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Rocking and Rolling

For the people who pass their time making Los Angeles a better place to live -- winning a living wage for janitors, building houses that the poor can afford, asserting civilian control over the cops, keeping the crap out of Santa Monica Bay -- Antonio Villaraigosa has always rocked.

Now, he’s started to roll. In the past couple of weeks, the Assembly speaker turned mayoral candidate has won endorsements from the Sierra Club, the National Organization for Women (NOW), the League of Conservation Voters, and all of the city‘s most politically potent local unions. On Monday night, he picked up the backing of the Democratic Party of the San Fernando Valley (a PAC representing 11 Democratic clubs). Over the next week, he has a good shot to win the support of the Stonewall Democratic Club (the most venerable of L.A.’s gay political organizations), the county Democratic Party and, much the most important, the county Federation of Labor. By this time next week, it‘s quite possible that every key organization representing every key ethnic Democratic constituency in this overwhelmingly Democratic city will have endorsed Villaraigosa for mayor.

Nor are these endorsements falling to Villaraigosa by default. The three other prominent Democrats in the field -- City Attorney James Hahn, State Controller Kathleen Connell and Congressman Xavier Becerra -- have contested Villaraigosa at every turn. Hahn, whose campaign chair, Bill Wardlaw, boasts a long relationship with building-trades leaders, has tried doggedly to keep labor from backing the former speaker. Connell thought she had a shot at gaining support from NOW, whose PAC ended up backing Villaraigosa by a unanimous vote. And several of the delegates to Monday’s Valley Democrats‘ meeting told me that Becerra had called them in the last couple of days and asked for their support.

But Villaraigosa’s margin of victory last Monday clearly surprised even his own organizers. A 60 percent vote from the delegates was required for endorsement; Villaraigosa ended up getting 35 out of 45 votes (a 78 percent margin). Nor was this a collection of left purists responding to Villaraigosa‘s progressive bona fides: In the hotly contested Fifth Council District, just 44 percent of the delegates voted to endorse Tom Hayden.

Talk to the activists at the Sierra Club, NOW, the Valley Democrats or any number of local unions about Villaraigosa, and two points invariably come up: First, his record is in a class by itself; second, many of them personally know Villaraigosa, since he’s worked with them for years. “So many of our members have developed a relationship with him, that played a big role,” says Martin Schlageter, conservation coordinator for the L.A. and Orange County Sierra Club, whose executive board backed Villaraigosa on a 17-3 vote. “Proposition 12” -- the Villaraigosa-authored park bond that state voters enacted last November -- “was huge, a tremendous boost for our efforts to clean up the L.A. River, Baldwin Hills . . . Antonio‘s shown he’s capable and eager to preserve open space in wild areas, and to create some in the heart of the city.”

Shelly Mandell, president of L.A. NOW, sees in Villaraigosa a clear commitment “to create opportunities for women and people of color.” Within the constraints of Proposition 209, which ended public-sector affirmative action in California, “Antonio will go the extra mile to inform people about [contractual] opportunities, to introduce them around.” More pointedly, she adds, “He champions the broadest spectrum of women in Los Angeles -- immigrant, poor, middle-class, professional, women across the board.”

Some version of Mandell‘s last point comes up virtually every time his supporters, and even some of his detractors, start talking about Villaraigosa. More than any other candidate -- come to think of it, more than all the other candidates combined -- Villaraigosa has come to personify, and herald, the emergence of a new cross-class, cross-racial urban progressive coalition. To the largely white, middle-class crusaders in NOW and the Sierra Club, the former speaker has already provided vehicles -- campaigns to create inner-city parks and raise janitorial wages, for instance -- that have introduced their movements to nonwhite, working-class L.A. And this Villaraigosa connection is a two-way street: In their epochal strike last spring, the janitors had Villaraigosa making their case to a number of the city’s leading financial players, and to thousands of middle-class sympathizers.

The promise of a Villaraigosa mayoralty, then, is that of a new civic progressivism, a 21st-century version of the ethnic-labor-liberal municipal alliances we associate with Tom Bradley, Harold Washington -- for that matter, Fiorello La Guardia.

But is it even possible to build that kind of coalition today? In the mayoral elections of 1969 and ‘73, nearly 15,000 volunteers tromped through the precincts of both South-Central and the heavily Jewish Westside on Bradley’s behalf. The Democratic-club movement was still vibrant and vast; it had come together across racial lines in support of civil rights and in opposition to the Vietnam War, and there were moments, particularly in ‘69, when the Bradley campaign seemed the continuation of those causes by other means.

