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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Los Angeles Hesitates At Political Change
by HAROLD MEYERSON
June 8, 2001
The future didn't happen here this week. For the past few months, Los Angeles has seemed poised to become home to a new political order in America. The mayoral candidacy of Antonio Villaraigosa, a former California Assembly speaker, promised to empower a political coalition rooted in the great Latin American immigration of the past 20 years. Los Angeles was to be to the new century what New York had been to the last, and Mr. Villaraigosa was our Fiorello LaGuardia, a gifted pol off mean streets who'd formed a citywide, pro-labor legion that would redefine liberalism in America, much as New York once did.
He may yet be our LaGuardia. But for now, that future is on hold.
To defeat Mr. Villaraigosa in Tuesday's mayoral election, City Attorney James Hahn cobbled together one last victory for the old Los Angeles. In a city that's increasingly young and Latino, Mr. Hahn assembled enough older white and black voters to defer what looked to be Los Angeles's destiny. Dispatching Mr. Villaraigosa required the hitherto inoffensive Mr. Hahn, a mainstream Democrat, to wage the most demagogic campaign Los Angeles has seen since the bad old days of Sam Yorty, airing an ad that made Mr. Villaraigosa look like a cross between Marion Barry and Pablo Escobar. But Mr. Hahn proved equal to the task, surprising those who'd mistaken his low-key demeanor for an internal ethical compass.
And yet, Mr. Hahn's coalition is a politically incoherent, one-time curiosity that should not be mistaken for a new urban political force. He ran strongest in the black stronghold of South-Central, and in the city's last remaining bastion of white conservatism, the West San Fernando Valley a feat he was able to pull off only through a historic (actually, a genetic) accident. For many black voters, what distinguished Jim Hahn was his father, the late, legendary Kenneth Hahn, who, as a white county supervisor representing South-Central from 1952 through 1992, championed numerous black interests. "We can beat Jim Hahn," one Villaraigosa aide sighed in mid-campaign, "but we're helpless against Kenny." So helpless that when Hahn the Younger began airing ads designed to exploit the racial fears that white San Fernando Valley conservatives harbored toward Mr. Villaraigosa, he could do so without putting his own African- American base at risk. He may also have benefited from some black apprehensions about rising Latino political power.
Mr. Villaraigosa's was the more stable and coherent alliance, based in Los Angeles's liberal and Latino communities, which have come together over the past five years in a series of living-wage and unionization drives. His campaign planned to extend his support into the more centrist Democratic communities in the city's Westside and the Valley. But assembling a progressive majority without the African-American community was a daunting challenge.
By any number of standards, Mr. Villaraigosa should have been the logical recipient of black support. He helped form the city's Black-Latino Roundtable some 20 years ago, and as president of the city's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union had been a champion of police reform, normally (though not this year) a defining issue in black Los Angeles. He did win the backing of the city's younger black political leaders, but the older leaders, and voters, stuck with Kenny Hahn's son. Too much can be read into this rift, though. Four years ago, black Los Angeles supported a white candidate and four years before that, an Asian candidate against Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican. Had Mr. Villaraigosa been running against a Republican, he would have won South-Central going away. But in Los Angeles's nonpartisan system, it was Democrat versus Democrat.
Mr. Villaraigosa's other problem was a lack of support among moderate and conservative white Democrats. Angelenos with long civic memories (a small but hearty band) may be excused for thinking they'd seen this before. Indeed, Mr. Villaraigosa's candidacy bears a close resemblance to the first, failed mayoral campaign of Tom Bradley, the liberal black city councilman who was defeated in 1969 by the race-baiting Sam Yorty. Like Mr. Villaraigosa, Mr. Bradley personified the rise of a new political order, in his case, a coalition of blacks and Jews who'd come to Los Angeles over the previous three decades. Both Mr. Bradley in that year and Mr. Villaraigosa in this inspired thousands of volunteers far more than in any other mayoral campaigns in the city's history who enlisted in the service of the overarching liberal cause with which their candidate was identified: civil rights in Mr. Bradley's case, economic justice in Mr. Villaraigosa's. Both candidates, though accomplished legislators, started off largely unknown to the public, making them vulnerable to attacks that they were too far left, too soft on crime. In the end, they lost by nearly identical margins Mr. Bradley by six points, Mr. Villaraigosa by seven.
But Mr. Bradley came back four years later, better known and harder to demonize, to win a decisive victory and begin a 20-year tenure as mayor. In Mr. Villaraigosa's case, the city is moving in his direction despite his defeat. Eight years ago, when Richard Riordan was elected mayor, Latinos constituted just 10 percent of the civic electorate. But Latino political mobilization has been rising steadily since 1994, when the community experienced the shock of Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant ballot measure. This has been an epochal transformation, funded and steered by Los Angeles's new-model labor movement, which had already pushed Los Angeles (and California) decidedly leftward well before this year's election rolled around. On Tuesday, Latinos were 22 percent of the voters, and Mr. Villaraigosa took 82 percent of that vote. A record 49 percent of the voters in the Los Angeles Times exit poll also identified themselves as liberal good news for the long-term prospects of Mr. Villaraigosa's alliance. And the white share of the electorate dropped 20 percent from 1993.
The Villaraigosa coalition has time on its side: among voters under 45, he won 57 percent support. Mr. Villaraigosa was as much the candidate of the new multiracial Los Angeles as he was its Latino standard-bearer, and to watch this charismatic candidate working the crowds at late-night eateries in the campaign's closing days was to see the first natural candidate of Los Angeles's 20-somethings, for whom a casually multicultural life is every bit as normal as it is abnormal for Los Angeles's 60-somethings.
As Tom Bradley showed, establishing a new political order can take more than one election. The new Los Angeles won't be built in a day, but it will be built.
Harold Meyerson is executive editor of L.A. Weekly. He will begin as executive editor of The American Prospect next month.