Photo by Ted SoquiI. THE GAME'S AFOOT
IT WAS A PERFECT CAMPAIGN TABLEAU. ON A SPARKLING Friday morning in July, Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa stood behind a makeshift podium on the end of Pier 82 in the L.A. Harbor, flags snapping in the wind, the water glistening in the sunlight, to announce a new program for the Harbor-area economy. Clustered around him, reporters listened attentively, and non-reporters — parents with small children, tourists with cameras — craned their necks to get a better view . . .
. . . not, however of Villaraigosa. Docking at that very moment at adjacent Pier 83 was the tall ship Eagle, a three-masted Coast Guard training ship, escorted by tooting tugboats and a water-spraying fire-department runabout. The spectators were plainly riveted by the scene — and it would have availed nothing to have told them that the man behind the podium was on his own shakedown cruise for a possible run for mayor of Los Angeles two years hence, that he might just personify the future of American urban politics, that if there was any history to be seen in the harbor that morning, they might consider turning around.
THE MAYORAL CAMPAIGN TO SUCCEED RICHARD RIORDAN has already begun, though, like the tourists on the pier, Los Angeles is largely impervious to all the rollouts and scurryings and backroom maneuvering. Los Angeles is impervious to most matters of local government, of course, but at this early stage in the game — the primary isn't until April, the runoff not until June, of 2001 — the city has a reasonable excuse.
But the city, like those tourists, is missing some real drama. The coming mayor's race is shaping up as a contest of unusually historic significance. It is unfolding against the backdrop of huge, new developments in American urban life: the possibility that Los Angeles will become the first major U.S. city to be sundered by secession; the political ascent of the third wave of immigrants; the boom at the top and the bottom — and the erosion of the middle — of the urban economy; and the reinvention of urban liberalism in America. The outcome of this contest will forecast the shape of American urban politics for years to come.
The paramount question confronting the next mayor will be how to address L.A.'s economic transformation, which is every bit as profound as its demographic shifts. Over the past 20 years, Los Angeles — once the model of postwar mass prosperity, where the backyard swimming pool became an ornament of middle-class life — has now become the model of the post-mass-prosperity metropolis. Of the 300,000 new jobs created in the county since 1993, the L.A. Times reports, more than 150,000 of them pay under $25,000 a year. Since 1991, the number of local jobs paying between $40,000 and $60,000 annually has actually declined by 97,000. Concurrently, L.A. has the lowest percentage of jobs offering medical coverage to its workers — just 59 percent — of any American city, and one of the lowest percentages of homeowners. In short, the bottom hasn't fallen out of the L.A. economy, but the middle most certainly has — and already in the nascent campaign for mayor, a surprising number of the candidates are pushing plans on how to bring that middle back.
The key political question looming over the race is to what degree the Latino-ization of Los Angeles will have transformed the electorate by 2001. When Tom Bradley was first elected mayor, in 1973, blacks constituted around 25 percent of the voters. Latino turnout in 1997 accounted for 15 percent of the electorate, and while increasing levels of citizenship and registration and turnout could boost that figure to around 20 percent in 2001, it's hard to see how it gets much higher than that. Another conundrum is whether a Latino leader will be able to forge the kind of cross-racial, cross-town ties that Bradley built — and inherited. For Bradley was the beneficiary of a black-Jewish electoral alliance rooted in both the civil rights movement of the '60s and a mutual exclusion from a still largely WASP City Hall. Villaraigosa has embarked full-tilt on an effort to build such a coalition anew, with different elements for a different time, but the kind of citywide networks upon which Bradley relied — the Democratic club movement, for instance — have long since vanished. Less visibly than Villaraigosa, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky — who may or may not become a candidate — has, as it were, been building those ties in reverse: Starting from a solid base in Jewish L.A. and focusing his attention on issues affecting the city's largely Latino working poor.
These changes still lay beyond the horizon in 1993, when Richard Riordan came from nowhere (but toting $6 million of his own money to fund his campaign) to win the mayor's race. Then, a city shaken by rioting responded to Riordan's appeal for more police, and rejected the candidacy of Councilman Mike Woo — a liberal Democrat at a time when liberalism was little more than the sum of the identity politics of its various constituencies. Today, the city is far more confident, its economy vibrant but terribly divided between high-end and low-, with issues of ethnic succession and political secession — issues that are intertwined, though few will say so publicly — looming over the race for mayor.
