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Behind Hahn’s Lines

Photo by Ted Soqui

No one disputes the legitimacy of Kenny Hahn’s reputation in L.A.’s African-American community. “Older voters who remember the bad old days of [Mayor Sam] Yorty and [LAPD Chief William] Parker remember that Kenny Hahn was the one elected official who stood up to those guys,” says Anthony Thigpenn, the accomplished community organizer who’s running Antonio Villaraigosa’s field campaign in South-Central.

The question the current election poses to black L.A. is the extent to which the good deeds of the father should be visited upon the son. Anyone who’s spent any time covering this campaign in South-Central knows that a question to a voter about the qualifications of Jim Hahn is likely as not to be answered with a paean of praise to his pop, Kenny, the late, legendary county supervisor who represented South-Central for a full 40 years. Though his son has spent 20 years as a citywide elected official — four as controller, 16 as city attorney — finding a voter who can tell you what Jim has done can be an arduous process.

If the Hahn campaign in black L.A. relies more upon the mystic chords of memory (which have seldom been more mystic) than on the candidate’s own record, the Villaraigosa campaign has a more straightforward message: As Assembly speaker, Villaraigosa expanded health coverage and helped bring more state bond money for schools and parks into South-Central than anyone in decades. His campaign material also touts his commitment to police reform. But a number of black L.A.’s progressive activists have their own mystic chords of memory binding them to Villaraigosa. Community organizers like Thigpenn and Karen Bass, who today mobilize for job training and against the liquor stores that are blighting their neighborhoods, have known Villaraigosa for nearly a quarter-century. They joined with him in civil rights campaigns, in efforts to keep Ed Davis’ and Daryl Gates’ cops from running amok in L.A.’s non-white communities. City Council member Mark Ridley-Thomas, in announcing his endorsement of Villaraigosa on Monday, said he first met Antonio 20 years ago, and in the ’80s, co-chaired the Black-Latino Roundtable with him. Today, Ridley-Thomas is spearheading the Villaraigosa campaign in South-Central, with Thigpenn and Bass as two of its lead organizers.

The Hahn-Villaraigosa contest has opened a generation gap within the political elite of black Los Angeles. Hahn’s chief African-American endorsers are a decade or two older than he is (Hahn’s 50): U.S. Representatives Maxine Waters and Juanita Millender-McDonald are both 62, County Supervisor Yvonne Burke is 68 (and still stunningly beautiful), City Council Member Nate Holden is 71 (and, in his own way, stunning, too), Ethel Bradley (Tom Bradley’s widow) is . . . well, nobody’s spring chicken. They all came of age in the early years of the civil rights movement, when the number of Latino activists was still quite small — and the number of white elected officials willing, like Kenny Hahn, to stand with them was lamentably small as well.

Villaraigosa’s core supporters in South-Central, by contrast, are his age (48) or younger. Ridley-Thomas is 46; Bass and Thigpenn are in their 40s; the African-American state legislators and business leaders endorsing him tend to be in their 40s as well, if not younger. That is, they came of age when Latino and African-American progressive activists were working in tandem, on campuses and off, against the war in Vietnam, police brutality and the Reagan cutbacks.

“There shouldn’t be any surprise about our support for Antonio. We’ve been doing multi-racial coalition work for 20 years,” says Bass. Nonetheless, she acknowledges, “A story is being missed, which is that the Villaraigosa coalition that’s emerging has an African-American element, in labor and in the communities.”

Until Monday, when Ridley-Thomas assembled a cross-section of black leadership on Villaraigosa’s behalf, it was an easy story to miss. Among the generalizations to which journalists in general (and I in particular) have been prey, the idea that the black community is removing itself from L.A.’s next progressive coalition was achieving the status of holy writ. According to the L.A. Times exit poll of primary voters, African-Americans had voted for Hahn over Villaraigosa by a 71-to-12-percent margin.

Villaraigosa’s backers don’t argue with the numbers, but they do dispute their meaning. The results, they insist, were a referendum on the name “Hahn.” When black voters encounter Villaraigosa — either through accounts of his record or, better yet, in person — they’re impressed. “The first time he spoke at my church, about a third of the parishioners stood and clapped when he was first introduced,” says William D. Smart Jr., pastor at Phillips Temple CME Church. “When he finished, about three-quarters of them stood and clapped.”

Villaraigosa is stepping up his appearances in South-Central — this week, in addition to the Ridley-Thomas event, he’s meeting with both clergy and business owners — but there’s a limit, in this pre-cloning age, to just how many voters he can personally address. Accordingly, his campaign plans an ambitious field program. In the primary, Thigpenn directed an operation that targeted 75 ä precincts (supplemented by other groups’ activities in adjoining precincts) for walking as well as phoning. Thigpenn and his fellow operatives claim a high rate of success translating voter contacts into Villaraigosa votes, and plan to target more than 100 precincts in the June run-off. The County Federation of Labor plans to step up its South-Central operations, too; according to Fed political director Martin Ludlow, there are 48,000 members (not counting the members of pro-Hahn locals) in the 8th, 9th and 10th council districts — the three represented by African-American members. The local with the most members (25,000) in those three districts is the home-care workers, which will be running a Villaraigosa phone bank and asking its members to help out with the campaign.

