Getting to 50-plus-1 

Hahn and Villaraigosa look to their right

Wednesday, Apr 25 2001

The lyric is 70 years old, but Ira Gershwin‘s mighty couplet on John P. Wintergreen, the candidatehero of the Gershwins’ 1931 musical Of Thee I Sing, can be applied, with one simple word alteration, to L.A.‘s own Antonio Villaraigosa:

He’s the man the people choose

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Loves Latinos and the Jews.

(Ira had it, “The Irish and the Jews” -- and what with the former speaker‘s current courtship of Richard Riordan, Villaraigosa’s love of the Irish probably knows no bounds, either.)

Among the many factors behind Villaraigosa‘s first-place finish in this month’s mayoral primary was his solid backing in the Jewish community -- coming in tied with Steve Soboroff for a plurality of Jewish voters, while his runoff rival, City Attorney James Hahn, lagged 10 points behind. As historian Ken Burt has reminded me, it was a coalition of Latinos and Jews, way back in 1949, that elected Ed Roybal to the City Council -- the first Latino member of the L.A. council since the 19th century. (At the time, there was still a significant Jewish presence in Boyle Heights.) Now history could repeat itself at the level of mayoral politics.

Since the coming runoff pits a mainstream Democrat (Hahn) against a progressive one (Villaraigosa), the normal runoff-election dynamics have been considerably scrambled. The swing voters in this election -- the Jews and non-Jewish whites who voted for Soboroff and City Councilman Joel Wachs -- hail largely from the more conservative sectors of L.A. politics. This leaves Hahn and Villaraigosa competing not for the voters who fall between them on the ideological spectrum, as is normally the case in American elections, but for voters who stand to the right of them both.

The conventional wisdom for some time has been that Hahn is better positioned than Villaraigosa to pick up the Valley-cons and other right-thinking voters, and with them, City Hall. While few voters can actually tell you anything that Hahn has done in his 20 years as the city‘s controller and attorney, he has a low-key, reassuring, unthreatening (at times, somnambulistic) presence. Conservatives may not cotton to Hahn’s coalition -- black L.A., public-employee unions and the downtown lobbyists -- but it‘s a known quantity and, in some ways, a declining one. Villaraigosa, on the other hand, is the new guy with the liberal pedigree, and represents an uppity new coalition that is plainly transforming the city. (As is evidenced by the glaring age gap in primary voting: The only age group in which Hahn led Villaraigosa on primary day was voters over 65; he had 35 percent support there to Villaraigosa’s 20 percent, according to the L.A. Times exit poll. Conversely, among voters under 30 -- just 8 percent of the electorate, alas -- Villaraigosa polled an overwhelming 46 percent to Hahn‘s 19 percent.)

Most crucially, perhaps, for voters prey to ethnocentric phobias, Villaraigosa is the Latino chief of the Latino tribe. No way, the conventional wisdom has insisted, is he a smart bet to take this thing.

Now the first post-primary poll is out, and it consigns the conventional wisdom to the nearest dustbin. KABC-TV’s poll shows the race to be a dead heat, with Hahn and Villaraigosa each claiming 47 percent support. With both candidates so painfully close to 50, it‘s fairly clear what they’ll be doing to win that final, elusive 3 percent. Hahn has already begun to accuse Villaraigosa of being “soft on crime” for opposing a few of the more sweeping war-on-gangs bills that moved through the Legislature during his tenure. Villaraigosa can counter that Hahn‘s own role in the war on gangs -- in particular, looking the other way during the Rampart scandal -- has cost the city millions of dollars that could otherwise be spent on public safety. The soft-on-crime attack is a hardy perennial of L.A. politics, of course; Richard Riordan employed it against Mike Woo, Sam Yorty against Tom Bradley, and Norris Poulson against Sam Yorty.

Villaraigosa’s legislative record is actually his chief selling point; as speaker, he did a terrific job in winning L.A. more parks, schools and health coverage. He surely needs some cover on the law-‘n’-order front, however: While Tom Bradley could point to his years on the LAPD, Villaraigosa‘s own tenure heading the local ACLU board may prove a tougher sell. But cover is likely to come, since Villaraigosa may well win the endorsements of L.A.’s conservative leadership just as he‘s won the support of its liberal icons.

There are really four endorsements that matter between now and the June 5 runoff. One is that of a mainstream Democrat, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. The second is of neither-Dem-nor-Rep City Councilman Joel Wachs, the veteran Valley legislator who ran fourth in the primary. The third is Soboroff’s, who ran third. The fourth -- and much the most important -- is Richard Riordan‘s.

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