By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
II. You Can Take the Boy out of Carolina . . .
James Kenneth Hahn is not a race-baiting demagogue, but for the past 10 days, he’s played one on television. Well, not Hahn himself, heaven forfend; his image and voice were scrupulously absent from his campaign‘s climactic attack ad on Villaraigosa. But it was the hit ad that turned the campaign around in its last fortnight, and, indeed, it was the hit ad on which the Hahn campaign was always premised. All this year, Hahn’s two consultants, Kam Kuwata and Bill Carrick, expressed confidence that Villaraigosa was supremely vulnerable to the charge that he was untrustworthy as a result of his letter on behalf of Carlos Vignali. Just in case he wasn‘t vulnerable enough, however, Carrick crafted an ad that suggested through its imagery that Villaraigosa wasn’t simply untrustworthy but actually dangerous -- a shady-looking character surrounded by drug paraphernalia, a cross between a drug kingpin and our homegrown version of Marion Barry.
As editorialists, columnists, clergy and others began to weigh in against the ad -- calling it our homegrown version of Willie Horton -- the Hahn campaign countered that it was factually accurate and that it had been Villaraigosa who‘d gone negative first. This latter claim produced considerable head scratching within the press, however, and when Hahn leveled it at a post-debate press conference Thursday night at the Museum of Tolerance, the Daily News’ Rick Orlov asked Hahn just what exactly were the negative spots produced by the Villaraigosa campaign. Hahn replied that in the primary, when the Morongo Indian gambling consortium spent $200,000 on radio spots saying, ”You can‘t trust Antonio Villaraigosa,“ the former speaker’s campaign answered with radio spots of its own, asking where those Morongo ads really came from, and concluding with the line ”Ask Jim Hahn.“
Now, in the vast cavalcade of negative ads, this linking of the Hahn campaign with a scurrilous ad offensive intended to help it out is small beer indeed. Moreover, the very day of the Museum of Tolerance debate, the L.A. Times ran a piece documenting that Daniel Weinstein, a longtime Hahn ally who‘d raised considerable funds for his campaign, had solicited a number of casino-owning tribes to wage independent-expenditure campaigns against Villaraigosa (who as speaker had backed the right of casino employees to unionize). In sum, the line ”Ask Jim Hahn“ was not only not-very-negative, it was actually an entirely germane suggestion, which the media quite reasonably acted upon.
The second defense that Hahn mounted for his ad is that it was factually accurate -- and so it was. For that matter, the Willie Horton ad was factually accurate, too: Michael Dukakis had indeed authorized a disastrous weekend-furlough program for imprisoned felons. The Willie Horton ad achieved its notoriety as a result not of its spoken text but its imagery: black men, in what was intended to be frightening succession, exiting a door. For his part, Hahn defended his ad’s imagery as not racist, and it was certainly not as racist as Lee Atwater‘s masterpiece against Dukakis. But it didn’t have to be; it couldn‘t be without boomeranging. It was merely racist enough.
The irony is that Bill Carrick, the ad’s producer, was always the Good South Carolinian among political consultants, just as the late Lee Atwater was the Bad South Carolinian. Carrick started out working for Ted Kennedy and Richard Gephardt, then moved to L.A., where, with Kuwata, he‘s been Dianne Feinstein’s consultant, and by himself has done a brilliant job over the years for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Now, alas, we know that while you can take the boy out of Carolina, you can‘t take Carolina out of the boy: Carrick has produced an ad that, in the innuendo of its imagery, is worthy of Atwater.
The decision to run the ad, of course, wasn’t Carrick‘s or Kuwata’s; it was Hahn‘s. It was a decision that clearly surprised a lot of people who mistook Hahn’s low-intensity demeanor for an internal ethical compass. ”You look at the Vignali letter,“ said Father Greg Boyle at a Villaraigosa campaign stop the Saturday before the election, ”and say, ‘That was a mistake.’ You look at the Hahn ad and say, ‘That was morally reprehensible.’“
III. Shades of Bradley -- and Clinton
While Hahn disputes any and all equations of his campaign to Sam Yorty‘s, Villaraigosa has always linked his own effort with Tom Bradley’s. The question in the closing weeks of the race was: Which Bradley campaign -- the 1969 defeat or the 1973 victory?
Bradley‘s ’69 campaign was, like Villaraigosa‘s, an epochal cross-town crusade, filled with movement activists, inspiring thousands of volunteers. It had everything a campaign could want -- except an effective counter to Yorty’s charges that Bradley was a soft-on-crime closet commie and black nationalist intimately linked to the Black Panthers.
As political scientist Raphael Sonenshein recounts it in Politics in Black and White, his history of L.A. politics in the Yorty and Bradley eras, ”Bradley hardly responded at all [in 1969], taking a ‘high road’ approach, assuming that the voters would see through Yorty‘s demagoguery. Bradley continued to portray himself as a reform-minded liberal who would be a more competent and able mayor than the mercurial Yorty. After Yorty’s attacks began, the moderate Bell [Congressman Alphonso Bell, a Republican who‘d run and lost in the mayoral primary] endorsed Bradley and the Los Angeles Times strongly backed the black challenger in an editorial blasting Yorty . . . Bradley’s dignified response was therefore helpful in gaining some ‘establishment’ support . . .“