Another major piece of the campaign are the churches — still a major, if not the major, player in African-American politics. A large number of black clergy, among them a number of the most senior figures in their respective denominations (no generation gap here) came out for Villaraigosa on Monday. Hahn, of course, can claim the support of First AME’s Cecil “Chip” Murray and West Angeles’ Bishop Charles Blake. Now Villaraigosa has his own cohort of religious leaders — each of whom seemed determined at Monday’s event to convince their listeners that Villaraigosa’s candidacy was imbued with the same spirit of racial equity that had helped make Tom Bradley mayor.

The three leading clerics who spoke all trod across a tightrope — telling the black community that it had no moral claim to oppose the ascent of Latino civic leadership, while assuring it that Villaraigosa was devoted to governing in partnership with black Los Angeles. Dr. J. Benjamin Hardwick, who heads the Western Baptist State Convention, recalled how in the early meetings supporting Bradley’s candidacy, Latino Congressman Ed Roybal had offered his support. Bishop John Bryant of the AME Church talked about a family so big it had to eat its meals in two shifts, with the first group to sit down obliged to leave enough food for the second group, because “It’s all one big family.” The mealtime metaphor moved from one speaker to the next, as Bishop E. Lynn Brown of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church offered a booming assessment of Villaraigosa: “He is committed to have ALLLLL Angelenos at the table!”

For the historically minded, Monday’s event had one hugely ironic aspect. Among the various current and former elected officials on hand to endorse Villaraigosa, the two most senior were former Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally and former Assemblyman Willard Murray. Forty years ago, when Tom Bradley first ran for City Council, Dymally and Murray opposed him, as they did initially in his mayoral campaigns as well. At the time, Bradley was the darling of the liberal Democratic-club movement, and they supported more centrist Democrats aligned with then–Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh (whom they backed in the ’73 mayoral primary over Bradley). It’s taken four decades, but they’re now backing the candidate who came up through the city’s multiracial liberal institutions — the Bradley equivalent in this year’s race.

Ridley-Thomas has set himself a daunting task. In the April 10 primary, Jim Hahn pulled 70 percent of the vote in Ridley-Thomas’ 8th council district; it was far and away his strongest district in town. Now, Ridley-Thomas will try to cut Hahn’s margin down — much as council members Alex Padilla and Nick Pacheco, who’ve both endorsed Hahn, will try to dissuade their largely Latino constituents from voting for Villaraigosa in the runoff.

Just as Padilla and Pacheco have triggered a multiyear war in Latino L.A., so Ridley-Thomas’ commitment to Villaraigosa will widen a pre-existing rift within the African-American political community. Two years ago, Ridley-Thomas, Thigpenn, Bass and attorney Connie Rice (who’s also endorsed Villaraigosa) were key supporters in Genethia Hayes’ successful campaign to oust school board member Barbara Boudreaux. The more senior figures within the black electariat — Waters, Burke and Hahn himself (an honorary white member) — backed Boudreaux, but, aided by funding from the mayor, the younger generation promoting Hayes’ cause prevailed.

The coalition that’s now come together in black L.A. for Villaraigosa is much larger and more diverse than the one that backed Hayes. (Surveying the multidenominational gaggle of clergy on stage at Monday’s endorsement, one longtime activist shook her head and said, “Some of the people up there haven’t been in the same room in years.”) Aside from the Hayes campaign, however, the coalition’s other fledgling efforts have faltered. Two years ago, Ridley-Thomas was not able to build a big enough network of support for Reverend Madison Shockley’s unsuccessful challenge to council incumbent Nate Holden, and earlier this year, the coalition was unable to generate a candidate of its own to fill the seat vacated by Congressman Julian Dixon’s sudden death. Should the coalition now succeed in generating significant black support for Villaraigosa, however, it’s more likely that candidates backed by Ridley-Thomas, the County Fed and South-Central progressives will seek office two years hence when Holden and Ridley-Thomas are both termed out of their council seats.

And just what constitutes a significant level of black support for Villaraigosa? In the primary, the exit poll had him at 12 percent; a recent, post-primary KABC poll has the black community giving Hahn 74 percent support to Villaraigosa’s 20 percent. Thigpenn has set a goal of 30 percent support for Villaraigosa in the June 5 runoff, predicting it will come disproportionately from younger black voters. “There’s a realignment, a shift, going on within the community,” Thigpenn says. “This is potent. This is powerful.” If, despite the effects of the Hahn family name and the ministrations of Maxine Waters, it’s sufficient to help elect Villaraigosa, then it’s powerful indeed.