NONE OF THIS EXPLAINS WHY THE RACE HAS BEGUN SO damn early. The culprit here is term limits: Richard Riordan is barred from seeking re-election in 2001, and many of his would-be successors — Villaraigosa, City Attorney James Hahn, City Councilman Joel Wachs — are themselves bumping up against term limits that will force them out of their current positions.
So there was Villaraigosa in San Pedro — Hahn's home turf — unveiling programs and meeting with longshoremen and businessmen. For his part, Hahn was in the San Fernando Valley, speaking to senior citizens about elder abuse, while Wachs was glowering on the front page of the Times Metro section at the very prospect of the city's subsidizing any part of an NFL franchise. Businessman Steve Soboroff, Riordan's clear choice as his successor, was making the rounds of schoolrooms and parks all over town (he is chairman of the school construction Citizen's Oversight Committee and president of the city's Recreation and Parks Commission).
Other politicos, like Yaroslavsky, are still mulling it over. Congressman Xavier Becerra has emphatically stated he's considering the race; Supervisor Gloria Molina has acknowledged it rather tepidly. California State Controller Kathleen Connell hasn't publicly said anything herself, but her surrogates are getting her name around. And there remains the possibility that others — Councilmen Mark Ridley-Thomas or Nate Holden, or former Assemblyman and current Army Secretary Louis Caldera — could jump into the race as well. With term limits looming over so many local officeholders, the “Why not?” factor in the calculations of the political class has been magnified as never before.
Elections in L.A. are a two-stage process: The top two finishers in April's nonpartisan primary run off in June, unless one candidate can get a majority in April — hardly likely in a crowded field without an incumbent. That means that if too many candidates compete for the same voter base in round one — say, Villaraigosa and Becerra splitting the Latino vote; or Yaroslavsky, Wachs and Soboroff dividing the Valley — it will be all the harder for those candidates to make it into round two.
Much of what's going on now could be described as base-jockeying: Becerra is trying to knock Villaraigosa out of the race by threatening to split his round-one vote; Soboroff and Wachs are trying to keep Yaroslavsky from entering by announcing early and trying to make inroads into his potential supporters. All this strengthens the hand of City Attorney Hahn, who does not yet face a challenge to his own primary base: the African-American community, whose entry into local politics was greatly aided by Hahn's father, the legendary Supervisor Kenny Hahn, and which has faithfully supported Hahn the Younger throughout his career. Add to that the fact that Hahn has been elected citywide five times — once as controller, four times as city attorney (demolishing by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin a challenge from a Riordan protégé two years ago) — and you understand why Hahn is widely regarded as a shoo-in to make the runoff. Hahn's own appraisal of the race is a good deal more upbeat than that. “How do you see the race shaping up?” I asked him late one afternoon in his City Hall East office. “Well,” he answered immediately, “I see me winning — though I'm not 100 percent positive I can win in the primary.”
JIM HAHN IS NOT FAMED FOR HIS DRY WIT OR IRONIC sensibility, either in his assessments of his own prospects or his speeches. Like Al Gore, he is a lifelong pol who's the son of a lifelong pol, and shares with Gore a certain stiffness and absence of spontaneity in his public appearances. Unlike Gore, though, he's gotten the drop on the rest of his field. With the assistance of Bill Carrick, one of the nation's ablest campaign consultants, Hahn is already in full soundbite mode. Speaking to the Senior Shalom Club at the West Valley Jewish Community Center one early August morning (not the North Valley JCC that would become so terribly famous two weeks later), Hahn asks the seniors, “How many of you have trouble wrestling off the child-proof cap of an aspirin bottle at 3 a.m.?” — thoughtfully raising his own hand to assure them there's no stigma attached to this. (Before a group of seniors, Hahn comes off as the respectful, dutiful son — he'd do Kenny proud.) “Then why won't gun manufacturers child-proof their guns, which they could do for as little as $3 a gun?” he asks, to a burst of applause.
