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The Era of Bad Feelings 

Jim Hahn sets a city against itself, and comes out on top

Wednesday, Jun 6 2001
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I. Sucker-Punched

The future is on hold here, at least for a few more years.

Give Jim Hahn credit: He organized one last victory for the old Los Angeles. In a city that’s increasingly young and Latino, Hahn put together enough older white and black support to defeat Antonio Villaraigosa in Tuesday‘s mayoral contest. Dispatching Villaraigosa required Hahn to engage in the kind of sliming the city had not known since the heyday of Sam Yorty, but Hahn proved equal to the task.

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In essence, this city was sucker-punched over the past two weeks. Antonio Villaraigosa is the most skilled, accomplished and charismatic leader the city has seen in a long time, but as a public figure who did most of his work in Sacramento, he was still an unknown quantity to many Angelenos when Hahn’s campaign began airing its now notorious attack ad against him. And the ad -- in which Villaraigosa came off looking like a drug-ring kingpin -- plainly worked. Hahn had been narrowly trailing Villaraigosa in the polling before the ad went on the air; once it aired, he surged into a lead he was not to relinquish.

Actually, it‘s amazing that Villaraigosa did as well as he did. The challenge before him was to put together a progressive electoral majority in Los Angeles without substantial support from the African-American community -- inasmuch as Hahn had already inherited that support from his father. Had Villaraigosa been running against Republican Steve Soboroff instead of Hahn, he surely would have won the lion’s share of black support -- and with it, the Mayor‘s Office. Indeed, if California did not have nonpartisan municipal elections, Villaraigosa would have faced Soboroff, since he would have defeated Hahn in the Democratic primary. It’s no small historic irony that the one state that could have produced a national leader for America‘s burgeoning Latino population is also one of the few states with an electoral system that kept that from happening.

Jim Hahn now takes office amid an era of bad feelings that he himself created. Villaraigosa’s supporters felt far more intensely about their candidate than Hahn‘s did for theirs -- even in defeat, there were three times the number of people at Villaraigosa’s election-night bash as there were at Hahn‘s -- and they feel understandably livid at Tuesday’s victor. Which creates a peculiar challenge for the new mayor, since the people he has most alienated include the fastest-growing segment of the L.A. population and most of the activists in his own political party. Sam Yorty could offend Tom Bradley‘s base with impunity, but Jim Hahn’s political future -- most especially if visions of a governorship dance in his head -- depends on his repairing his relationships with both Latino voters and Democratic stalwarts.

Like no other election in recent memory, the mayor‘s race of 2001 has created, or at least widened, major fault lines within key Democratic constituencies. Within the African-American community, the elders (Maxine Waters, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Nate Holden) endorsed Hahn while the youngers (Mark Ridley-Thomas, Anthony Thigpenn, Connie Rice) backed Villaraigosa; younger black voters were much more likely than older ones to back Villaraigosa, too. Within the Latino community, Council Members Alex Padilla and Nick Pacheco, who already tended to side more with Mayor Riordan than with the unions to which their constituents belonged, bet on a Hahn victory for fear of being marginalized under a Villaraigosa mayoralty or out of some obscure vendettas of their own. And within labor, some of the union honchos who have been chafing at the leadership of County Federation of Labor chief Miguel Contreras (who engineered the Fed’s endorsement of Villaraigosa) went with Hahn in an effort that some of them hoped would also weaken Contreras. The old-guard union leaders who supported Hahn may well feel emboldened by his victory, but none of them has anywhere near the vision or track record to mount a credible challenge to Contreras, who‘s widely viewed as the nation’s most successful local labor leader.

Considering that it was the Hahn campaign that prevailed, it‘s remarkable how many of his key supporters damaged themselves in the course of working for his victory. By her demagogic attacks on Villaraigosa, Maxine Waters has justly ensured her exclusion from L.A. civil-libertarian and Westside liberal circles where she’s been a fixture for decades. By their stumblebum attempts to subvert Villaraigosa‘s campaign in the primary (sending out a phone message featuring a Gloria Molina sound-alike who accused the former speaker of being soft on crime), Pacheco and Congressman Xavier Becerra marginalized themselves to the point of inviting electoral challengers the next time they face the voters.

In his dealings with all these constituencies, Hahn a faces a choice: whether to focus chiefly on rewarding his supporters (problematic though they be), or on mending fences with the Latino, Jewish, labor and younger black leaders who backed Villaraigosa. In deciding his course of action, he must weigh whether he’s irretrievably estranged some of Villaraigosa‘s backers by the very way he came to power.

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