Made for Each Other

Illustration by Miguel Valenzuela

Is there a political consultant in America who would have advised Antonio Villaraigosa to take the jobs he took if he one day wanted to be elected to a major political position? Let’s see — there was organizing immigrant workers in the 1970s, before the great wave of immigration from Mexico and Central America even commenced (that is, before there was any public that would have remotely appreciated such endeavors). There was organizing for the teachers union, historically the whipping boy of left-wing community activists and centrist and right-wing education (or just anti-union) reformers. There was his volunteer gig as president of the Southern California ACLU — no elaboration required.

These are not generally thought of as smart career moves for the politically ambitious. But then, little about Villaraigosa’s ascent fits into a conventional pattern. His rise to power is a testament not only to his own attributes — commitment, charisma, energy, an ease among strangers, an ability to persuade adversaries to compromise — but to the rise of labor, Latinos and a civic left in Los Angeles. None of these were enough in themselves to make him mayor — if they had been, he would have been elected in 2001 — but he could not have won without them.

Which is one way, I suppose, to define Los Angeles exceptionalism. There is no other city in the United States where this same constellation of forces could significantly propel anyone into, or even close to, the Mayor’s Office. When Latinos have achieved high office in other cities, it has often been largely through the sponsorship of business elites, who certainly helped Federico Peña and Henry Cisneros become the mayors of Denver and San Antonio, respectively. (Cisneros also had the considerable help of Communities Organized for Public Service, a Latino working-class Alinskyite community organization, but then San Antonio is more than three-fourths Latino.) Here in L.A., City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo was a protégé of Warren Christopher. But none of L.A.’s business leaders or elites sponsored Villaraigosa’s political career in its early phases.

Indeed, when Villaraigosa first ran for the state Assembly in 1994, his opponent was the one with the heavy-duty backing. Richard Polanco, then the chief anointer of Latino candidates for office, had represented the district. Polanco was moving on to the state Senate, and as his successor, he picked his chief district operative, Bill Mabie, and bestowed on him the support of most of the Latino political establishment.

In Politics in Black and White, his definitive history of the rise and fall of the Bradley coalition in L.A. politics, political scientist Raphael Sonenshein found the seeds of Bradley’s 1973 mayoral victory in the victory he won a decade earlier in the 10th Council District. The 10th was a polyglot place, home to both blacks and a sizable number of progressive whites, and in forging a coalition from those two groups there, Bradley put together a prototype of the citywide coalition he was to build a decade later.

Sonenshein’s thesis could just as well be applied to Villaraigosa’s victory over Mabie in the ’94 Democratic primary in the 45th Assembly District. The district was majority Latino, but — like Bradley’s 10th — it contained a large number of white progressives, in such communities as Mount Washington and Echo Park. And in winning the primary, Villaraigosa put together an alliance of Latinos and white liberals that would be the core of his own mayoral majority a decade thereafter.

He did it, it’s worth noting, without the assistance of the new and improved County Fed, which at that time (before the ascent of Miguel Contreras) was still old and unimproved and far from the Election Day miracle worker it has become. Some key unions did back Villaraigosa, but he himself had to — and did — put the development of a biracial progressive alliance in his district on fast-forward. It was impossible to cover that campaign and not be impressed by Villaraigosa’s political skills. What was not so easy to foresee was that the city would evolve in the direction of the 45th — that Latinos and progressives would loom larger than they had in citywide elections.

But what Villaraigosa began in the 45th, Contreras continued countywide. Beginning with the election of Villaraigosa’s high school buddy Gil Cedillo to the Assembly in 1997, the L.A. County Fed backed a succession of labor-progressive Latino candidates against more centrist and nationalist candidates supported by Polanco, and won every time. Those candidates provided Villaraigosa with his core support when he decided to run for Assembly speaker, though by then, he was able to win the backing of a wider spectrum of members as well. And under Contreras’ leadership, the Fed had taken the lead in the efforts to naturalize, register and get to the polls many thousands of new immigrants.

In this, the Fed was following the example of the big-city political machines of a century ago, New York’s Tammany Hall most particularly, which understood that if you wanted the votes of immigrants, you had to find them and get them to the polls. If the immigrants of 1920 voted in New York but not in the coal country of Western Pennsylvania, say, that was because there was no one in coal country who took an interest in their vote. If the rate of immigrant participation is higher today in L.A. than, say, Chicago, that’s because Chicago has no functional equivalent to the L.A. County Fed (other than nominally). Labor created the Los Angeles that elected Villaraigosa.

Not that Villaraigosa was the passive beneficiary of this transformation, any more than Tammany’s favorite son, New York Governor Al Smith, was in the early years of the 20th century. The relationship of candidate and organization was in both instances complementary and symbiotic. What’s remarkable about Los Angeles is that no other city today has a comparable organization — and even if labor wasn’t in Villaraigosa’s camp this year, the base of Villaraigosa voters that the unions had helped create didn’t switch their allegiance or go away. Villaraigosa forged a bond with those voters, and with white liberals, during his 2001 campaign. This year, he increased his margins among both groups but also won the allegiance of more African-Americans and centrists.

It’s hard to say which is more remarkable — Villaraigosa’s improbable career or the political evolution of the city where he’s about to become mayor. What’s indisputable is the harmonic convergence of the two.

That’s not to say that all the groups in the Villaraigosa coalition want the same things. By the evidence of all the polling, Latinos are particularly concerned with the quantity and quality of schools, and by the evidence of the dropout rates, they have every reason to be. Schools were the number-one concern of Villaraigosa voters, as they are of anyone who looks at the quality of the L.A. labor force, now and tomorrow. Inescapably, they have to be the number-one concern of the incoming mayor.

So it should come as no surprise that Villaraigosa is talking about increasing the mayoral responsibility for and control over the school district, which for now is statutorily and effectively nonexistent. And it should come as no surprise that this distresses to no end the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), Villaraigosa’s onetime employer, whose political clout is such that it can elect the members of the Board of Education, but not such that it can elect a mayor.

Across the nation, the record of mayorally controlled school districts is mixed at best. But it’s no great stretch to see how a district under Villaraigosa’s control, and subjected to his intensity, might build schools faster and smaller, and might have a far larger mentor program than it has today. UTLA leaders have said it’s one thing to bestow such power on the union-friendly (or, at least, -sensitive) Villaraigosa, another to bestow it on his successors. But for the majority of Angelenos — and the majority in Los Angeles is Latino and working-class — schools are the primary civic issue, and the most important one by which they judge their mayor.

That, of course, is just one of many challenges that Villaraigosa will confront. There’s affordable housing (an issue on which the current City Council has been an abject failure), mass transit (where federal funding has all but vanished), a development policy that rewards the creation of good jobs, and the perpetual powder keg that is the LAPD (a little more emphasis on gender balance in the department sure wouldn’t hurt). Daunting challenges all, but who, looking at Villaraigosa’s career, would say with assurance that he can’t make a dent in them.

To read Robert Greene's article, The Amazing Adventures of Super Mayor, click here.

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