But Hahn is more than the sum of his soundbites. Outlining the city's needs one afternoon in his office atop City Hall East, Hahn focuses not just on public safety and schools (Riordan has made the condition of the schools the responsibility of any future mayor), but infrastructure. He talks of double-decking freeways, and of more mass transit. “Let's put everything on the table, eliminate no options,” he says. “Heavy rail has got to be part of the mix. Buses are still the main piece of the system, but we need more light rail, and I'd like to see a subway used as a backbone for the system, with light rail feeding into it.”
This preference for an industrial-strength transit system (which county voters, by passing Yaroslavsky's subway-killing initiative last year, plainly have doubts about), coupled with Hahn's political roots in black L.A., make the city attorney something of the neo-Bradley in the race. An L.A. subway was an integral part of Tom Bradley's vision for the L.A. of the future; Hahn seems intent on keeping it alive in the L.A. of the present. Should he end up running off against Yaroslavsky, voters certainly will be provided with a clear choice of options.
While Hahn is widely regarded as the front-runner, there are a number of political observers around town who question that judgment. The black vote in L.A. isn't what it was during Tom Bradley's heyday, since the share of the city that's African-American has been declining for years. In the last mayoral election, blacks constituted just 14 percent of the total turnout. Similarly, the building-trades unions that were the centerpiece of Bradley's labor support — and for whom subway construction is ipso facto a happy notion — have taken a back seat in the local labor movement to fast-growing service-sector unions with different priorities. The problem with being the neo-Bradley is that the core of the old Bradley constituency ain't what it used to be.
Assuming that Hahn will likely make the runoff, ã his opponent will be someone whose roots are either on the Westside or in the Valley or in the Latino community. Hahn will then have to compete for the other part of that equation — for the Latino vote if his opponent is a Wachs or a Yaroslavsky, for the Valley if he's running against a Villaraigosa. Neither scenario is a cakewalk.
III. WESTSIDE AND VALLEY
IN PAST ELECTIONS, THE WESTSIDE AND VALLEY COULDN'T really be lumped together; they generated separate candidates with widely differing appeals. The Valley was the bastion of L.A. conservatism — Sam Yorty's stronghold against the forces that Tom Bradley represented — while Bradley claimed the Westside as his own.
But the Yorty constituency has long since moved on, or out. With the decline of the local aerospace industry over the past decade, L.A.'s working-class and lower-middle-class white populations have been substantially reduced. While there are still major Westside/Valley divisions visible in such things as the vote on 1994's immigrant-bashing Proposition 187 (the Valley passed it; the Westside didn't), this year a number of candidates will compete furiously in round one for the voters in both those regions. Soboroff and Wachs, perhaps Yaroslavsky and others, will be sending the bulk of their mailings both west and north.
The only Republican in the field is businessman Steve Soboroff, who has the backing of the mayor but not of all the mayor's men, and most especially not that of mayoral consigliere Bill Wardlaw. Soboroff is the latest in a string of Riordan can-do guys — and unlike Riordan's previous one-year wizards, Mike Keeley and Ted Stein, Soboroff has managed to get things done without stretching the boundaries of accepted city practice. As chair of the oversight committee charged by Proposition BB with building new schools and patching up the old ones, and as president of Rec and Parks, Soboroff wins generally high marks for his energy, openness and affability from many co-workers. David Abel, a longtime Yaroslavsky confidant, calls Soboroff, with whom he serves on the Prop. BB Committee, “a mensch, who's great with people, who respects the public sector and is open to the private sector.”
Soboroff is a private-sector guy, of course. After an apprenticeship as a gofer for legendary L.A. developer Ben Weingart, Soboroff grew rich by locating the sites and arranging the deals for such chains as Target and Circuit City; he also owns commercial real estate in Santa Monica.
If Soboroff learned the art of the deal from Weingart, he seems to have picked up a share of his chutzpah as well. “I know people at schools and parks all over town,” he tells me over a breakfast in Studio City. “They know me better than they know Jim or Antonio.” He further assures me that “Zev won't run: He thinks I'll take too many votes from him.”
“Soboroff,” says one associate who's known him for years, “is a very nice man, but he doesn't have the temperament to be a good candidate or a good mayor. He's too thin-skinned. Impulsive. Hot-tempered. Volatile.”
