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Old and New 

Hahn and Villaraigosa square off for the mayoral finale

Wednesday, Apr 11 2001
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Now it‘s the old Los Angeles against the next.

The June mayoral runoff between City Attorney James Hahn and former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa pits the urban-liberal past against its future. Hahn ran strongest among elderly voters and in the African-American community, but that community, which constituted 18 percent of the electorate in 1993, shrunk to 14 percent in this week’s voting. Villaraigosa‘s strongest base of support, conversely, was in Latino L.A., and the Latino share of the voters, just 8 percent in 1993, is now 21 percent. Hahn’s most prominent endorsers -- Warren Christopher, Bill Wardlaw, Ethel Bradley (Tom‘s widow) -- seem fixtures from L.A.’s ancien regime. Villaraigosa‘s main backers, most notably, the city’s new-model labor movement, include the most dynamic new forces on the political horizon.

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More fundamentally, urban politics in America are the politics of ethnic succession, and that is the story of the Hahn-Villaraigosa contest as well. Black L.A. is at the center of Hahn‘s coalition, as it was for Tom Bradley, as it once was for an entire generation of Democratic mayors across the nation. From the late ’60s through the early ‘90s, African-American communities were the core of the Democratic regimes in America’s largest cities. By the early ‘90s, however, the black share of the urban electorate had begun to decline, while black communities were growing politically more isolated. In 1993, in both New York and L.A., black Democratic mayors were succeeded by white Republicans.

The white Republican interregnum in Los Angeles stumbled to an unceremonious end as Mayor Richard Riordan’s designated successor, GOP businessman Steve Soboroff, placed out of the money. (Most of Riordan‘s other anointed candidates went down in a heap as well.) The white-Republican interregnum in New York is also likely to end later this year, when Rudy Giuliani is termed out of office.

And Los Angeles now has a clear choice before it. Jim Hahn -- affable, lackluster, white -- has inherited the support of much of black L.A. from his father, the late, legendary Kenny Hahn, who represented South-Central (and, thus, black) L.A. on the county Board of Supervisors for a full 40 years. Antonio Villaraigosa -- impassioned, dynamic, Latino -- has won the support of the fastest-growing sector of the L.A. electorate. Villaraigosa’s margin over Hahn is substantial (the final figures had him at 30.4 percent to Hahn‘s 25.2), but by no means does it assure a victory in June. It’s a reasonable assumption that Villaraigosa will add the lion‘s share of Congressman Xavier Becerra’s primary vote, which was 6 percent of the total, to his own in the runoff, and that additional voter-registration efforts and a general level of excitement within Latino L.A. may be worth a couple of additional percentage points on top of that.

Villaraigosa also ran very well among Jewish voters (so strong, according to the L.A. Times exit poll, that he carried the San Fernando Valley). Nonetheless, all this support will still leave him roughly 10 percent short of a majority, and Villaraigosa will have to fight hard for those 10 points.

For the 22 percent of city voters who are Republican, and for the 21 percent who cast their lot with Soboroff (these are not entirely identical groupings, but they‘re close), the choice between Villaraigosa and Hahn doesn’t set off many sparks. Nor is it obvious where the 16 percent of primary voters who supported City Councilman Joel Wachs and State Controller Kathleen Connell will end up in the runoff. On election night, Hahn was already attempting to claim the center-right of the electorate by labeling former ACLU honcho Villaraigosa soft on crime.

There is, of course, a model for the kind of campaign Hahn may be poised to run: Sam Yorty, 1969. At the end of primary night 32 years ago, City Councilman Tom Bradley had come in a strong first: His liberal black-Jewish coalition had powered him to a 42 percent to 26 percent first-round decision over incumbent Mayor Yorty. What followed was the ugliest campaign in modern L.A. politics. Though Bradley had worked his way up the ranks in the LAPD before winning his seat on the City Council, Yorty portrayed him as a “black power” militant with close ties to the Black Panthers and Angela Davis. In the superheated white-backlash climate of 1969, Yorty‘s attacks worked. The June runoff saw Yorty pull an immense number of white voters to the polls. (More people voted in the ’69 runoff than in any city election since, though L.A. has grown by 1 million people in the intervening decades.) He won by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin.

The share of the city that‘s white has been cut in half since 1969, and Jim Hahn, thankfully, is no Sam Yorty. The white share of the municipal electorate, 68 percent just eight years ago, stood at 52 percent on Tuesday. Still, Hahn will try to raise doubts about Villaraigosa’s “extremism.” Villaraigosa can counter that anyone who persuades his Assembly colleagues to elect him speaker and then wins Republican as well as Democratic plaudits in that position isn‘t likely a closet Leninist, but it will take more than mere implausibility to deter Hahn. His campaign chairman, Bill Wardlaw, steered Richard Riordan to victory eight years ago in a classic law-and-order campaign. Wardlaw then served as Riordan’s consigliere until they split over the question of Riordan‘s successor (Wardlaw couldn’t abide Soboroff); now, only Villaraigosa stands between Wardlaw and his resumption of his rightful place as L.A.‘s shadow mayor. Jim Hahn is a man of some scruples, but probably not enough to keep Wardlaw from doing whatever it takes to renew his own grasp on power.

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