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
Not much is predictable in the wild next few days, but Angelenos can almost take it to the bank that they will see Hillary Clinton standing next to California's A-list Latino leaders, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, while Barack Obama — besides invoking the Kennedys at every possible juncture — will certainly seek camera time with the lesser-known Latino leaders who back him.
Endorsements, ethnic or otherwise, have very little proven effect on what voters decide to do. But now, with Obama assured of days of free media coverage of Ted Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy's blessings, the Latino endorsements that the two Democratic front-runners have won become far more critical.
A nasty fight over California's Latino voters could break out, with Los Angeles at its epicenter. In a city where Cain-and-Abel undercurrents in Latino urban politics often play a bigger role than any real policy differences, things could get far uglier than the eyebrow-raising racial overtones after the South Carolina vote on January 26.
Latinos, who through last week have been some of Clinton's most ardent supporters, are expected to make up roughly one-quarter of California's vote. In Nevada and Florida, the first primaries involving any appreciable number of Latino voters, they overwhelmingly chose Clinton. And in Nevada, this despite a big push for Obama by the leadership of the Culinary Workers Union.
For Clinton, who, according to polls just a few days ago, was ahead of Obama by a landslide in California, Villaraigosa, Nunez and the many other Latino state legislators, Congress members and mayors who endorsed her become crucial wallpaper if she's to stop Latino voters from migrating to Obama.
For Obama, who has earned the backing of California Latino B-listers, including state legislators Gil Cedillo and Gloria Romero and Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, and who only recently won his first A-list Latino elected official, Congressman Xavier Becerra, those endorsements suddenly take on tremendous potential importance.
Strategists expect Clinton's huge lead among Latinos to drop in California — a natural outcome as Latino voters learn more about Obama, who many did not even know is from Illinois until very recently. Growing familiarity with a likable candidate always results in some switching.
That means the Los Angeles mayor, the speaker of the Assembly, and even several lesser-known Latino state senators and mayors of smaller cities will be called upon by Clinton to do whatever is necessary — calling in favors, fighting for TV face time — to keep their constituents from choosing Obama. And Villaraigosa, who has been on the road with Clinton and was singled out for praise by the New York senator in Nevada this month — she handed him a campaign shirt as both grinned for cameras in Las Vegas — suddenly becomes the leader of her Latino shock troops, rather than a guy with great teeth bragging to out-of-staters, "I've been a pretty good mayor."
"You have to look at the images on the TV news as key," says unaffiliated Democratic strategist Kam Kuwata. If Obama's glowing imagery continues through the week and until February 5, Kuwata says, "[he] will probably win the campaign. This is about dominating the news cycles with positive stories, and he's winning the day on that, and people in California are voting by mail right now."
"To give you my chickenshit prediction," says unaffiliated Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, "I think it will be very competitive."
"I wonder if Obama's camp understands all the hatreds among Latino leaders that he is stepping into here," muses longtime Democratic Party activist and former L.A. school board member David Tokofsky.
Few political observers were surprised, for example, by Congressman Becerra's decision to back Obama. He may prefer Obama over Clinton, but the larger story is that Becerra, embittered about losing to Villaraigosa in the mayoral race, has made something of a career doing the opposite of Villaraigosa. There are Becerra camps and Villaraigosa camps, and anyone thinking of running on the Eastside is pressed to announce fealty.
Meanwhile, the roughly two dozen Latino California mayors lined up behind Clinton might actually support her, but if you're a small-fry politico hoping to run for higher office, you don't want to anger Villaraigosa and Nunez.
So while the candidates grab Latino endorsements in hopes of building goodwill with iffy voters, the endorsers are up to something different. A former Gray Davis adviser explains: "What you're seeing is Latino elected leaders dividing up based on their calculation that either Hillary or Obama can provide them a Rolodex for their future runs for office, and on the second calculation that they can get a place at the table now, get public exposure now, during a rare time of national exposure."
In Villaraigosa's case, he became Hillary's top California campaign figurehead early on in a political mutual-aid pact that goes back many years and involves the Clintons, billionaire Democrat Ron Burkle and billionaire Democrat Eli Broad. Villaraigosa was outgoing California Assembly speaker in 2000, when Broad spearheaded and brought to Los Angeles the Democratic National Convention. With the help of Villaraigosa and others, the Clintons did everything possible to help Al Gore get the nomination — and he did.