He's certainly been known to shoot from the lip. In the course of our breakfast, he is explaining the reforms that would help the beleaguered Los Angeles public schools, and suddenly veers into a discussion of vouchers. “They would make LAUSD smaller [by enabling more students to attend private or parochial schools],” he says. “They may pose a problem in the long run, but in the short run the district is in crisis, and whatever can make the district smaller is a good thing.”
It is certainly one of the more idiosyncratic cases ever made for school vouchers — so idiosyncratic that Soboroff calls me some weeks later to retract the statement. “The more I think about [vouchers],” he says, “the less I like them. I don't think they're the right way to go.”
Soboroff's bolts of bad judgment have been matched by his explosions of anger. During his battle with Joel Wachs over the Staples Arena (Soboroff was the mayor's point man in the campaign to get the arena authorized and built), he dashed off a furious note to Mike Keeley, the onetime Riordan fugleman then working with Wachs. Soboroff complained that Wachs had appeared on KCET's Life and Times on Yom Kippur eve to make the case against subsidizing the arena — though in fact, Wachs had pre-taped the interview earlier that day so he could attend Yom Kippur services. “On Yom Kippur, respected throughout the secular and Jewish world as the most sacred Jewish day, when we are to repent and ask forgiveness,” he wrote, “Joel Wachs is on TV doing the opposite (if you consider lying [to be] something to ask forgiveness for).” Soboroff's intemperance was bad enough; but sending the memo to someone on Wachs' side of the battle — guaranteeing it would see light of day — firmly established Soboroff as a full-bore loose cannon.
Soboroff's niche in the emerging mayoral field is more or less Riordan II. Like our current mayor, Soboroff is a Republican businessman known for his deal-making. But Riordan won election at a time when the heavily Democratic Los Angeles was particularly receptive to a law-'n'-order candidacy. That time has passed. Riordan chose not to run on his deal-making skills — but deal-making skills are Soboroff's calling card.
Indeed, Soboroff takes credit for Staples, for bringing such megadevelopers as Ed Roski and Phil Anschutz into the project of rebuilding downtown. This may help Soboroff somewhat in the fund-raising arena, but public subsidies to such developers, for which Soboroff fought long and hard, are not particularly popular among the rank-and-file L.A.-area Republicans, the Howard Jarvis types, whose votes Soboroff needs. “Soboroff thinks Staples is one of his assets,” says one City Hall insider. “Ha! Joel will rip him up on Staples!”
JOEL WACHS HAS BEEN RIPPING ON STAPLES, AND against subsidies for an NFL franchise, for the past couple years now, and he's certainly found a winner of an issue. Corporate subsidies to sports billionaires, as Richard Riordan, Eli Broad and the NFL have learned to their woe, are unpopular right, left and center, and Wachs has been exploiting their unpopularity relentlessly. ã
Though he's been on the council since 1971, it's only in the past few years that Wachs has really perfected his right-left approach. Wachs wins the support of conservatives by opposing subsidies — although, like a good progressive, he says he's willing to support subsidies if they are tied to a measurable commitment to create good jobs. He's opposed to bargaining with a developer to win commitments that the workers on the site will get a living wage, as colleague Jackie Goldberg did with the Trizec-Hahn corporation in Hollywood, but for a reason that is, if anything, ultra-left: “I'm one of the biggest proponents of the living wage,” he tells me over bagels at Art's Deli in Studio City. (And, in fact, he gave the ordinance crucial support during the final council deliberations.) “But we shouldn't bargain for it; we should insist on it, citywide. At Staples, we shouldn't have to pay them millions to get [their food and janitorial concessionaires to pay] the living wage to their workers. It should be a consistent policy.”
Wachs isn't really seeking the votes of the poor; his core constituency is the Valley, which he's represented on the council for nearly three decades. As a premature proponent of neighborhood councils (he touted them during his mayoral candidacy in 1993), as a self-described honest broker in adjudicating the particulars of secession, as the only candidate or prospective candidate so far who actually lives in the Valley, he is the natural candidate for Valley malcontents and Republicans everywhere (and, polling shows, a strong contender for L.A.'s Jewish vote). If Yaroslavsky doesn't run — and even if he does — Wachs is a formidable candidate.
