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Old and New

Now it‘s the old Los Angeles against the next.

The June mayoral runoff between City Attorney James Hahn and former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa pits the urban-liberal past against its future. Hahn ran strongest among elderly voters and in the African-American community, but that community, which constituted 18 percent of the electorate in 1993, shrunk to 14 percent in this week’s voting. Villaraigosa‘s strongest base of support, conversely, was in Latino L.A., and the Latino share of the voters, just 8 percent in 1993, is now 21 percent. Hahn’s most prominent endorsers -- Warren Christopher, Bill Wardlaw, Ethel Bradley (Tom‘s widow) -- seem fixtures from L.A.’s ancien regime. Villaraigosa‘s main backers, most notably, the city’s new-model labor movement, include the most dynamic new forces on the political horizon.

More fundamentally, urban politics in America are the politics of ethnic succession, and that is the story of the Hahn-Villaraigosa contest as well. Black L.A. is at the center of Hahn‘s coalition, as it was for Tom Bradley, as it once was for an entire generation of Democratic mayors across the nation. From the late ’60s through the early ‘90s, African-American communities were the core of the Democratic regimes in America’s largest cities. By the early ‘90s, however, the black share of the urban electorate had begun to decline, while black communities were growing politically more isolated. In 1993, in both New York and L.A., black Democratic mayors were succeeded by white Republicans.

The white Republican interregnum in Los Angeles stumbled to an unceremonious end as Mayor Richard Riordan’s designated successor, GOP businessman Steve Soboroff, placed out of the money. (Most of Riordan‘s other anointed candidates went down in a heap as well.) The white-Republican interregnum in New York is also likely to end later this year, when Rudy Giuliani is termed out of office.

And Los Angeles now has a clear choice before it. Jim Hahn -- affable, lackluster, white -- has inherited the support of much of black L.A. from his father, the late, legendary Kenny Hahn, who represented South-Central (and, thus, black) L.A. on the county Board of Supervisors for a full 40 years. Antonio Villaraigosa -- impassioned, dynamic, Latino -- has won the support of the fastest-growing sector of the L.A. electorate. Villaraigosa’s margin over Hahn is substantial (the final figures had him at 30.4 percent to Hahn‘s 25.2), but by no means does it assure a victory in June. It’s a reasonable assumption that Villaraigosa will add the lion‘s share of Congressman Xavier Becerra’s primary vote, which was 6 percent of the total, to his own in the runoff, and that additional voter-registration efforts and a general level of excitement within Latino L.A. may be worth a couple of additional percentage points on top of that.

Villaraigosa also ran very well among Jewish voters (so strong, according to the L.A. Times exit poll, that he carried the San Fernando Valley). Nonetheless, all this support will still leave him roughly 10 percent short of a majority, and Villaraigosa will have to fight hard for those 10 points.

For the 22 percent of city voters who are Republican, and for the 21 percent who cast their lot with Soboroff (these are not entirely identical groupings, but they‘re close), the choice between Villaraigosa and Hahn doesn’t set off many sparks. Nor is it obvious where the 16 percent of primary voters who supported City Councilman Joel Wachs and State Controller Kathleen Connell will end up in the runoff. On election night, Hahn was already attempting to claim the center-right of the electorate by labeling former ACLU honcho Villaraigosa soft on crime.

There is, of course, a model for the kind of campaign Hahn may be poised to run: Sam Yorty, 1969. At the end of primary night 32 years ago, City Councilman Tom Bradley had come in a strong first: His liberal black-Jewish coalition had powered him to a 42 percent to 26 percent first-round decision over incumbent Mayor Yorty. What followed was the ugliest campaign in modern L.A. politics. Though Bradley had worked his way up the ranks in the LAPD before winning his seat on the City Council, Yorty portrayed him as a “black power” militant with close ties to the Black Panthers and Angela Davis. In the superheated white-backlash climate of 1969, Yorty‘s attacks worked. The June runoff saw Yorty pull an immense number of white voters to the polls. (More people voted in the ’69 runoff than in any city election since, though L.A. has grown by 1 million people in the intervening decades.) He won by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin.

