By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Sounds mighty familiar. For Bell, substitute Joel Wachs; for the Times, substitute -- well, the Times (pols come and go; the Times remains). For Bradley‘s ”high road“ approach, Villaraigosa had his own talk-the-issues plan for the campaign’s final two weeks, focusing on traffic, school construction, and policing. There was, in his campaign‘s assertion that these issues would dominate the election’s homestretch, a great deal of wishful thinking. More than one Villaraigosa campaign staffer was telling me a couple of weeks ago that they‘d weathered Hahn’s early hits on Vignali -- as if they could thereby assume the Hahn campaign had ruled out the nuclear option in the campaign‘s closing week.
So when the Vignali ad did go up on the air, Villaraigosa’s campaign looked for the next several days a lot like Bradley‘s in ’69 -- like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Part of the problem was that the campaign had pre-tested the tactic of firing back, of going on the offensive itself, and concluded that it only made matters worse. A series of focus groups with swing Valley voters had yielded a particularly fearful asymmetry: Those voters were predisposed to accept a Hahn attack on Villaraigosa, but their latent mistrust of Villaraigosa was only exacerbated when he mixed it up with Hahn. Part of the ”problem“ was Villaraigosa himself, who was determined to wage a ”high road“ campaign.
Accordingly, for the first half of last week, a debate raged within the Villaraigosa campaign much like that which the Bradley ‘69 campaign never resolved: Should we hit back, and if so, how? By midweek, however, with Villaraigosa’s support slipping in both public and internal polling, the answer to the first of those questions was plainly yes. Hahn had made Villaraigosa‘s character the issue in the Vignali ad; now Villaraigosa would make Hahn’s character the issue for airing the Vignali ad. In Thursday night‘s debate at the Museum of Tolerance, Villaraigosa came out swinging, and his counterattack ad went up the following day. On the campaign trail, Villaraigosa and his surrogates harped repeatedly, straight through Election Day, on both the Hahn ad and its condemnation by much of L.A.’s civic establishment.
Villaraigosa‘s campaign had been a fairly artful practitioner of political jujitsu throughout -- spinning his failure to win the Police Protective League’s endorsement into a demonstration of the candidate‘s refusal to compromise public safety, and his ability to stand up to a union. Its initial hesitation to go the jujitsu route when the Vignali ad first appeared, however, is testimony to the difficulties this campaign always encountered in striking the right balance. If Villaraigosa devoted a lot of attention to mobilizing Latino voters, his consultants feared, wouldn’t that scare away too many white centrists who were already ambivalent (at best) about the demographic transformation of L.A. over the past 15 years? If Villaraigosa fought back too aggressively on the ad, wouldn‘t that reinforce the image of the angry kid from the streets of Boyle Heights?
While his initial reluctance to step down from the high road was clearly a contestable decision, Villaraigosa was in every other way a terrific candidate. No candidate in the history of modern Los Angeles has inspired the kind of dedication that Villaraigosa did among his followers, through his commitment, his affability and his sheer hard work. In the last 48 hours before the polls closed, the former speaker made some 40 separate campaign stops. Just before midnight on Monday, at the end of a 19-hour day, he was making the rounds at Canter’s Deli, talking to, embracing and seeming to win over virtually everybody there, patrons, waitresses, deli countermen and busboys. In my years covering campaigns, I‘ve seen this kind of tenacity just once before: from Bill Clinton in the 1992 New Hampshire primary. Someone estimated that Clinton had actually shaken the hands of more than a quarter of the state’s Democratic voters that year. Villaraigosa shook a lot more hands than that, but there are many more voters in L.A. than there are Democrats in New Hampshire.
Despite his defeat, Villaraigosa showed an ability to assemble a broad-based coalition that was in certain instances almost mind-boggling. As he addressed his followers on election night, not only was he flanked by Governor Davis and Mayor Riordan, but standing behind him, next to each other, a were Eli Broad and Cornel West. Whatever else Villaraigosa may have been, he was certainly the candidate of odd couples.
IV. Options for the Next L.A.
Perhaps the biggest question leaping out of Tuesday‘s election results is that of the future of Latino political leadership in Los Angeles. With Villaraigosa’s defeat, and the surprise victory of Rocky Delgadillo as city attorney, one model of Latino coalition politics is now challenged by another. For if Villaraigosa was pre-eminently the candidate of the labor-Latino alliance, Delgadillo was the first major candidate of the business-Latino alliance. Running against City Councilman Mike Feuer, who proved to be a woefully lackluster campaigner, Delgadillo greatly benefited from the assistance of the mayor and the gaggle of business interests that he‘d helped in his post as deputy mayor for economic development.
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