Assuming, that is, that Wachs is serious about running. This is his third race for mayor; he first ran after just two years on the council, in 1973, chiefly to get himself around town. He next ran in '93, the year Tom Bradley stepped down, when his appeal to conservatives was eclipsed by the law-'n'-order campaign of outsider Richard Riordan. But in these and other efforts, he won the reputation of a dilettante. “Politics to him is a form of entertainment,” one veteran Wachs-watcher says disdainfully. Wachs insists that this time, he's dead serious. He doesn't say so, but one index of his seriousness is his early declaration of candidacy and raising of funds: If there's anything he can do to keep Yaroslavsky from running, this would be it.
FOR NOW, ZEV REMAINS STUDIOUSLY MUM ON THE question of whether he'll run for mayor. His silence reinforces an image dear to some in L.A.'s political establishment — Zev as Hamlet, indecision personified, the guy who decided to take Tom Bradley on in 1989, then dropped out just a few weeks before a scandal broke that would have left Bradley vulnerable to a serious challenge. Indeed, some critics note that Yaroslavsky hasn't had a tough campaign since he first won election to the City Council in 1975 — when, as a raffish (some would say, shlumpy) 25-year-old street activist, he really had nothing to lose.
But, as several longtime Zevologists note, the supervisor from the Westside/Valley district can now afford to wait. No one in L.A. politics can raise money faster than Zev. No one but Wachs has a longer track record; no one but Hahn represents a larger district. Above all, no one starts with a bigger base of support in the first round of voting than Zev, who is the natural candidate of thousands of mainstream Democrats west of La Brea and on both sides of Mulholland.
And while Yaroslavsky has been busy not running, he has methodically spent the past year working on issues of concern to a key constituency outside his base: the Latino-labor alliance. Within the past year, Yaroslavsky has been the leading force behind the county's new living-wage ordinance (and the only real voice among the supes for expanding it further). He's been the one member of the MTA board to side consistently with the Bus Riders Union in its fight to get more resources committed to improving bus service. He offered crucial support to the efforts to organize home-care workers earlier this year; he even paraded in the Justice for Janitors march, which commemorated their beating by the LAPD nine years ago in Century City, and put forth their new demands.
“The most important issue in Los Angeles,” Yaroslavsky told Weekly editors last Friday, “is the growing gap between rich and poor — which is manifested not just in finances, but in unequal education and access to health care. Raising income levels at the bottom of the L.A. economy is critical — and I'm offended when millionaires, including some of my own financial supporters, squawk at raising the pay of the people who clean their toilets to $8 an hour.”
Yaroslavsky's involvement in the key campaigns of low-wage L.A. marks a fascinating turn in a career that has long been centered on battles to rein in the excesses of private- and public-sector development. Of the four successful initiatives Yaroslavsky has authored during his quarter century on the council and then the board of supes, one — Proposition O — banned Occidental Petroleum from drilling off the Palisades, a second — Proposition U — banned high-rise development save in a handful of areas around town, and a third — last year's Proposition A — banned any further expenditure of county sales-tax revenues on subway construction. (There is something, well, ground level about Yaroslavsky's ballot measures: They stop either the digging of holes or the building of skyscrapers).
Join the Yaroslavsky of the ballot measures to the Yaroslavsky of the living wage, and you get the candidate of Controlled Growth With Equity — a weird amalgam ã which might just be exquisitely attuned to the politics of the new Los Angeles. There's a good deal here for his Westside/Valley base, but also a good deal for the Latino-labor alliance, whose support — particularly in a runoff against Hahn — could be decisive.
Not that Yaroslavsky doesn't have some fences to mend. “Within the Latino community, the more nationalist elements around [state Senator Richard] Polanco think Zev is simply anti-Latino for opposing an Eastside subway and a larger version of County General [Hospital],” says one Eastside observer. “That misreads Zev, but he's got to sit down with them and make that clear.”
