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Three’s a Crowd

Photos by Debra DiPaolo (Villaraigosa) and Slobodan Dimitrov (Hahn)

Three into two doesn’t go, and thus the drama of the closing week of L.A.’s mayoral primary. By every available measure (that is, the polls), just three candidates — City Attorney James Hahn, businessman Steve Soboroff and former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa — have a shot at finishing either first or second in Tuesday’s election, and moving on to the June runoff. The latest L.A. Times poll ranks them Hahn-Villaraigosa-Soboroff; the latest KABC poll has it Villaraigosa-Hahn-Soboroff — in both cases, with just 6 percentage points separating the leader from number three. Both polls show the three other major candidates — City Councilman Joel Wachs, state Controller Kathleen Connell and Congressman Xavier Becerra — trailing so badly they have no prospect of advancing past the primary.

The city, then, is on the brink of two very different kinds of June finales. If Republican Soboroff makes it into round two, we’ll have a standard GOP-vs.-Democrat shootout, since both Hahn and Villaraigosa are Democrats — much like 1993, when Republican Richard Riordan faced off against Democrat Mike Woo, or 1969 and ’73, when Democrat Tom Bradley duked it out with Sam Yorty, a nominal Democrat with politics somewhere to the right of Richard Nixon’s. If it’s Hahn against Villaraigosa, however, this now overwhelmingly Democratic city will choose between a mainstream Democrat (the city attorney) and a progressive one (the former speaker). For one brief, shining moment, L.A.’s dwindling band of Republicans will know what it’s like to be a Trotskyite on Election Day: Guess our boy didn’t make it to the runoff.

With all three leaders scrambling to make it past the primary post, some of the ground rules of the six-way campaign have been hastily rewritten. Time was when Soboroff would routinely praise Villaraigosa at campaign debates, calling him a “hero” for having authored school- and parks-bond measures that brought massive amounts of funding to Los Angeles. Plainly, those days are gone now; none of these candidates can afford to give a pass to either of the other two. Villaraigosa must surely prefer to face Soboroff rather than Hahn in the runoff, since he’d then pick up the black vote that would otherwise be Hahn’s, but his primary concern this week is simply finishing in the top two.

While the polls disagree on the precise candidate pecking order, they all show the same general movement over the past month: Soboroff has come up, Villaraigosa way up, and Hahn has been dead in the water. Hahn certainly can’t be accused of having an excess of message. A recent mailing to African-American voters, who are his chief base of support, features on the cover what looks to be at least a 15-year-old photo of Hahn with Congresswoman Maxine Waters and his father, legendary county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. On the inside, there’s a shot of Papa Hahn with Martin Luther King Jr., with a large-type caption reading, “Kenny Hahn was the first elected official in Los Angeles to greet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963.”

Every candidate needs a compelling story to tell; in Jim Hahn’s case, it’s his father’s. It’s a story that still resonates with the elderly voters who make up a disproportionate share of the African-American electorate; they remember Kenny as the first local elected official to seriously promote their causes and concerns. But Jim Hahn, who’s been L.A. city attorney since 1985, has not yet found a way to sell himself to the larger electorate, whose memories of Kenny may be fond, but not fond enough to translate into a vote for his son.

Soboroff and Villaraigosa, by contrast, have each benefited from the endorsements they’ve received from their respective political parties, and the independent expenditure campaigns that the parties have waged on their behalf. (By the terms of Proposition 34, the bogus campaign-finance-reform measure enacted by sleepwalking state voters last November, there are no limits on the size of donations to the parties — one reason why Hahn moved heaven and earth to try to keep the party from endorsing Villaraigosa.) In Villaraigosa’s case, the nearly $1 million that the Democrats are investing in his race is augmented by another near-million the County Federation of Labor is spending on his cause. By law, these efforts must be directed at mobilizing these organizations’ members — meaning, there are mammoth field campaigns under way, directed at getting Latino Democrats and union members of all races to the polls. The scope of these efforts is such that Villaraigosa can probably count upon running a couple of points ahead of his polling.

