IT WAS A PERFECT CAMPAIGN TABLEAU. ON A SPARKLING Friday morning in July, Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa stood behind a makeshift podium on the end of Pier 82 in the L.A. Harbor, flags snapping in the wind, the water glistening in the sunlight, to announce a new program for the Harbor-area economy. Clustered around him, reporters listened attentively, and non-reporters -- parents with small children, tourists with cameras -- craned their necks to get a better view . . .
. . . not, however of Villaraigosa. Docking at that very moment at adjacent Pier 83 was the tall ship Eagle, a three-masted Coast Guard training ship, escorted by tooting tugboats and a water-spraying fire-department runabout. The spectators were plainly riveted by the scene -- and it would have availed nothing to have told them that the man behind the podium was on his own shakedown cruise for a possible run for mayor of Los Angeles two years hence, that he might just personify the future of American urban politics, that if there was any history to be seen in the harbor that morning, they might consider turning around.
THE MAYORAL CAMPAIGN TO SUCCEED RICHARD RIORDAN has already begun, though, like the tourists on the pier, Los Angeles is largely impervious to all the rollouts and scurryings and backroom maneuvering. Los Angeles is impervious to most matters of local government, of course, but at this early stage in the game -- the primary isn't until April, the runoff not until June, of 2001 -- the city has a reasonable excuse.
But the city, like those tourists, is missing some real drama. The coming mayor's race is shaping up as a contest of unusually historic significance. It is unfolding against the backdrop of huge, new developments in American urban life: the possibility that Los Angeles will become the first major U.S. city to be sundered by secession; the political ascent of the third wave of immigrants; the boom at the top and the bottom -- and the erosion of the middle -- of the urban economy; and the reinvention of urban liberalism in America. The outcome of this contest will forecast the shape of American urban politics for years to come.
The paramount question confronting the next mayor will be how to address L.A.'s economic transformation, which is every bit as profound as its demographic shifts. Over the past 20 years, Los Angeles -- once the model of postwar mass prosperity, where the backyard swimming pool became an ornament of middle-class life -- has now become the model of the post-mass-prosperity metropolis. Of the 300,000 new jobs created in the county since 1993, the L.A. Times reports, more than 150,000 of them pay under $25,000 a year. Since 1991, the number of local jobs paying between $40,000 and $60,000 annually has actually declined by 97,000. Concurrently, L.A. has the lowest percentage of jobs offering medical coverage to its workers -- just 59 percent -- of any American city, and one of the lowest percentages of homeowners. In short, the bottom hasn't fallen out of the L.A. economy, but the middle most certainly has -- and already in the nascent campaign for mayor, a surprising number of the candidates are pushing plans on how to bring that middle back.
The key political question looming over the race is to what degree the Latino-ization of Los Angeles will have transformed the electorate by 2001. When Tom Bradley was first elected mayor, in 1973, blacks constituted around 25 percent of the voters. Latino turnout in 1997 accounted for 15 percent of the electorate, and while increasing levels of citizenship and registration and turnout could boost that figure to around 20 percent in 2001, it's hard to see how it gets much higher than that. Another conundrum is whether a Latino leader will be able to forge the kind of cross-racial, cross-town ties that Bradley built -- and inherited. For Bradley was the beneficiary of a black-Jewish electoral alliance rooted in both the civil rights movement of the '60s and a mutual exclusion from a still largely WASP City Hall. Villaraigosa has embarked full-tilt on an effort to build such a coalition anew, with different elements for a different time, but the kind of citywide networks upon which Bradley relied -- the Democratic club movement, for instance -- have long since vanished. Less visibly than Villaraigosa, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky -- who may or may not become a candidate -- has, as it were, been building those ties in reverse: Starting from a solid base in Jewish L.A. and focusing his attention on issues affecting the city's largely Latino working poor.
These changes still lay beyond the horizon in 1993, when Richard Riordan came from nowhere (but toting $6 million of his own money to fund his campaign) to win the mayor's race. Then, a city shaken by rioting responded to Riordan's appeal for more police, and rejected the candidacy of Councilman Mike Woo -- a liberal Democrat at a time when liberalism was little more than the sum of the identity politics of its various constituencies. Today, the city is far more confident, its economy vibrant but terribly divided between high-end and low-, with issues of ethnic succession and political secession -- issues that are intertwined, though few will say so publicly -- looming over the race for mayor.