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New Mayor, New City 

Antonio can remake the city as he pleases — well, sort of

Thursday, May 19 2005
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It may not always have been pretty, but it was goddamn important. The election of Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor of Los Angeles, by a stunning 17-point margin, signals a civic transformation almost without parallel in modern American history. The leopard has changed his spots: This is not the city of Yorty, Poulson or Riordan; of Nixon and Reagan; or even of Tom Bradley. A vast population has moved away, a vast population has moved here, and the tensions that go with such a cosmic makeover have abounded. On Tuesday, Villaraigosa demonstrated that he had mastered this most basic test of political leadership: He won support from all quadrants of what is a famously divided city, and by margins that entitle him to claim a mandate for — and here the studied vagueness of his campaign emerges as a retrospective plus — damn near anything. The magnitude of his victory means that, for the foreseeable future, the City Council will exist chiefly to do his bidding. The campaign — oy, the campaign — may have been uninspiring, but there have been plenty of inspiring liberal campaigns that didn’t make it past the finish line. We have something much more unusual and important in Los Angeles today: a city government soon to be headed by a charismatic leader with a record of liberalism, in a city that has a civic left capable of governing to the advantage of the L.A. working class. That doesn’t make Los Angeles the New Jerusalem of All Things Progressive, but at a time when the right runs the show nearly everyplace else, it does make L.A. ground zero for liberal innovation. It was liberal institutions that helped make this victory. Sure, the County Fed and most of its member unions endorsed Jim Hahn, but activists from such key locals as Local 11 of the Hotel Employees waged an unofficial but very effective get-out-the-vote campaign among 80,000 sometime voters in the Latino community — and not to the advantage of Jim Hahn. County Fed leader Miguel Contreras, who died so suddenly on May 6, understood that the campaign the Fed had waged for Villaraigosa four years ago resounded still, that there was no way the labor vote would go to Hahn. (Which was fine with Miguel, who remained a Villaraigosa buddy and backer. One mutual friend told me at Villaraigosa’s election-night celebration that in their last conversation before he died, Miguel had asked him, “When’s the earliest on election night that I can come over to Antonio’s party? 10:30?”) It was L.A.’s liberal operatives who helped put Villaraigosa over the top as well. His field campaign was captained by Anthony Thigpenn, one of a cadre of progressive younger African-Americans who are transforming the politics of South-Central. And Villaraigosa’s victory is the crowning achievement in the career of Parke Skelton, possibly the most principled political consultant in the business, who has steered to elected office virtually every liberal pol in greater L.A. — among them, Hilda Solis, Eric Garcetti, Jackie Goldberg, Sheila Kuehl, Karen Bass and Martin Ludlow. Having won the city district by district, on Tuesday Parke won it across the board. But the victory is fundamentally Villaraigosa’s, and he won it in two stages. The first stage was his campaign of 2001, which set liberal L.A. ablaze with excitement and probably pulled down as many votes as such a liberal campaign could conceivably amass: 46 percent. The second stage, his campaign this year, was deliberately duller, devoted largely to reassuring older African-Americans and San Fernando Valley centrists that he wasn’t such a dangerous character after all. Underpinning both campaigns was an energy, a palpable engagement with all things L.A., that could not have contrasted more sharply with Jim Hahn’s visceral lack of commitment to the calling of mayor. It is impossible to imagine that Hahn would ever have entered public life absent the example of and pressure from his father, legendary county supe Kenny Hahn. If nothing else, son Jim offered proof positive that a public career cannot be built on filial piety alone. Hahn’s sins of omission as mayor have now been compounded by his sins of commission as a candidate. He ran the worst kind of law-’n’-order campaign, modeled, much as his 2001 campaign was, after Poppy Bush’s 1988 savaging of Michael Dukakis as a criminal-coddling ACLU-nik. But Los Angeles of 2005 is not the United States of 1988, nor was Villaraigosa the pushover that Dukakis had been. The irony is that while history will remember Hahn as the mayor who beat back secession, he pitched his campaign this year to the very voters who were the core of the secession movement, voters who couldn’t abide the transformation of L.A. into a cosmopolitan, progressive city. And just how extensively will Los Angeles be transformed? The limits on municipal policy in an age of capital mobility and conservative hegemony are quite real, but that doesn’t mean that a city can’t commit itself to the promotion of living wages, affordable housing and a basic growth-with-justice agenda. Mayor Villaraigosa can call on a locally based progressive talent pool that includes such policy activists as Occidental government professor Peter Dreier and nonprofit housing advocate Jan Breidenbach (in housing), Roxana Tynan of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (in development), Larry Frank of UCLA’s Labor Center (in work-related issues), and the Liberty Hill Foundation’s Torie Osborn (for general administrative genius). A Villaraigosa administration would be a coalition of progressive and centrist forces, of course, and the names currently popping up on his transition team have a more centrist pedigree: Bob Hertzberg, Robin Kramer, who worked for Riordan, and Ari Swiller, who worked for supermarket magnate Ron Burkle. How exactly Villaraigosa balances out these forces will be one of the first indications of the course he’ll chart. There’s one further bonus to Villaraigosa’s victory, as there was to Tom Bradley’s first victory, 32 years ago: It’s likely to lead to a spate of civic self-congratulation. And, as with Bradley’s victory, it’s not entirely unearned.

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