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
It is high opera, a classic tale of ambition, betrayal, revenge and perhaps even a little lust and greed. It has to be. Otherwise, who would care about the campaign for mayor of Los Angeles?
Especially now, in December, when voters here are just recovering from the presidential elections and the mayoral race has yet to shift into high gear. The election is March 8, when 19 challengers — four of whom reporters have labeled "serious" because we know them and they have a lot of money — will try to unseat Mayor James Hahn. They are state Senator Richard Alarcon, former Assembly speaker Bob Hertzberg, and Councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa and Bernard Parks.
We in the news media tried to jump-start the campaign last week with a prime-time televised debate that we apparently agreed to call the very first of the year, even though it was not, and we insisted that it laid bare the issues facing the city, even though it didn’t.
All the papers concurred that the coming election is crucial because it will determine the kind of city Los Angeles will become — whether it will be a more abundant city, with opportunity for all, and with those hallmarks of the most highly evolved societies: humane care for the sick, dignity and respect for the aged, creative and caring education for our youth, and civic delight in cultural variety and artistic expression.
Just kidding about that last part. There has been very little discussion anywhere about what the mayor of Los Angeles does, what kind of changes the mayor can effect, and what our city will become. There hasn’t even been that much substantive discussion yet from the candidates themselves, although you could hardly expect them to deliver lofty visions in the 30-second and 60-second spots they had on debate night.
In a city with little history of broad civic discourse, we in the media are interested primarily in the drama and the strategy. The who and the how of campaigns, as opposed to the why.
Here is some of the Who. Hahn is the scion of L.A.’s best-known political family. He rode the coattails of his beloved father, Kenny Hahn, into elected office in the 1980s with his successful campaign for city controller. In a then-conservative L.A., Hahn’s longish hair (for City Hall) and penchant for hanging out at rock clubs earned him the nickname "rock & roller controller." Really. He was the exciting new personality of City Hall. No joke.
Then he ran for city attorney, which is what he wanted to be all along, and won — again and again and again and again. He started his 2001 run for mayor as the clear front-runner. Villaraigosa, a former state Assembly speaker, caught up and moved ahead, besting Hahn in the primary race. The following eight weeks featured hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by so-called independent campaigns on behalf of, but not coordinated with, each candidate, and the bitter campaign was capped by a Hahn ad that depicted a grainy Villaraigosa against the backdrop of a crack pipe. Hahn won handily with the oddest of political coalitions — black South L.A., which had been loyal to Kenny Hahn, bound to the mostly white and more conservative San Fernando Valley.
He began his tenure by alienating both ends. Many African-Americans still feel betrayed by Hahn’s firing of Parks, the city’s second black LAPD chief and the highest-ranking African-American in the city structure. And he fought hard against independent cityhood for the San Fernando Valley; a vote just a few months after his election blocked the Valley separatists’ aspirations. But from his campaign against secession grew complaints, quiet ones at first, from contractors who claimed Hahn’s people at the harbor and the airport tried to strong-arm them into making contributions to the anti-secession campaign. There are now full-scale criminal probes in City Hall.
Hahn lists among his biggest successes his hiring of Bill Bratton to replace Parks as police chief, and a subsequent drop in crime. He will try to trumpet his success in public safety, and has tended to invoke repeatedly the name of Bratton, who is more popular and more personable than he is (although Bratton’s L.A. tenure has been far more soft-spoken than his gigs in Boston and New York. Must be something in the L.A. water).
His opponents will hit Hahn where he is weakest — the appearance (still no charges filed) of corruption in contracting.
Villaraigosa had a hardscrabble youth before turning into an activist for the teachers union and the ACLU. His own political career began with a run for the state Assembly, which he won. Serving three terms, he became speaker and earned a reputation as a consensus builder and an effective policymaker. He almost immediately became a national figure, a status that was further enhanced when he came in first in the 2001 mayoral primary.
Villaraigosa’s personal charisma and strong speaking style helped his campaign take on the elements of a crusade. Latinos, especially those from his native Eastside, loved him. But he rejected ethnic identity politics and got some of his strongest support from liberals on the city’s Westside.