Everybody’s Homeboy

Photo by Ted SoquiAt first glance, this doesn’t look all that different from the primary four years ago. Antonio Villaraigosa ran three points better on Tuesday night than he did in 2001; Jim Hahn ran one point worse. L.A.’s been there, done that. Except it hasn’t. Four years ago, Villaraigosa emerged from the primary with no clear path into the Mayor’s Office. He was building a center-left coalition minus the African-American community, which was tantamount to squaring a circle. He was a liberal legislator unknown to most city voters. If he went on the attack, his strategists feared, he’d only alienate voters. He might have been the most dynamic and inspiring political leader L.A. had seen in decades, but he was the very model of a sitting duck. This time, with a margin four points bigger than in 2001 (Villaraigosa pulled down 33 percent of the primary vote on Tuesday; Hahn, 24 percent), the former speaker has emerged from the primary as the clear favorite to be the next mayor of Los Angeles. Jim Hahn — a dull but serviceable placeholder four years ago who won on a platform of being less Latino and less scary than Villaraigosa — is now damaged goods. The L.A. Times’ exit poll from Tuesday’s primary makes clear just how damaged. Forty-six percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of Hahn, and 54 percent viewed him unfavorably. Fully 74 percent viewed Villaraigosa favorably, by contrast, while just 26 percent had an unfavorable view. Villaraigosa dodged a bullet on Tuesday: the prospect of a runoff against his erstwhile roomie Bob Hertzberg. Had the Hugger bested Hahn — and he lost to him by only 1.5 percent — Villaraigosa would have gone into the runoff against a candidate with a fresh face and boundless energy, whom the media would be profiling as the Hahn Slayer. Hertzberg would likely have consolidated the Riordan coalition behind him; the white Valley would have rallied to his cause; the electorate would have been racially polarized; and the race would be won or lost — quite possibly lost — on the Westside. Instead, Villaraigosa faces off against an incumbent who failed to command even a quarter of the vote and who has estranged the two constituencies that put him in power four years ago. Bernie Parks won 13 percent, the overwhelming majority in the African-American community, and Villaraigosa should lay claim to at least half of that. Add that half to Villaraigosa’s vote, throw in Richard Alarcón’s 3.6 percent, and Villaraigosa would need just one-third of Bob Hertzberg’s vote to get to 50 percent. I know, it will be a bigger electorate in May, but the largest increase will come among Latino voters who’ll warm to the idea of electing Villaraigosa as their mayor. Hahn’s only hope is to scare as many white voters as he did four years ago about the lurking dangers of Villaraigosa. And that won’t be easily done. If the final frantic week of Hahn’s primary campaign is any indication, the theme of his runoff campaign will be to vilify Villaraigosa. That his campaign was unable last week to come up with any allegation save the one it made four years ago does not augur well for Hahn’s chances. Villaraigosa is no longer the tabula rasa he was to most voters then. Dragging out the crack pipe from Bill Carrick’s prop room is not likely to work a second time. Campaigning both joyously and relentlessly all across town, in English and Spanish with a dab of Yiddish and Korean for good measure, demonstrating more of a comfort level with everyone than Hahn does with anyone, Villaraigosa is fast becoming everybody’s homeboy. And this time around, when Hahn attacks him, Villaraigosa strikes back. Beset by allegations of a pay-to-play City Hall, it’s Hahn this time who’s the sitting duck. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Villaraigosa’s 33 percent is that he won it without the vast precinct operation that labor mounted for him in the primary four years ago. In theory, labor’s legions were marching for Hahn this time around. In practice, the unions had a hell of a time trying to turn anybody out. At times over the past week, there were more union activists walking around Rosemead (population 56,700), trying to oust a city council that had approved a Wal-Mart, than there were walking around Los Angeles (population 3.7 million) trying to retain its mayor. Hahn delivered for unions in his first term as mayor, which is how he won their institutional endorsement. Villaraigosa has spent his entire adult life championing the cause of the city’s underpaid working class, which is how he won roughly 40 percent of the labor vote to Hahn’s 20 percent, according to the Times’ exit poll. At the moment, labor seems poised to go 0-for-2 in mayoral politics. In 2001, the County Federation of Labor endorsed Villaraigosa, only to see Hahn win the labor vote and the election. This year, having endorsed Hahn, the labor vote and the election will likely go to Villaraigosa. The mayor and, more seriously, such longtime power brokers as Bill Wardlaw will doubtless pressure the unions to make massive independent-expenditure ad buys on Hahn’s behalf. Why labor would wish to spend millions defeating the most deeply pro-labor electable mayoral candidate it ever will see — particularly since most of the labor leaders I talked to on Tuesday told me that in the privacy of the voting booth, they ignored their unions’ endorsements and voted for Villaraigosa — is a mystery for historians or abnormal psychologists to unravel. This is not 2001 redux. Modeling his campaign on Tom Bradley’s centrist and successful challenge to Sam Yorty in 1973, Antonio Villaraigosa has emerged from this week’s primary as a plausible mayor, at home in all parts of Los Angeles, and is working to ensure that just enough Angelenos feel at home with him. This time, he should prevail.

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