The marquee of the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood hails Antonio Villaraigosa as “L.A.’s Next Mayor.” The candidate’s supporters lined up alongside the television vans resemble a nightclub crowd — young, attractive, hip. There’s a buzz that comes every four years, or, in this part of town, most Saturday nights. Whether it’s star appeal or imminent victory, one can almost feel the calderone. Almost.

A rematch of the 2001 mayoral race sounds like poetic justice. But, at least from the perspective of Villaraigosa supporters, not all of whom are young and hip, this time around feels different. “People are much more subdued on the surface,” says Jenny Castro, a longtime Villaraigosa campaign worker. “But the heat is bubbling just beneath the surface.” Castro perks up as a rapper comes onstage and injects some rhythm into the event, and even some passion. “They didn’t have this before,” she says, adding that Rod Stewart is more her speed.

For months Villaraigosa has been fighting off comparisons with “the Antonio of old.” For every pundit who says Villaraigosa “lacks the spark” he possessed before Jim Hahn, in 2001, portrayed him as a friend of crack dealers en route to a come-from-behind victory, there’s another who says just wait and see. “The spark is there,” comes the common refrain. “He’s just more focused.”

In between the rap, some smoking R&B and some Latin soul, union representatives and friends of labor take turns at the mike. “Antonio stands up for the human capital that gives us the strength to reach out to the entire planet,” says Larry Frank, of the UCLA Labor Center. “He’s the coalition builder of the world,” a transit-union leader says. “Labor is with him. We’re gonna win.”

The voices are rousing, and the pronouncements are bold enough to whip up the crowd. Villaraigosa’s fans sense that ultimate victory is their destiny, and see themselves as part of a movement; yet, at the same time, they seem to be trying to convince themselves of something, asking, for example, What’s really the difference between Hahn and Villaraigosa when it comes to their commitment to labor? Castro at first appears to be at a loss. “Hahn could’ve done more to create aggressive job programs for kids coming out of high school,” she offers. But this is not a typical race to handicap, and it’s a bit beside the point what Hahn has done, or what Villaraigosa says he will do. County Federation of Labor chief Miguel Contreras — after endorsing Hahn — could just as easily have voted for Villaraigosa, and likely is working on a runoff plan to have his cake and eat it too.

Back in the “VIP Room,” the audible gasp that followed early numbers showing Hahn out front has subsided. A large Asian man has quoted David Freeman, the former Department of Water and Power head and fervent Villaraigosa supporter as comparing his man to Bill Clinton: “The one other politician who loves the people like Antonio does.” But that doesn’t sound quite right to Angela Cameron, a real estate agent with Century 21, who loaned Villaraigosa office space for a phone bank. When asked to compare the politics of Hahn and Villaraigosa, she says, “They aren’t that different. It comes down to who can appeal to the eyeballs; who can make the best statement.”

In spite of Villaraigosa’s focus on coalition building, race could be a factor in the runoff. Cameron continues: “You can hear people saying they are afraid if Villaraigosa is elected, he will give too much to Latinos, to help them take back what they feel was taken from them long ago. People say they want to be as one, but that’s not how it works. We should be colorblind, but we are not. Hahn is not such a good person, but he’s been in office for four years. I would not call Antonio a loser. In my opinion, he won in 2001. Maybe he needs a different strategy.” Expect him to go negative this time on the cloud of suspicion hanging over Hahn’s City Hall. Live and learn.

After the numbers swing in his favor, Villaraigosa bounds onstage and declares, “I love you, Los Angeles, I really do.” Then he launches into what has become a standard speech about people coming to Los Angeles from every corner of the Earth, rekindling hope, and personal redemption. “Someone took a chance on me,” he says, thanking his teacher Herman Katz for the hundredth time in the campaign. “But this campaign isn’t about me, it’s about us,” says Villaraigosa, before reverting back to another favorite image: him as a child at his mother’s feet, watching JFK on television urge Americans to “Ask not what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you . . . oh, you know what I meant.”

Seconds after he leaves the stage, half the crowd leaves the Fonda Theater — with less than 25 percent of the precincts counted. (Disgraced former Councilman Richard Alatorre hangs around, but that’s not the kind of support Villaraigosa needs.) Yet they file out with comfortable smiles. They came expecting a victory. Within an hour, Villaraigosa’s lead is safe — and his shot at redemption secure.

LA Weekly