The faithful sensed early on that their man, Antonio Villaraigosa, would end up on top in the runoff for the L.A. mayor‘s job. It was only 9 p.m., and the parking lots at Union Station were bursting with cars of revelers eager to embrace the candidate who could become the city’s first Latino mayor in 129 years. “He supports the environment, and a good quality of life for everyone,” said Christina Flores, an 18-year-old high school senior with a pierced tongue who just had cast her first-ever vote. “He is a man for all the people.”
Inside, surrounded by the grandiosity of the last major train station built in the U.S., supporters supped on taquitos and tamales, swayed to the sounds of a live salsa band, and caught the tail end of a Clippers game on a big-screen television to the left of the stage. Standing before a massive American flag, the Reverend Norman Copeland worked the crowd. “Are you excited?” he asked. “Yes!” came the emphatic reply. “Hope is on the horizon. A new day is dawning. People are standing together, people of different colors, with different languages, from different walks of life.” He lifted both hands and asked those gathered to join him in prayer. “Say Amen!” “Amen!” “Say Amen!” “Amen!” “Say Amen!” “Amen!”
The next speaker had a slightly different group chant. “Si, se puede!” he shouted, calling on the audience to join him in affirming the often-invoked declaration of union activists (some of Villaraigosa‘s most ardent supporters), “Yes, we can!”
It wasn’t long before the candidate himself appeared. Sporting a tiny American flag pinned to the lapel of his dark-gray pinstripe suit, he raised a triumphant fist, looking healthy, broad-shouldered and relaxed next to Governor Gray Davis, who had delivered a key endorsement for the former state Assembly speaker and who was, on this night, impeccably groomed but comparatively thin, pale and stiff, and almost certainly hoping to ride whatever wave of good press this might bring him amid the state energy meltdown. The pair made their way across the floor and up to a fenced-off media platform, where they were joined by a sampling of the Villaraigosa campaign elite. There was white-haired mega-contributor Eli Broad, standing shoulder to shoulder with L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, and there was state Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, his old-time friend from the mean streets of East L.A. And there was Miguel Contreras, head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, which threw an estimated $1 million into the race, fighting his way through the crowd. With a hand from Cedillo, he quickly joined the group in front of the cameras. Only billionaire donor Ron Burkle was missing, called away at the last minute, his spokesman Ari Swiller said, by a board meeting on the East Coast.
After a short while, the “press opportunity” ended. Villaraigosa and the governor were shepherded out to the parking lot and back into the station through a bamboo-shrouded doorway that led to a VIP party on a patio adjoining Traxx restaurant. It was a rock-star moment, with fans and supporters running along behind, hoping for a special moment with their hero.
“We really worked hard for him,” said Rosa Cobos, an outreach advocate for the city of L.A.‘s Housing Authority, who in her spare time volunteers at the Bell Gardens Community Service Center. She doesn’t live in L.A. and was disappointed that she could not vote for her candidate, but she put in extra time as a volunteer. “When you see someone you really believe in, you want to help them,” she said. “You want to be a part of it, no matter what.”
Out on the VIP patio, Villaraigosa huddled with his strategists, campaign consultant Parke Skelton, media consultants David Doak and Tom O‘Donnell, and fund-raiser Laura Hartigan, while other guests snacked on a buffet of pate, endive with blue cheese and walnuts, and prosciutto with olives and fresh rosemary, prepared by chef Tara Thomas, who has been cooking for Villaraigosa and his friends since her days at 410 Boyd near Skid Row. “Union Station is the great convergence,” Thomas said. “It’s the perfect place for someone like Antonio.”
Shortly after 11 p.m., as the numbers confirmed Villaraigosa as the front-runner, he decided to take another pass through the crowd. This time he lingered. Sucking on a cough drop to soothe his battered vocal chords, he freely exchanged hugs and kisses with what seemed to be every man, woman and child who crossed his path. All of a sudden, it was 12:30 and time for the “victory” speech, such as it was. Villaraigosa took the stage. Accompanied by his wife, Corina, and several of his children, he urged the dwindling crowd to move in close. “Gracias de mi corazon” (Thank you from my heart), he said. “While I still can‘t say that we’ve won this, I can say we‘re going to be in the runoff.” His family filed off, but the man who could be mayor stayed behind, not quite ready to go. Any remaining formality fell away, and a bit of the old street kid seemed to emerge. “I love you, man,” he said, looking out into the crowd and shaking his head. “I’m so moved to have your support.” The speakers started blasting “Ain‘t No Stopping Us Now,” and Villaraigosa stood alone, clapping to the beat.