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Behind Hahn’s Lines 

Villaraigosa in South-Central

Wednesday, May 9 2001
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Photo by Ted Soqui

No one disputes the legitimacy of Kenny Hahn’s reputation in L.A.’s African-American community. “Older voters who remember the bad old days of [Mayor Sam] Yorty and [LAPD Chief William] Parker remember that Kenny Hahn was the one elected official who stood up to those guys,” says Anthony Thigpenn, the accomplished community organizer who’s running Antonio Villaraigosa’s field campaign in South-Central.

The question the current election poses to black L.A. is the extent to which the good deeds of the father should be visited upon the son. Anyone who’s spent any time covering this campaign in South-Central knows that a question to a voter about the qualifications of Jim Hahn is likely as not to be answered with a paean of praise to his pop, Kenny, the late, legendary county supervisor who represented South-Central for a full 40 years. Though his son has spent 20 years as a citywide elected official — four as controller, 16 as city attorney — finding a voter who can tell you what Jim has done can be an arduous process.

If the Hahn campaign in black L.A. relies more upon the mystic chords of memory (which have seldom been more mystic) than on the candidate’s own record, the Villaraigosa campaign has a more straightforward message: As Assembly speaker, Villaraigosa expanded health coverage and helped bring more state bond money for schools and parks into South-Central than anyone in decades. His campaign material also touts his commitment to police reform. But a number of black L.A.’s progressive activists have their own mystic chords of memory binding them to Villaraigosa. Community organizers like Thigpenn and Karen Bass, who today mobilize for job training and against the liquor stores that are blighting their neighborhoods, have known Villaraigosa for nearly a quarter-century. They joined with him in civil rights campaigns, in efforts to keep Ed Davis’ and Daryl Gates’ cops from running amok in L.A.’s non-white communities. City Council member Mark Ridley-Thomas, in announcing his endorsement of Villaraigosa on Monday, said he first met Antonio 20 years ago, and in the ’80s, co-chaired the Black-Latino Roundtable with him. Today, Ridley-Thomas is spearheading the Villaraigosa campaign in South-Central, with Thigpenn and Bass as two of its lead organizers.

The Hahn-Villaraigosa contest has opened a generation gap within the political elite of black Los Angeles. Hahn’s chief African-American endorsers are a decade or two older than he is (Hahn’s 50): U.S. Representatives Maxine Waters and Juanita Millender-McDonald are both 62, County Supervisor Yvonne Burke is 68 (and still stunningly beautiful), City Council Member Nate Holden is 71 (and, in his own way, stunning, too), Ethel Bradley (Tom Bradley’s widow) is . . . well, nobody’s spring chicken. They all came of age in the early years of the civil rights movement, when the number of Latino activists was still quite small — and the number of white elected officials willing, like Kenny Hahn, to stand with them was lamentably small as well.

Villaraigosa’s core supporters in South-Central, by contrast, are his age (48) or younger. Ridley-Thomas is 46; Bass and Thigpenn are in their 40s; the African-American state legislators and business leaders endorsing him tend to be in their 40s as well, if not younger. That is, they came of age when Latino and African-American progressive activists were working in tandem, on campuses and off, against the war in Vietnam, police brutality and the Reagan cutbacks.

“There shouldn’t be any surprise about our support for Antonio. We’ve been doing multi-racial coalition work for 20 years,” says Bass. Nonetheless, she acknowledges, “A story is being missed, which is that the Villaraigosa coalition that’s emerging has an African-American element, in labor and in the communities.”

Until Monday, when Ridley-Thomas assembled a cross-section of black leadership on Villaraigosa’s behalf, it was an easy story to miss. Among the generalizations to which journalists in general (and I in particular) have been prey, the idea that the black community is removing itself from L.A.’s next progressive coalition was achieving the status of holy writ. According to the L.A. Times exit poll of primary voters, African-Americans had voted for Hahn over Villaraigosa by a 71-to-12-percent margin.

Villaraigosa’s backers don’t argue with the numbers, but they do dispute their meaning. The results, they insist, were a referendum on the name “Hahn.” When black voters encounter Villaraigosa — either through accounts of his record or, better yet, in person — they’re impressed. “The first time he spoke at my church, about a third of the parishioners stood and clapped when he was first introduced,” says William D. Smart Jr., pastor at Phillips Temple CME Church. “When he finished, about three-quarters of them stood and clapped.”

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