The Great Divider 

A toast to Jim Hahn’s nasty campaign

Wednesday, Jun 6 2001

They broke out the Hahn signs at 10:05 p.m. The placards had been stacked against a wall of the Westin Bonaventure‘s California Ballroom all evening, but now the candidate’s lead over mayoral rival Antonio Villaraigosa seemed steady enough to let a few supporters cautiously wave them about the ballroom‘s San Francisco Room. No one need have worried -- the election had effectively been over since the earliest returns showed the city attorney ahead of the former Assembly speaker. Some might even say the race had been decided in the April primary, when Jim Hahn’s and Steve Soboroff‘s combined totals spelled an irresistible restoration of the French-cuffed liberalism that had ruled Los Angeles for decades before the Riordan experiment.

The Bonaventure itself was the perfect setting for the return to an earlier L.A. -- with a full moon hovering above its cylindrical, smoked-glass towers, the hotel brought to mind 1970s disaster films as much as it did the dawn of the Bradley era. Like many California hotels, the Bonaventure has levied an ”energy tax“ on its guests, but the election-night crowd’s passive mood revealed that here, at least, there was not much energy to tax. Inside the ballroom, Hahn‘s largely middle-aged partisans, who formed an impressive cross section of ethnic groups, watched their candidate’s lead solidify with barely a ripple of applause, staring at TVs as though the monitors were aquariums.

As far as L.A. was concerned, Hahn‘s campaign had planted two things: a crack pipe in Antonio Villaraigosa’s hip pocket and the idea that Hahn truly could be a mayor ”for all the people.“ Toward that latter end, even the buffet tables offered what might be called a ”diversity menu“ -- pasta, taquitos, Brie, cold cuts, chicken on a stick, and something battered and deep-fried. The portable bars did brisk business; when pressed, one bartender claimed that beer and wine ran neck and neck for the most-popular-drink position, with vodka pulling a Soboroff -- a respectable third, just not in the runoff.

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Mok Singh, a Sikh Indian who has been a U.S. citizen for 25 years, said he supported Hahn because of his efforts to curb violence and gangs: ”I think his policies and record are pro-people and pro-multicultural.“ Singh stressed that he had also been won over by Hahn‘s pledge to bring cultural sensitivity to the LAPD, although, as a Calabasas resident, he cannot vote in the L.A. mayoral election.

Others were busy analyzing Villaraigosa’s imminent defeat. Said Ken Casarez, a representative of the Laborers‘ International Union of North America (LIUNA), ”Everybody’s put their money on the Latino vote -- which exists, there‘s hordes of them -- but they are not getting out to vote. Where are they?“

Jim Hilfenhaus, public-affairs director for Local 300 of LIUNA, echoed what others were saying: ”It’s a matter of resume. Jim Hahn has the experience -- Antonio says he‘s for everyone and his campaign’s a love fest, but what does it mean in practical terms? What does he stand for?“

Hilfenhaus also literally found some red flags in Villaraigosa‘s own resume. ”He went to the Peoples College of Law, which was founded by the Communist Party,“ Hilfenhaus said. ”Anyone who ever walked a picket line can get in, but no one ever passes the bar. Antonio flunked it four times.“

”Are you going up to the next floor? We’re going to see Rocky -- he‘s pulled to 1 point behind.“ Mayor Richard Riordan stood in front of the 12th-floor elevator talking to some pals he’d spotted when the door had opened. Behind him, the Tsubaki Lounge was the cramped party pad for city-attorney candidate Rocky Delgadillo. The atmosphere between its mirrored walls was claustrophobic and frenetic, making it a veritable mosh pit for people bored with the buttoned-down Hahn fest below, including Magic Johnson, who tonight was making the rounds in a charcoal-gray sharkskin suit and black T-shirt.

Although Deputy Mayor Delgadillo is a Democrat, the lounge had a decidedly Republican vibe -- besides the presence of a handful of clearly labeled GOP apparatchiks, the room seemed to have traded a the California Ballroom‘s ethnic complexion for the tan line of money. Delgadillo himself cut a rather brutish figure when he entered the lounge, and his startling triumph over Mike Feuer suggests the unsettling possibility that if L.A.’s next Latino mayor isn‘t Delgadillo, it may very well be someone like him.

Downstairs, the waiting game continued, and so did the postmortems. Rolando Cuevas, a Hahn activist from Boyle Heights, claimed Villaraigosa’s downfall stemmed from an inability to state a ”message.“ What was Hahn‘s message? ”Public safety.“ Still, he was sympathetic to Villaraigosa’s Herculean task of trying to broaden his spectrum of support without alienating his Latino base.

”Latino voters are more conservative than their leaders,“ Cuevas said. ”In the minority community, if you side with a white candidate you‘re seen as a sellout -- and A.V. has supported a lot of white candidates over Latinos, both in L.A. races and for committee positions in the Assembly.“

Shortly before midnight, Hahn’s mother entered the ballroom, and word spread that the candidate himself would soon appear. Moments later, he was introduced to the crowd by Magic Johnson and Maxine Waters. Hahn seemed like a strangely awkward man in his trademark blue shirt and tie, a man who embraced at face value Randy Newman‘s sardonic anthem ”I Love L.A.“ as it roiled over the assembled. He stood with his family and allies on the stage for perhaps half an hour, a guy too cautious to claim victory, even now.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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