Several of the delegates to Monday’s Valley Democrats‘ meeting had worked in those early Bradley campaigns -- which only underscores Villaraigosa’s challenge. Like most Democratic clubs, the Valley Democrats could have passed for an AARP chapter with a couple of kids thrown in to brighten the decor. The Democratic infrastructure Bradley counted upon isn‘t there anymore, for Villaraigosa or anyone else. Cause groups like the Sierra Club do a better job of providing precinct walkers and phone bankers, but only a relative handful of their members have ever heeled a ward.

And yet -- as the efforts of Hahn, Connell and Becerra attest -- these endorsements still mean something. The Sierra Club of L.A. and Orange County, for instance, boasts 56,000 members, roughly 20,000 of them, Schlageter estimates, within L.A. city limits. In a race where it won’t take many more than 100,000 votes to get into the June runoff, the club‘s endorsement clearly matters. In a race like this, notwithstanding the barrage of advertising about to descend upon the city, any endorsement matters.

None matters more, of course, than that of the county Federation of Labor, which will make its decision on Monday. It takes a two-thirds vote to win the Fed’s endorsement; at the moment, it looks as if Villaraigosa may have just that much support. Should it opt to endorse, the Fed will provide Villaraigosa some of the oomph that the old Democratic apparat brought to Bradley. The Fed isn‘t up to waging the kind of campaign that the club movement ran for Bradley on the Westside, but its ability to turn out its own members, most especially its Latino members, and new immigrant voters generally, has been demonstrated repeatedly over the past five years.

The Westside vote is perhaps the foremost enigma of the coming election. Alone of the major regions of the city, it does not really have a candidate of its own. Republican Steve Soboroff and the unaligned Joel Wachs will duke it out for the Valley and the GOP base, just as Becerra and Villaraigosa will compete for the Latino vote. Jimmy Hahn has more of a lock on the African-American vote than any candidate has on any other sizable bloc of voters, but the African-American vote, both in size and intensity, ain’t what it used to be when Bradley first ran. Soboroff and Connell both live on the Westside (he in the Palisades, she in Bel Air), but politically, they are strangers to their neighbors -- unlike such known quantities as Zev Yaroslavsky, Henry Waxman or Sheila Kuehl. By no stretch of the imagination is the Westside -- a normally Democratic bastion that Republican Richard Riordan carried over a weak Democratic opponent in the year following the ‘92 riot -- theirs for the taking.

The Conventional Wisdom has it that Hahn will surely make it into the runoff, since he alone doesn’t have to compete for his base and since he‘s been elected to citywide office before. His opponent, says the C.W., will be Wachs, or Villaraigosa -- unless it’s somebody else. The C.W. isn‘t too sure about these things, and neither am I. But I do think that there’s a greater prospect of Soboroff‘s eroding Wachs’ vote than of Becerra‘s eroding Villaraigosa’s. To be sure, Soboroff has already spent a great deal of money to no discernible effect; he may yet emerge as the Al Checchi of local politics. But he‘s made clear that he’s determined to spend a great deal more money (chiefly his own), and virtually every vote he gets comes out of Wachs‘ column. Becerra, meanwhile, has raised the least money of any candidate during the past half-year, and as one citywide institution after another backs Villaraigosa, the appeal of Becerra’s candidacy within Latino L.A. will likely decline.

The question for Villaraigosa, though, is not simply how big a vote he can amass within Latino and labor L.A. It‘s also whether he can fire the imaginations of the city’s not-very-engaged white liberals, as he clearly has liberal L.A.‘s activist cadres’. Tom Bradley carried those voters, or their forebears, because he personified the movements they supported, the values they wanted their city to embrace. In the aftermath of the Watts Riots, Bradley was above all the candidate of racial equity. Villaraigosa is running in a less tumultuous time, but in a period when L.A. has become the nation‘s capital of low-wage work, of vast poverty abutting great wealth, he has become above all the candidate of economic equity.

As with Bradley’s early campaigns, there is a moral imperative, a historic appeal, to Villaraigosa‘s candidacy. As with Bradley, they attest to Villaraigosa’s vision, his tenacity, his capabilities. And -- as with Bradley -- they may just make him mayor.