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As Goes The Left Coast, With Villaraigosa's L.A. Win, So Goes The Nation
By Myriam Marquez
May 22, 2005
Antonio Villaraigosa pitched an enormous tent to win big in Los Angeles. The son of a single mother in an East L.A. barrio has come a long way, but he didn't do it solely by stumping on his Latino roots or kissing up to the La La Land white liberals.
Villaraigosa would have lost resoundingly if he had attempted such a divide-and-conquer strategy, even in a city that's predominantly minority.
It's a lesson that other Hispanics need to heed. Notably, New York's Fernando Ferrer, a Puerto Rican, who already lost one attempt to become the mayor of the Big Apple, failing to get a majority of the African-American vote and attracting few white voters. As it is, New York's Hispanic population is hugely diverse, and Ferrer must do much more than court Puerto Ricans if he's to win the Hispanic vote -- much less sufficient votes overall to beat Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Villaraigosa's victory should sound a wake-up call to Central Florida's fast-growing Hispanic community, too -- particularly in Osceola County, Kissimmee and east Orlando. Past rivalries between Puerto Rican candidates (and also between Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics) vying for the same local seats have resulted in the continual reign of non-Hispanic white candidates with little interest in the Hispanic community. Hispanic candidates split a potential win, turning it into another loss.
Villaraigosa wasn't going to let that happen. Not again. The former California State Assembly speaker lost his nonpartisan bid for City Hall once to Mayor James Hahn, a moderate, pro-business Democrat who promised to bring back businesses that keep fleeing L.A.'s rising taxes but failed to deliver. Hahn carried the black vote, thanks to his father's civil-rights credentials.
This time, Villaraigosa pushed a Clintonesque agenda, vowing to be everybody's mayor, to fight for the middle class, even as his pro-union credentials greased the political wheels. In L.A., where tensions between unionized black workers and desperate-for-work Latinos caused deep political schisms years back, Villaraigosa's big-umbrella strategy and Hahn's past political mistakes converged into a perfect political storm.
It helped that Villaraigosa, a Democrat, showed he could build coalitions with Republicans on business and other issues before the Assembly. Thus, the buy-in from moderate Republicans from predominantly white suburbs surrounding L.A. He even worked a little Yiddish here and there to appeal to Jewish voters.
Although Mexican-Americans and other Hispanic groups account for 48 percent of L.A.'s population, they are only a quarter of registered voters, since many aren't yet citizens. Latino pride and a low voter turnout (only 33 percent) helped Villaraigosa tremendously, too. But any way you slice and dice this, Villaraigosa trounced Hahn 59 percent to 41 percent.
Exit polls indicate he grabbed 84 percent of Latino votes, swayed the mostly white San Fernando Valley, splitting the non-Hispanic white vote overall with Hahn 50-50 and got a nod from 48 percent of black voters, whose allegiance last time was to Hahn 2-to-1.
Villaraigosa tapped into black discontent over Hahn's firing of Bernard Parks as police chief. African-Americans, now at 10 percent of the population, took a leap of faith with Villaraigosa, no question. He will have to show he can balance stark competing interests in a multicultural city, where Latinos soon will be a majority, and also build bridges to L.A.'s Asian community, which Hahn kept in his corner.
History does repeat itself.
Villaraigosa's Left Coast win harks back to another progressive mayor from the Right Coast -- New York's Fiorello La Guardia, who used the Tammany Hall scandal of Irish pols handing out favors at the expense of other ethnic groups to his advantage. Just as Villaraigosa inspired Latinos to get out the vote in L.A., La Guardia energized the Italian vote in 1933 and used his fluency in Yiddish to connect with New York's Jewish voters. Villaraigosa also stumped for good government, focusing on a run-of-the-mill contracting scandal under Hahn's watch.
Villaraigosa made history as L.A.'s first Latino mayor since the Civil War period, but more than that, his engaging personality and political acumen serve as a blueprint for other candidates of any color. All Americans should look at Villaraigosa's win as a hopeful sign that diversity can be a uniting force instead of a divisive strain on the body politic.