Photo by Anne Fishbein

SUDDENLY, ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA is back — and the current City Hall leadership has its hands full.

Villaraigosa's outright victory over Nick Pacheco was the first time anyone could recall a challenger defeating an incumbent L.A. councilman in a primary. The voters' message was unmistakable — give us the right candidate and we will elect him, even if there's a strong incumbent, even if he is doing an okay job, even if the seat would be open anyway in four years.

Antonio Villaraigosa, the former state Assembly speaker and mayoral candidate, was the right candidate. His speakership cemented his reputation as a consensus builder, and his mayoral candidacy captured the imagination of voters longing to witness — in the emergence of a Latino majority — not just a demographic shift but a labor-left coalition ready to rule City Hall with its progressive agenda.

Nearly two years ago, his supporters stood in shock and dejection at what was to be his mayoral victory party. Many of them danced late into the night Tuesday as their man became the councilman-elect in the 14th District, which takes in the fringes of downtown, north to Mount Washington, Eagle Rock and Highland Park, and east to the Latino neighborhoods of El Sereno and Boyle Heights.

“This district was looking for a leader that could unite us and take on the big challenges,” Villaraigosa said after bowing out of a conga line. “The crime rate is not only a public-safety issue but a public-health issue. The growing blight throughout the community, the lack of responsible development, the need for building community ultimately is what people saw. I think there was a feeling that we could do better.”

Hahn will now face a City Council that includes not only the man he defeated, but, in ex-Police Chief Bernard Parks, the man he effectively fired from his last job.

Villaraigosa has promised not to challenge Hahn for mayor in 2005. It's way too early to know for sure, but he likely will try again in 2009.

Immediate headaches may be in store for council President Alex Padilla. A certain vote of support leaves the council floor with Pacheco, and Padilla is now carefully counting votes to see what it will take to hang on to his presidency.

The evening did not start out as a Villaraigosa romp. Before the stark numbers started coming in, Pacheco was ebullient. Standing outside his Boyle Heights campaign headquarters, he talked about the final weekend of mailers — nearly a dozen pieces sent to each voting household, some by his campaign, some by the Morongo tribe, some by city unions. The mail focused on Villaraigosa's public-safety record.

An optimistic Pacheco figured he might beat Villaraigosa and former boxer Paul Gonzales without a runoff.

A few hours later, City Hall denizens and politicos trickled into what they hoped would be a Pacheco victory party in Eagle Rock. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, Councilwoman Janice Hahn and Congressman Xavier Becerra began to see the numbers. By 11, the cars were leaving the parking lot, and only a few die-hards stuck around, insisting that late votes from Republican precincts could turn things around. Pacheco now hoped to survive with a runoff.

“We didn't have any indication in the field it would go in this direction,” a puzzled Pacheco said. “We did everything we could. Strong in the field. Strong mail.”

But he was ready to talk about his tenure in the past tense.

“I've left the district in incredibly better shape than I received it,” Pacheco said. “Look at the streets we've paved, the improvements. Plus 3,600 volunteers. Lots of community cleanups.”

He would finish out his term, he said, then maybe return to law practice.

“I know City Hall,” Pacheco mused. “Maybe I'll find work as a consultant.”

In a corner, Henry Lozano, Eastside political strategist and power broker, shrugged his shoulders. Such a strong campaign, he said. “Maybe,” he offered, “it was overkill.”

Matt Middlebrook, a top Hahn aide, noted that his boss worked closely with Villaraigosa in the effort to stop San Fernando Valley secession. “Jim Hahn is ready to work with anyone on the council. He and Antonio Villaraigosa will work well together.”

Back in Boyle Heights, the dancing continued at Villaraigosa's comeback party. Taking in the scene was Miguel Contreras, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor chief who orchestrated the drive to oust Pacheco and, in the process, fired a warning shot across the bow of any other incumbent who failed to take the labor agenda seriously.

“Antonio has the ability to lead the city in the direction that a lot of progressives would like,” Contreras said. “It shows to everybody that community and labor can come together and win a race on the ground. This race is not won in the mail or on the airwaves. This was street combat today.”

As for the County Fed, which took a drubbing two years ago when Villaraigosa lost the mayor's race to Hahn, Contreras simply smiled and said:”We're back in business.”

LA Weekly