Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter
It was probably as much Dick Riordan’s paternalism as his lingering aversion to City Attorney Jim Hahn that birthed the ultimate endorsement of the 2001 Los Angeles mayor’s race. Distant as they might be on pure ideology, and as contrastingly beguiling and unbeguiling personally, Antonio Villaraigosa and Richard Riordan, the up-from-poverty legislator and the well-born investor, can both claim maverick standing against the City Hall hierarchy. Jim Hahn is that hierarchy’s standard-bearer.
But something else really clinched it, as Dick and Tonio did their endorsement show-and-tell outside City Hall last Wednesday. This was the fleeting pretense that Villaraigosa was Dick Riordan’s hand-picked successor, his political foster son. This historical imposture not only authorizes Riordan’s ostensible role as the Marshal Dillon who cleaned up Dodge City so that a bright young local sheriff might run things in peace. It also legitimizes Villaraigosa as the strong man’s pick for new mayor.
No one around City Hall can recall when a mayor last designated anyone as his political progeny. Maybe it happened in the dark past, before Frank Shaw got booted out in 1937. Perhaps not: Before term limits, you sought to remain mayor until they laid you out in the rotunda. That this rarely happened wasn’t for want of trying. Minus term limits, you could be your own hand-picked successor as long as you could raise funds, breathe and sign your name. Which meant that even if you actually did retire rather than face re-election, as Tom Bradley did, you’d eschew currying favorites to follow you, lest he or she decide to run against you instead of after you.
But now, our term-limited mayors can attempt to impose their agendas, however dubious, on candidates in return for whatever their sanction may be worth to such hopefuls.
There is obviously a downside to this potential tradition, though, at least from the endorsee’s viewpoint: You may have to agree in public to do quite the opposite of your real intentions. Which is exactly what Villaraigosa seemed to be doing last week.
For instance, the outgoing mayor managed to fold his latest crank obsession into his Villaraigosa endorsement speech — this one about “special-interest groups,” which he had recently accused of owning unspecified minority county supervisors (one of whom — Croatian-American Mike Antonovich — said the mayor’s words “further divide us when we ought to be uniting . . .”). The same fixation came up twice in rapid succession during the endorsement: “Villaraigosa has the guts to stand up to special-interest groups,” and he further would work with “communities, not special-interest groups.”
Now, as it happens, Villaraigosa owes a vast debt to exactly the sort of groups the mayor had in mind — specifically, most of Los Angeles’ labor organizations. Not to mention nearly every Latino-identity association in Southern California. But the candidate nodded eagerly. As he did later to the mayor’s demand for lower business taxation — surely the least of low priorities to most Villaraigosa supporters. So we’ll see how far Villaraigosa goes with this affectation that he intends to follow Riordan’s Republican yellow-brick road.
Otherwise, there was only extroverted agreement between the two on abating crime, cleaning up neighborhoods and turning our city into a veritable pastureland of new parks. Most impressive, though, was the enormous spontaneity of the large turnout of Villaraigosa fans. Having been to nearly every public Riordan event since 1993, I can safely say that this was the first one that didn’t look premeditated. In which people were genuinely exuberant — not just smiling and cheering on cue. And you can’t but wonder if Riordan didn’t regret that he had never turned out such a crowd, which swept up the pair on the wings of its excitement.
Alas, Villaraigosa’s opponent, the usually sensible Jim “Son of Kenny” Hahn, then mistakenly held his own “the mayor didn’t endorse me” press conference.
Better we’d all skipped it: Hahn, the Hahnites and the rest of us. It’s still possible that Hahn might win the election, but he will never win his dogged war against charisma. Hahn also surrounded himself with well-wishers; but rather than Villaraigosa’s rank-and-file enthusiasts, they were mostly the shopworn politicians stalwart citizens would shun — bus-stopper Bobbi Fiedler, City Council naysayer and nay-doer Nate Holden, and Police Commissioner and Valley-secessionist auto czar Bert Boeckmann, for instance. A sad little cast, a sad little moment. Hahn, now forced to run at the far rim of his liberal convictions to appeal to conservative voters, often has a hard time looking as if he means what he says. And he’s been attacked (in this paper and elsewhere) for actually doing his city attorney’s job when his duties were less than popular: such as when he defended Daryl Gates a decade ago.
If Villaraigosa wins, of course, Hahn can say he was victimized by the historic Latino groundswell. But if he loses this election, he’ll also have to confront the retroactive fact that he might have won — not without a stiff fight — had he the gumption to run in 1989 or 1993. He’s become a better city attorney since then. But in 1989, he’d have faced the declining Tom Bradley, whom Nate Holden nearly put in a runoff. In 1993, he’d have been far more credible — and would have had broader support — than Mike Woo did in the race against Riordan. But good hierarchy man that he is, Hahn instead awaited his proper turn. Now, it’s just possible that his turn may never come.
The Real Race
That the mayoral-endorsement carnival drew most of the media attention to City Hall last Wednesday was unfortunate in a way, because it drew attention from the last confrontation in a far more important city election. This being the one for city attorney.
More important because, while one can certainly argue that Villaraigosa is destiny’s tot, you can’t really maintain that Jim Hahn would be a bad mayor.
Yet Rocky Delgadillo, while certainly a decent person, is clearly not a good fit for city attorney. Mike Feuer clearly is.
Those who attended the Central City Association (CCA) event caught what was, for practical purposes, the last pre-runoff debate between the two (there’s another on June 2, too late to matter much). If you’d hoped to catch the pair on TV, that’s too bad. Delgadillo won’t do televised debates, thus sparing most voters what critics of his previous campaign confrontations have called his “deer in the headlights” appearance when the tough questions arrive. But even at the CCA, which offered the business-friendly mayor’s deputy a friendly audience if ever there was one, Delgadillo found himself defending his debater’s shyness. Which is certainly a highly unusual attribute for an attorney running for public office.
Delgadillo maintained that “Rather than spend time debating Mike, I’ve been talking to real people.” Is implying that your opponent isn’t real a new campaign tactic? I don’t know. But from what I heard, Feuer looked more real than Delgadillo, even in front of a basically hostile audience (the moderator, Steven Weston of the law firm of Weston Benshoof Rochefort Rubalcava & MacCuish, had reportedly conducted a Delgadillo fund-raiser). Feuer contended that Delgadillo “is trying to hide his inexperience and lack of vision” by avoiding debates and media appearances. I’d prefer to think Delgadillo was simply shy about flaunting his forensic abilities.
Ironically, Delgadillo accused Feuer of being more interested in getting elected than in getting things done. Were this only true, the race wouldn’t be nearly as close. During the primary campaign, Feuer was busy with new gun-control measures and police reform. Apparently, the councilman figured his evening-news soundbites would offset Delgadillo’s TV ads and dubiously donated billboards. The close primary results suggest that Feuer guessed wrong.
But when Delgadillo bragged to his audience of bringing new jobs to the city, of helping poor neighborhoods prosper, of cutting red tape, he was talking like someone running for mayor. Feuer, for instance, when demanding adequate environmental review for the Taylor Yard project, which Delgadillo and the mayor proposed and the community opposed, focuses on the position he’s running for. He should win it.