By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
BUT WHETHER VILLARAIGOSA IS EVEN IN the race to stay is open to some question. Congressman Xavier Becerra, another liberal Democrat whose district office literally abuts the speaker's in an Echo Park office building, has declared in no uncertain terms that he, too, is thinking about making the race.
Their proximity notwithstanding, Becerra and Villaraigosa represent increasingly distinct political tendencies. While the speaker disparages ethnocentrism and, for instance, has endorsed progressive Council Member Jackie Goldberg for the Assembly seat he's termed out of next year, Becerra is a close ally of state Senator Richard Polanco, for whom the cause of electing Latinos trumps all other concerns. In Congress, Becerra has championed a range of progressive causes, from restoring federal benefits to legal immigants to advocating universal health care; but within L.A. politics, he often as not has lined up against the County Federation of Labor -- and Villaraigosa, whom his associates accuse of being insufficiently Latino.
Like Villaraigosa, Stanford Law grad Becerra is attractive and charismatic, with none of the rough edges that characterized such founding fathers of Latino politics as longtime Councilman Richard Alatorre. Nonetheless, the idea of a Becerra mayoral campaign seems premature at best. For one thing, Becerra remains largely unknown not only to the general public but also to L.A.'s various political elites outside the Latino community. (An impromptu poll I conducted at a meeting of the board and staff of the Liberty Hill Foundation, which makes grants to local grassroots organizations, turned up 21 attendees who'd met Villaraigosa, and just nine who'd met Becerra.) For another, Becerra has few formed positions on many city issues. ã
In a discussion in his district office last week, he prescribed "transparency and accountability in government" as the answer to the discontents of secessionists -- and to the travails of the MTA as well. When I asked him, "What kinds of things do you want to say to L.A. voters, if you do decide to run, about your [Congressional] record?" -- deliberately, the most softball of queries -- Becerra responded: "Those are the types of things that I have to sit down and decide: What about my candidacy should attract residents in Los Angeles? What is it about the city that needs to change that I'd be best suited to work on? -- all those questions are things that I'm trying to make sure that I have a cogent answer to, so . . . I can express it with clarity to folks . . . It's important to be methodical. I don't want [my family] to hear I said this or I said that, that's contradictory. If I can't explain it well to my wife, I can't explain it well to voters."
Nonetheless, Becerra is seriously considering a run. He has one clear advantage over Villaraigosa: Congressmen, unlike state legislators, are not term-limited, and Becerra, if and when he loses his mayoral bid, will still be a member of Congress. Villaraigosa, by contrast, is termed out of the Assembly in November of 2000; if he loses the mayoral race in 2001, he'll be out of office altogether. By staying in the race, making it prohibitively difficult for Villaraigosa to advance to round two, Becerra gets himself around town, and positions himself to make a run in 2009, when the city's voter-registration numbers will be more favorable to a Latino candidate.
"Xavier and Antonio are in a mutual suicide pact," says one veteran player in city politics. "If Joel and Zev slice and dice their vote and come up even, there's a chance Antonio could sneak into the runoff against Hahn -- but Xavier's candidacy puts Antonio away. Here are two Latino pols, one of whom analyzed the Anglo world and went out and conquered it, while the other is a classic ethnic pol, like the oldtime Irish pols. That's not meant to be derogatory. But to think you can go from that role to a citywide role is the height of arrogance."
WITH THE FIELD OF CANDIDATES STILL very much in flux, there are rumors of other aspirants who could further dim Villaraigosa's prospects. County Supervisor Gloria Molina recently told La Opinionthat she hasn't ruled out a race, though her press spokesman, Miguel Santana, characterizes the remark as the kind of response she's routinely given since she first became a supe in 1991. "Is she campaigning today to seek that seat? No, she's not," Santana says. "Other people are pursuing it more aggressively than she."
In view of all the difficulties he may face, a number of Villaraigosa's allies have counseled him to give up the mayoral contest and run instead for Goldberg's Hollywood-area council seat, from which she, too, will be term-limited out. The argument goes that the city will be ready for a Latino mayor in 2009, that Villaraigosa can be the leading progressive, and a far more visible, force in city politics by serving on the council until that time, and that a council seat, particularly in Goldberg's multiracial district, would be an excellent springboard for the mayor's race. (To which Richard Katz retorts: "Tell that to Mike Woo" -- the previous occupant of Goldberg's seat, whom Riordan defeated in the '93 election.)