other in a battle to preside over America’s second biggest city. And once again the upcoming March 8 election might see a rematch between incumbent James Hahn and the man he beat last time, former Assembly Speaker and current councilman Antonio Villaraigosa. The five leading contenders in the nonpartisan race are all Democrats. Hahn and Villaraigosa have been running top in the polls at around 20-25 percent. If nobody wins 50 percent in the March balloting, the two top finishers will face off in a second round in May.

As bitter as the 2001 election was–it ended in widespread charges that Hahn had run a gutter-level campaign to take out Villaraigosa–this season’s fight promises to be even more brutal. This time around, the political divisions generated by the contest not only raise difficult questions about whether it’s appropriate for liberals to support a moderate incumbent Democrat when there is a more progressive Democrat in the race, but also threaten to rip apart the city’s labor-led progressive coalition. “I can’t remember when I’ve seen such division among us liberals,” says one local veteran Democratic consultant. “And it doesn’t bode well for the postelection period when one or another of these guys has to govern. We’re gonna have natural allies divided against each other.”

Hahn, scion of a local political dynasty and a former city attorney, was elected by an eight-point margin, succeeding moderate Republican Richard Riordan, who had served two terms. From his first day in office Hahn reinforced his public image as a sleepy, almost invisible presence. But much like the administration of another low-key former California politician, Gray Davis, Hahn’s tenure has earned a reputation as a money-soaked, pay-to-play enterprise.

Hahn’s popularity has plummeted (some polls suggest he might fall into third and out of the runoff ) as scandals lap at the doors of City Hall. Hahn early on named campaign fundraiser Troy Edwards as a deputy mayor overseeing the city’s three top proprietary departments–the airport, the harbor and the municipally run Department of Water and Power (DWP), which administer more than $1 billion a year in contracts. Soon, accusations were flying that major campaign contributors were getting lucrative city contracts–some seventy-seven firms that had contributed did so.

Another scandal implicates the Fleishman-Hillard public relations firm, said to be virtually intertwined with the mayor’s office, in cases of deliberate overbilling of the city.

Two joint federal-county criminal investigations are now under way, a couple of grand juries have been impaneled and the FBI and the city ethics commission are also investigating. Edwards has resigned. One Fleishman-Hillard staffer was indicted in January on eleven federal counts of wire fraud. “Remember the movie The Firm? That’s what LA is like now,” says a self-described “heartbroken” David Freeman, a longtime progressive Democrat and former general manager of the DWP. “The mayor is responsible. He’s completely responsible for this.”

Hahn insists he bears no responsibility for the corruption scandal and that “the city of LA is a victim…and when somebody steals from the government they should be punished severely.” Meanwhile, sixteen current and former Hahn staff members have already been cited by the two grand juries, and the city is holding its breath waiting to see when the next indictments will be handed up and whether they will reach into the mayor’s office itself.

By the time the scandals broke last year, Hahn was already faltering. He had achieved his 2001 victory by running hard to Villaraigosa’s right and cobbling up an odd coalition of conservative suburban whites and inner-city blacks–the latter supported him because of his deceased father’s forty-year record as a popular Democratic County supervisor. But that coalition quickly came unhinged, beginning in late 2001, when Hahn, to his credit, failed to renew the contract of tarnished LAPD Chief Bernard Parks, an African-American. The black community almost immediately announced its divorce from Hahn. “It’s the one thing that is costing me the post politically,” Hahn said in an interview. “But it did turn the LAPD around.” Hahn brought in a popular new chief, William Bratton, while Parks went on to win a City Council seat–which he has used to torment Hahn. Parks is also now running for mayor and, though arguably the most conservative of the major candidates, he is drawing the biggest cut of black support. Not long after the Parks affair, much of Hahn’s suburban base evaporated when he vigorously opposed a secession move by the more conservative San Fernando Valley.

You might think that under such circumstances, progressives would quickly flee any association with Hahn’s administration. But that would be to deny the realities of machine party politics as well as the power of incumbency. As soon as Hahn vanquished labor-backed Villaraigosa in 2001, he launched a vigorous campaign to woo…labor. It was a bold move because the unions had gone all-out for the more progressive Villaraigosa, himself a former labor organizer and former assemblyman with a 100 percent pro-labor rating. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor had poured a pot of money and more than 2,500 ground troops into Villaraigosa’s openly progressive campaign.

But once in power, Hahn appointed County Fed leader Miguel Contreras to the powerful Airport Commission. Other labor allies got similar plums. Hahn supported striking grocery workers and other labor causes, and he signed an anti-big-box-store ordinance supported by the unions. He also granted public employee unions generous wage increases (at a time when the city couldn’t pay for needed additional police). Most important, Hahn cut a deal with Big Labor, enlisting its support for his controversial, $11 billion expansion of LAX airport–a project rich with union jobs but opposed by environmentalists and neighborhood groups (as well as by Councilman Villaraigosa).