If Soboroff and Villaraigosa go to the runoff, the Democratic endorsement will prove a lot more valuable than the Republican. More than 1.2 million Democrats are registered in the city of Los Angeles, and just 455,000 Republicans; even when these are winnowed down to likely voters, that still means the Dems will be able to target a lot more voters than the Reps.

Villaraigosa would also benefit from an intensity gap in the June runoff: The prospect of a Villaraigosa mayoralty would fire up the Latino community, in much the same way black L.A. went all out during Tom Bradley’s first two races against Yorty. The new Times poll also makes clear that Villaraigosa is succeeding, at least provisionally, in winning support in L.A.’s Jewish community, much as Bradley did three decades ago. Like Bradley, Villaraigosa has campaigned indefatigably in the Jewish community; like Bradley, he’s tapped into what is still that community’s affinity for racial and economic liberalism. In the poll, Villaraigosa pulls down more than one-third of the Jewish vote, a figure that the two Jewish candidates, Soboroff and Wachs, only get to by adding their votes together, with Hahn trailing far behind. (Indeed, the vote in a runoff between Villaraigosa and Hahn might look a little like the city’s vote on the immigrant-bashing Proposition 187, back in the bad old days of 1994, in which the Latino Eastside and the Jewish Westside lined up together to vote No, while the black bastion of South-Central and the white bastion of the West Valley found themselves, however improbably, on the same side voting Yes.)

But the city has changed hugely since 1994. Then, Latinos constituted just 10 percent of L.A. voters; in a June runoff with Villaraigosa in the pack, they will make up close to a quarter. Indeed, the city that elected Richard Riordan is hard to locate in the new figures from the Census Bureau. In 1990, 37.6 percent of Angelenos were white; today, just 29.7 percent are. In fact, Los Angeles today has the lowest percentage of white residents of any of America’s eight largest mega-cities, lower than that in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix or San Diego. Conversely, our Latino population — 46.5 percent of the total, and you can be damn sure there was a substantial undercount of Latinos here — is far larger than that in any of those cities.

None of which makes a Villaraigosa victory even remotely close to inevitable. But — particularly if he faces off against Soboroff in the runoff — it does make it possible.

As to why it’s desirable, let me tell you about something that happened on Tuesday morning of last week.

Several hundred textile workers, all of them Latino, all wearing their red T-shirts emblazoned with their union’s name (UNITE), had rallied outside their employer’s plant in the city of Vernon, an enclave of factories just across the city line from some of South-Central L.A.’s poorest, most immigrant-heavy neighborhoods. It was the third week of their strike against Hollander Home Fashions — the chief bone of contention being their demand that Hollander set up some form of retirement fund — and Hollander had greeted them with a squadron of cops, both private and city-of-Vernon, and videographers to record which of them had dared to affront their employer by so rudely showing up.

By the standards of L.A.’s large and raucous labor movement, it wasn’t that much of a rally: just the workers, a couple of drummers, the union leaders, County Fed capo Miguel Contreras — and mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. But Villaraigosa’s presence electrified the crowd. America, he told them, was the greatest country on Earth, where an immigrant’s son could become an Assembly speaker, and Los Angeles could be its greatest city — provided it became the place “where people do have the right to organize, the right to health care and retirement security, the basic rights that have made America great.” Their plight, he continued, made clear that L.A. was not yet that place. (“Look at these guards taking your pictures,” he said. “That has no place in our city!”) But as mayor, he promised, he’d work to make it live up to its promise.

The picture-taking guards, however, were not the only camera crews there. Because Villaraigosa had come down to Vernon, newspaper reporters and Spanish-language media were there too — and, most remarkably, crews from the city’s leading English-language local TV newscasts, which under any other conditions could not have found the city of Vernon if you’d tattooed the Thomas Guide on their chests. As mayor, Villaraigosa told the reporters, he’d routinely try to mediate such disputes — but that didn’t preclude his calling attention to injustices, particularly those obscure if routine injustices that the larger city might never otherwise hear about. “You still have to speak out,” said Villaraigosa, “when something’s wrong.”

And if the polls are right, he may just get that chance.


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