Should he run, however, Yaroslavsky's immediate problem is to pull enough votes out of what could be a very divided Westside and Valley to make the June runoff. West Valley Council Member Laura Chick has made that task a little simpler by deciding not to run, but now California State Controller Kathleen Connell, who has ample money of her own to spend on a campaign, is reportedly considering a go at it. “She could well be the only woman in the race,” says former Assemblyman (and 1993 mayoral candidate) Richard Katz, who's been talking with Connell. “People have voted for her on a statewide basis, and she brings legitimate private- and public-sector financial experience to the job.” What she doesn't bring is much of a public profile, nor is it clear that there's a sizable gender bounce in a municipal race like this one.
One Yaroslavsky constituency that no one will contest is the L.A. Jewish establishment: The organized Jewish community is Zev's base of all bases. “But if Zev doesn't go,” says one leader of the Valley Jewish community, “it gets very complicated. I foresee a Wachs-Soboroff-Antonio split.”
“Antonio?” I ask.
“Antonio is out here all the time,” he says. “Antonio is everywhere.”
IN A SENSE, VILLARAIGOSA IS A MIRROR image of Yaroslavsky. He begins the race as the candidate of the Latino-labor alliance and whatever there is of a cross-town progressive community, and he is working furiously to win Westside and Valley support. Hence he has authorized state funds to finance the secession-feasibility study, though he is himself opposed to secession. He has involved himself in the Westside's fight against the phone company's 310-overlay plan. He speaks at the slightest opportunity against ethnocentric politics of every stripe; he consistently calls attention to the working poor, but is careful to cultivate business.
The conventional wisdom on Villaraigosa's prospects is, as they say, mixed. On the one hand, a number of critics — most recently, Times columnist Frank del Olmo — despair of his ill-considered remarks, in particular his contention that President Zedillo of Mexico was in large part responsible for convincing Governor Davis to pull the plug on Proposition 187. On the other hand, many longtime observers, some of them supporters of other candidates, commend Villaraigosa as really the only figure on the local political landscape who's going about the task of assembling a latter-day version of the Bradley coalition. Almost despite themselves, they voice admiration: “Antonio has one of the best abilities to reach across lines of race and class,” says one. “What he did with the Valley Vote folks [key secession supporters] was very good. He's made good appointments to the Coastal Commission, and he's worked well with business leaders, too.”
Among his centrist admirers, there seems almost a tone of surprise that anyone with Villaraigosa's background could reach out beyond the left. Certainly, the speaker's pedigree is four-square progressive. Raised not in but adjacent to the projects of East L.A., Villaraigosa went through a succession of movement jobs and positions, including those of an organizer for United Teachers of Los Angeles, president of a local of the American Federation of Government Employees and president of the Southern California ACLU board, before being elected to the Assembly in '94 and then, in a meteoric rise characteristic of life under term limits, to the speakership in '97. He is, as few politicians are, at home on the left — as became clear during a “meet-and-greet” with Venice-area progressives last month.
In an elegant garden in the darkening twilight, Villaraigosa talks with the 50 assembled activists, in the course of which he restates his support for single-payer health insurance, and details his differences with the governor over his own incremental but ambitious plans to expand health coverage. He talks about his $2.2 billion bond measure to buy parkland and coastal preserves (and how the governor, again, wants to scale it back), and says the schools won't come back so long as they are “just for the children of the working poor.”
“Whether it's affordable housing, transportation, the segregation of the city itself, the city is simply not talking to itself,” he tells the crowd. “We're on the threshold of greatness — of making Los Angeles the city of the 21st century, as New York was of the 20th, as London was of the 19th — but only if we can bring ourselves together.” In this crowd, at least, there's little doubt that Villaraigosa is the man for the job.
But assembling a majority coalition may prove a tougher challenge for Villaraigosa than it was for Tom Bradley three decades ago. It's not just that the Latino vote now is smaller than the black vote then: Bradley also had Sam Yorty to run against — a polarizing demagogue who infuriated so many disparate groups across the city that he needs to be given more credit for building the Bradley coalition. Villaraigosa has no such luxury; he is scrambling all the harder to broaden his base.
“There are times when my old friends will say, 'What's he doing?'” Villaraigosa tells me over a late July lunch. “I won't go around saying the answer to crime is all prevention and early intervention. It's more than that: It's also more cops. Some progressives say they're for community-based policing, but oppose all efforts to build a bigger police force. Well, community-based policing requires more cops.”