The courting of labor in Los Angeles has a special significance. Thanks to vigorous organizing campaigns like the celebrated Justice for Janitors effort, thousands of immigrant workers have been brought into LA unions. A Latino-labor alliance has been the motor force of local progressive politics (supplanting and bolstering the Bradley-era Jewish-black coalition), and its clout has helped elect liberal local, state and federal officials from Southern California. That movement seemed to peak in 2001, when the exuberant Villaraigosa campaign burgeoned citywide and Villaraigosa finished first against Hahn in the primary despite a last-minute, $200,000 radio smear campaign by an Indian tribe upset over Villaraigosa’s pro-union record. “For a moment back then, it seemed we were riding the crest of a wave that would forever transform Los Angeles,” says one union strategist now backing another candidate. “What a terrible crash we had.” In the ensuing runoff, another eleventh-hour “independent expenditure” smear featuring the image of a crack pipe played the key role in sinking Villaraigosa and allowed Hahn his victory.

Given the level of Villaraigosa’s labor support in 2001, it was a particularly galling moment for him and a bewildering turn of events for many progressives when the Hahn-labor marriage was formally consummated in December. The same County Fed that had served as Villaraigosa’s anti-Hahn infantry now endorsed the incumbent mayor for re-election. Contreras, the labor chief, flatly explains the endorsement this way: “An old labor saying reminds us that labor rewards our friends.” The Villaraigosa campaign was enraged. “We were furious, spitting mad,” says one staffer. “We knew Miguel Contreras was in debt to Hahn, but he could have shown the decency of just plain not endorsing.” Hahn, on the other hand, is elated by the support. “They saw me out there walking for the UFCW workers, for the security guards, the longshore workers,” he says. “People had a chance to say, ‘OK, we weren’t with him at first, but he was with us.'”

Liberals shouldn’t be unduly alarmed by labor’s endorsement of Hahn, argues Peter Dreier, a progressive professor of politics at Occidental College. “This is how politics works in LA and everywhere else,” he says. “The individual unions and thus the County Fed felt boxed in, on the principle that you have to support an incumbent who did what you asked; otherwise future incumbents won’t feel obliged to do what labor asks.” Not all unionists, however, are buying that theory. A recent Los Angeles Times poll revealed that Villaraigosa is leading Hahn among union members in spite of labor’s official endorsement. “This isn’t difficult to figure out,” laments an organizer for one Service Employees International local that has endorsed Hahn. “Our leadership, over our heads, has chosen a centrist incumbent sinking in scandal over one of our own. That’s what you call old-fashioned opportunism.”

Not a very different analysis from the one that Villaraigosa himself offers. “Did I want that County Fed endorsement? Darn right I did,” he says. ” But look, I’m a big kid and I know people do things out of self-interest and opportunism. But when elected I’m going to have to work with everyone, even those who weren’t with me. Of course I’m going to work with labor.”

Villaraigosa has lined up the support not only of a majority of Latinos but also of environmental groups such as the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club. He remains popular among middle-class liberal activists and union rank and file. The gay Stonewall Democratic clubs have also endorsed him. But he has confounded some of his once fervent progressive supporters. His campaign this year lacks the fire and vision that ignited his 2001 run. After co-chairing John Kerry’s campaign (and being actively considered for a Cabinet post in a Kerry White House), Villaraigosa has visibly shifted toward the political center. He denies any sharp ideological differences with Hahn and instead emphasizes “leadership” as his strongest quality.

Further scrambling LA liberal constituencies, a decisive majority of black voters are backing the candidacy of former LAPD Chief Parks in spite of his own taint from the historic Ramparts Division police abuse scandal and his decidedly conservative skew. Some of the progressive Latino vote is being captured by the vanity campaign of State Senator Richard Alarcón. And a late surge by former California State Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, a moderate and well-funded Democrat, could knock Hahn out of the race, meaning that local Labor would have made its compromises only to back a loser.

Such is the fix the LA left finds itself in a few weeks before the first round of mayoral voting. Its dilemma mirrors the crisis experienced by liberals nationwide during the Clinton Administration: How much do you support the Democratic incumbent? And how much do you remain in opposition, pushing for a more progressive alternative? “What haunts me about this race is the possibility that we Democrats just do a whole lot better when we are out of power,” says the veteran consultant. Then, quoting the plaintive phrase used by the central figure in LA’s most famous case of police brutality, he adds, “Where’s Rodney King when you need him? ‘Why can’t we all just get along?'”