The share of the city that‘s white has been cut in half since 1969, and Jim Hahn, thankfully, is no Sam Yorty. The white share of the municipal electorate, 68 percent just eight years ago, stood at 52 percent on Tuesday. Still, Hahn will try to raise doubts about Villaraigosa’s “extremism.” Villaraigosa can counter that anyone who persuades his Assembly colleagues to elect him speaker and then wins Republican as well as Democratic plaudits in that position isn‘t likely a closet Leninist, but it will take more than mere implausibility to deter Hahn. His campaign chairman, Bill Wardlaw, steered Richard Riordan to victory eight years ago in a classic law-and-order campaign. Wardlaw then served as Riordan’s consigliere until they split over the question of Riordan‘s successor (Wardlaw couldn’t abide Soboroff); now, only Villaraigosa stands between Wardlaw and his resumption of his rightful place as L.A.‘s shadow mayor. Jim Hahn is a man of some scruples, but probably not enough to keep Wardlaw from doing whatever it takes to renew his own grasp on power.

 

Against the twists and turns of the Hahn campaign, what Villaraigosa has to offer is really a latter-day version of what Tom Bradley offered L.A. voters three decades ago: a city that is a progressive model for the rest of the nation. Tom Bradley’s Los Angeles was the first city where the civil rights coalition of the ‘60s came to power. Antonio Villaraigosa’s Los Angeles could be the first city where the great wave of immigrants who‘ve come to this nation in the past 20 years makes common cause with other groups to remedy the vast economic inequities that now define urban America.

The Hahn people will doubtless argue that L.A. can’t get too far in front of the rest of the nation, that -- as urban historian Fred Siegel put it in last Sunday‘s L.A. Times Opinion section -- social democracy in one city doesn’t work. That all depends, of course, on what kind of social democracy you‘re talking about. The welfare policies of John Lindsay’s New York, which Siegel decries, were clearly unsustainable. On the other hand, here in Los Angeles the legacy of our homegrown turn-of-the-century social democrats, the municipally owned Department of Water and Power, puts us at a marked comparative advantage over other cities, in which privately owned power has run amok. Similarly, the kinds of policies that Villaraigosa has advocated -- promoting unionization in the un-relocatable service and tourism sectors, requiring major developers who receive city assistance to pay living wages and set aside funding for affordable housing -- would help rebuild the one thing L.A. most sorely lacks: a middle class. This is a far cry from subsidizing welfare; Villaraigosa is arguing, rather, that when the city subsidizes employment, it shouldn‘t be subsidizing a poverty-level wage; when it subsidizes development, it should be building a city with decent housing its residents can afford. Economically and politically, this is the sustainable version of social democracy.

More fundamentally, a Villaraigosa victory, like Bradley’s, would offer L.A. an opportunity to feel proud about itself, about its tolerance and its ability to build alliances across boundaries of race and class. In Bradley‘s candidacy, as in Villaraigosa’s, there was a last-shall-be-first storyline -- not just about the candidates, but about their core supporters as well -- that is both deeply moving and deeply, well, American, packing an emotional wallop that the tale of plucky Bill Wardlaw clawing his way back to gray eminence can‘t quite match.

The mayoral primary ended in a flurry of filth the likes of which L.A. hasn’t seen for quite some time. In the campaign‘s closing days, the Morongo Indians funded a radio attack ad on Villaraigosa, who had sided with the union attempting to organize their casinos. More bizarre, a recorded phone call, purporting to come from the Soboroff campaign, was placed to voters alleging that Soboroff’s campaign “was entirely dependent on Jewish money.” By the weekend before the primary, L.A. had become shmutz central for American politics.

