In Los Angeles in this month of May, the working poor and their families still constitute a majority of city residents. Gang violence continues to surge. Millions of Angelenos lack any medical coverage. And 13 years after the Rodney King beating, the LAPD has still not managed to put in place a system to track
violence-prone officers, though the department has been under a court order for several years to do exactly that.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying the city still needs Antonio Villaraigosa as its mayor.
It’s not that Jim Hahn has been a disaster. He’s had his high points: establishing an affordable-housing trust fund (an idea that Villaraigosa first floated during the 2001 mayoral campaign), discharging Bernie Parks as police chief and defeating Valley secession. He’s had his low points, too, most notably the pay-to-play scandal that has implicated a number of his appointed commissioners.
For the most part, Hahn’s sins have been sins of omission — but they add up. In moments of crisis, such as the aftermath of 9/11 or during the MTA strike, Hahn’s been missing in action. Nobody looks to his office for policy innovations. It’s members of the council who have proposed big-box ordinances to limit the spread of Wal-Mart, who’ve mediated labor disputes, who’ve proposed interim remedies for the medically uninsured. With his one-time deputy and current colleague Martin Ludlow, Villaraigosa negotiated a successful conclusion to the MTA mechanics strike. He’s written an ordinance to authorize the city to purchase low-cost prescription drugs in Canada (which would challenge federal policy) and recently managed to restore funding for the city’s Arts Council.
That, of course, barely scratches the surface of Villaraigosa’s achievements, talents and promise. As Assembly speaker, he put together massive and long-overdue park and school bonds and then steered them to enactment at the ballot box. As a candidate for mayor in 2001, he galvanized the city’s progressive community across lines of race and class. He became the tribune for the city’s future, and a hero in L.A.’s vast Latino community — though the role of ethnic spokesman leaves him cold. “I don’t want to be the official landsman,” he told me over coffee one morning last week, using a Yiddish word meaning the guy from your old-country hometown.
When Villaraigosa lost to Hahn by seven points in the 2001 mayoral runoff, he had no plans to seek a rematch four years hence. With L.A. mayors limited to two terms in office, Villaraigosa sought a seat on the City Council — a good perch from which to affect city policy and disabuse city voters of some of the ludicrous claims that the Hahn campaign leveled against him during the mayor’s race (he was a radical nationalist, a friend of drug dealers, a danger to the white middle class). In 2003, Villaraigosa unseated incumbent Councilman Nick Pacheco in an Eastside district by a stunning 17 percent, and figured he’d serve on the council for six years till Hahn’s job came open.
But Hahn’s political woes soon exceeded all expectation. His base in the black community turned on him when he fired Parks; many of his Valley backers were let down by his opposition to secession. There was blood in the water, and in short order, Parks, Valley-area state Senator Richard Alarcon and former Assembly Speaker (and one-time Villaraigosa buddy and Sacramento roommate) Bob Hertzberg were all running for mayor. If Hertzberg, a business-
oriented Democrat, successfully assembled a more diverse version of the Riordan coalition and defeated Hahn, Villaraigosa faced the prospect of having to wait an additional eight years before running again for mayor. At that point, his mayor moment would almost surely have passed.
Which poses a conundrum for Villaraigosa, who has not wished to subject his family again to the shmutz that comes with running against Hahn, and who planned to serve out his first full term on the council. He has other opportunities, too: An early and steadfast supporter of John Kerry, he is now a co-chair of Kerry’s campaign and is slated to co-chair the platform committee at this summer’s Democratic National Convention.
Problem is, Villaraigosa’s passions and visions are all of Los Angeles. “The one job in America that I want is to lead the most dynamic city in the world,” he says. “The city is a magnet for me; it has this attraction and power — and I don’t mean the power of office. It has to do with the sense of the possible; you can taste the energy here. That’s the allure of this job.”
Both Villaraigosa and Hertzberg bring a zealousness to the challenge of improving Los Angeles; it is part of their character as it is not of Hahn’s. “Bob and I both work 18-hour days,” says Villaraigosa — something of which Hahn has never been accused. Hertzberg’s is more the work of a wonk — the technician who knows how to change the myriad regulations and agencies that guide the city. Villaraigosa is more the big-picture guy, who would likely seek ways to enable the city’s working poor to join unions and push hard for the construction of new schools.
So Villaraigosa ponders, and calculates the odds. Some early private polling shows him leading Hahn by the same margin he led him by in the first round of the 2001 race — 30 percent to 25 percent. Those figures don’t reflect anywhere near the strength Hertzberg will have once he starts spending the millions he is all but sure to raise, chiefly from business interests. A runoff against Hahn would be tough, Villaraigosa concedes: Hahn, in all likelihood, will be the second choice of many voters whose first choice didn’t make it out of round one. That said, Villaraigosa expresses confidence that he could defeat either of his two likely opponents, Hahn or Hertzberg, in a runoff. “I’m beginning to get the belly,” he says, balling up a fist in front of his gut. That’s good news for a city that needs all the civic passion it can get.