Crunch Time 

The race to succeed Richard Riordan — and to reshape Los Angeles — comes down to the wire

Wednesday, Mar 21 2001

I. Joel and Che, Together Again

It‘s a crisp spring night at UCLA, and the 36th debate between the six major candidates for mayor of Los Angeles is not proceeding like the previous 35. In fact, it’s not proceeding at all.

Several hundred students, after demonstrating all day outside a meeting of the UC Regents in favor of restoring affirmative action in university admissions policy, have occupied Royce Hall, site of the scheduled debate. UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale has already canceled the debate, but mayoral candidates are filtering in. Former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who‘d counseled student leaders weeks earlier on how best to move the Regents (he did not suggest occupying Royce Hall), has rushed to the campus to keep things from getting out of hand. Congressman Xavier Becerra arrives some 30 minutes later, and joins Villaraigosa to help mediate a kind of public negotiation between students and the administration. After a half-hour’s standoff, and prompting from the former speaker, the students agree to leave Royce by 8 p.m., and Carnesale agrees to hold back the cops.

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By 7:50, the students file out, cleaning up Royce as they go -- but not before they‘ve heard from the candidates. Becerra isn’t particularly well-known to the crowd -- he‘s introduced as “Antonio Becerra” -- but readily connects with them, saying, “You didn’t cancel the debate -- you started one! You didn‘t deny us the right to become mayor, you defended the right of people like yourselves to become future mayors, doctors and lawyers.” Villaraigosa, it seems, hardly needs an introduction; he is greeted with deafening cheers. He’s an affirmative-action baby, he begins. “Some people have said I got in through the back door,” he tells the students. “But I left through the front -- I‘m the first UCLA graduate to become speaker. But because of SP1 and 2 [resolutions the Regents adopted back when Pete Wilson was governor, enacting a prohibition on affirmative action stricter than Proposition 209’s], we had just one African-American student at Boalt Hall [Berkeley‘s law school] last year. I said then, ’This is not Mississippi in 1960; this is not Alabama! This is California, the golden state; people from every corner of the world come here to realize the American Dream.‘ And what you’re asking is that we reaffirm the values that make America great.”

For Villaraigosa, the evening must seem an illustration of Faulkner‘s maxim that the past isn’t dead, or even past. Twenty-eight years previous, he had headed the UCLA chapter of MEChA, the main Latino students‘ organization. He was, in the spirit of the ’60s left, a movement guy above all else; indeed, he left UCLA six weeks before graduation to do full-time organizing in East L.A. (He finished his degree requirements some years later.) Becerra, by all accounts, was more the model student: He tells the protesters about his role in a demonstration against the Supreme Court‘s anti-affirmative-action Bakke decision back in 1976, but throughout his years at Stanford, as both an undergrad and a law student, that kind of politics was more the exception than the rule.

But Becerra was as Lenin himself compared to the third mayoral candidate who suddenly pops up in the lobby of Royce. City Council Member Joel Wachs bustles in, and quickly lives up to his reputation as one of the fastest studies in California politics. Wachs, too, had been a student leader at UCLA -- student-body president in 1961 -- but that was a decade before Villaraigosa, and several years before there actually was such a thing as a campus left. These kids are not his people. (Wachs’ people are an odd assortment; his endorsers include the Reform Party, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and many figures in the city‘s arts community.) Besides, Wachs often seems to gain his understanding of the city’s most pressing social issues less through raw encounters with the stuff of life than through the medium of the arts: He learned the most about the ‘92 riots, he told the Weekly, from Anna Deveare Smith’s play Twilight, and his decision to support the city‘s living-wage ordinance, he said, was prompted at least partly by a painting hanging in MOCA.

By mutual consent, Wachs and the student leaders agree he should not address the crowd -- he hasn’t heard of SP1 and 2 until just now, and such a talk might seem an episode out of When Worlds Collide. But he quickly tells everyone in earshot how disappointed he is that the debate isn‘t being held, with the protesting students included. “I’m a strong believer in affirmative action,” he tells the kids. “We should have discussed it; it‘s relevant to city policy; the diversification of the city work force is a major issue.”

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