The anti-Semitic phone call plainly emerged from a lower circle of hell than the Morongo ad, but its pedigree was wildly mysterious. The calls, which began the first night of Passover, seemed to go, by my own unscientific survey, disproportionately to Jewish voters. If that is indeed the case, the only logical beneficiary of the call would be Soboroff himself, as the victim of a scurrilous anti-Semitic attack. I know Soboroff well enough to be certain he himself would never have countenanced such a vile ploy, but in the closing days of a tight campaign, somewhat deranged operatives have been known to do amazingly stupid things of their own accord.

Soboroff‘s failure to advance to the runoff was the most prominent in a series of defeats for candidates backed by outgoing Mayor Riordan, who is clearly the biggest primary-night loser. Two years ago, Riordan-backed insurgents ousted three incumbents on the Los Angeles school board; this week, the two Riordan-recruited and -funded candidates, realtor Matthew Rodman and businessman Tom Riley (neither of whom had any kind of background in education), failed even to make the runoffs. Laurette Healey, a businesswoman whom Riordan recruited to run for city controller, lost to outgoing Council Member Laura Chick, whom Riordan gives all evidence of detesting. Of all the candidates for whom Riordan seriously campaigned, only Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo, who will go to a runoff against Councilman Mike Feuer for the city attorney’s position, did reasonably well, and that may have more to do with Villaraigosa‘s mobilizing the Latino vote than with Riordan’s efforts on Delgadillo‘s behalf.

 

Riordan wasn’t the only big loser, of course. State Controller Kathleen Connell, who campaigned belatedly and halfheartedly, ran so poorly -- she came in sixth of the six major candidates, with under 5 percent of the vote -- that her career in electoral politics seems effectively ended. Joel Wachs, after 30 years on the City Council and in his third race for mayor, couldn‘t muster more than 11 percent of the vote. Soboroff demolished him among Valley conservatives, while Villaraigosa led among Jewish voters. While Wachs has always been something of a City Hall showboat, he has also had a distinguished career in public service, fathering the city’s rent-control ordinance back in the ‘70s and, in the Staples Center controversy a few years back, reducing subsidies to some of America’s wealthiest developers. He and Connell personified the combination of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism that‘s often touted as the new center of American politics. We now know that it’s sure not the center of L.A. politics.

The quixotic campaign of Congressman Xavier Becerra also thudded to a predictable halt; he pulled just 6 percent of the vote. In a pre-election survey by pollster Sergio Bendixen for La Opinion, Becerra fared best among Spanish-speaking Latino immigrants (until the campaign‘s final week, his TV ads were all in Spanish, and Villaraigosa’s all in English). In the end, however, Villaraigosa whittled away at Becerra‘s edge there, with the help of a massive field campaign waged by the County Federation of Labor. Over the campaign’s final four days, more than 2,000 union activists, hailing disproportionately from such immigrant-heavy locals as the janitors and the hotel workers, walked and phoned new immigrant voters on the Eastside, in South-Central and in the Valley. On Sunday, I accompanied one such activist -- Juanita Parra, a housekeeper at the Furama Hotel near LAX -- as she padded her way through an Eastside housing project. At door after door, this 4-foot-something immigrant from the Yucatan bantered engagingly with prospective voters. (When they were home -- at one point, she mumbled, “Half of them are at Costco.”) When she was done, a number of Becerra voters had switched to Villaraigosa.

Parra has lived in Los Angeles for the past 22 years, but not until this week has she been at the center of a political force that is bidding to govern the city. As she doggedly made her way through the projects, she passed one peeling wall on which someone, probably back in the early ‘70s, had painted a likeness of Che and inscribed the words “We are not a minority!” Through Antonio Villaraigosa’s determination, and her own, Juanita Parra is intent on proving that those hitherto ornamental words are, in fact, prophetic.

Research assistants David Perera and Nathan Ihara contributed to this column.


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