At one point in our discussion, I mention to the speaker the challenge of building a progressive coalition, and he interrupts me:
“Not just progressive — progressive-populist,” he insists. “It's against the arrogance of government” — and disabused of the kind of faith in governmental technicians that characterized the progressives of old. The speaker illustrates his point with an account of the battle of Van Nuys home owners, on whose behalf he intervened, for noise-abatement regulations at the Van Nuys Airport. But then, I had seen him illustrate the point just the day previous, when I accompanied Villaraigosa to the Dana Strand Housing Project in Wilmington. The federal government had offered funds to make the project nicer, newer — and smaller (the number of units would drop from 384 to 200).
Understandably, the tenants were bitterly divided into those who'd get the new units and those who'd get Section 8 vouchers to try their luck in the L.A. housing market, and Villaraigosa heard an earful (in Spanish) from both sides. Belatedly, the suits from the Housing Authority showed up, translator in tow, to reassure Villaraigosa that all was actually well. When they blandly and repeatedly pooh-poohed his suggestion to bring in an outside mediator to help the tenants reach some accord on whether to accept the feds' offer, however, the speaker blew up — vowing to monitor both the controversy and the Housing Authority's willingness to resolve it.
It's hard to think of any other local political leader who would have felt so at home in the projects (when Villaraigosa was shown the vintage 1942 wooden floors in one unit, his response was to say, “Where I grew up, the floors were concrete. My sister once fell and split her head open on the floor”) — much less become the tenants' tribune. I was reminded of another mayor: New York's Fiorello La Guardia, who raged against the Tammany bureaucrats on behalf of that city's minorities, and changed the municipal balance of power in the process.
BUT WHETHER VILLARAIGOSA IS EVEN IN the race to stay is open to some question. Congressman Xavier Becerra, another liberal Democrat whose district office literally abuts the speaker's in an Echo Park office building, has declared in no uncertain terms that he, too, is thinking about making the race.
Their proximity notwithstanding, Becerra and Villaraigosa represent increasingly distinct political tendencies. While the speaker disparages ethnocentrism and, for instance, has endorsed progressive Council Member Jackie Goldberg for the Assembly seat he's termed out of next year, Becerra is a close ally of state Senator Richard Polanco, for whom the cause of electing Latinos trumps all other concerns. In Congress, Becerra has championed a range of progressive causes, from restoring federal benefits to legal immigants to advocating universal health care; but within L.A. politics, he often as not has lined up against the County Federation of Labor — and Villaraigosa, whom his associates accuse of being insufficiently Latino.
Like Villaraigosa, Stanford Law grad Becerra is attractive and charismatic, with none of the rough edges that characterized such founding fathers of Latino politics as longtime Councilman Richard Alatorre. Nonetheless, the idea of a Becerra mayoral campaign seems premature at best. For one thing, Becerra remains largely unknown not only to the general public but also to L.A.'s various political elites outside the Latino community. (An impromptu poll I conducted at a meeting of the board and staff of the Liberty Hill Foundation, which makes grants to local grassroots organizations, turned up 21 attendees who'd met Villaraigosa, and just nine who'd met Becerra.) For another, Becerra has few formed positions on many city issues. ã
In a discussion in his district office last week, he prescribed “transparency and accountability in government” as the answer to the discontents of secessionists — and to the travails of the MTA as well. When I asked him, “What kinds of things do you want to say to L.A. voters, if you do decide to run, about your [Congressional] record?” — deliberately, the most softball of queries — Becerra responded: “Those are the types of things that I have to sit down and decide: What about my candidacy should attract residents in Los Angeles? What is it about the city that needs to change that I'd be best suited to work on? — all those questions are things that I'm trying to make sure that I have a cogent answer to, so . . . I can express it with clarity to folks . . . It's important to be methodical. I don't want [my family] to hear I said this or I said that, that's contradictory. If I can't explain it well to my wife, I can't explain it well to voters.”
Nonetheless, Becerra is seriously considering a run. He has one clear advantage over Villaraigosa: Congressmen, unlike state legislators, are not term-limited, and Becerra, if and when he loses his mayoral bid, will still be a member of Congress. Villaraigosa, by contrast, is termed out of the Assembly in November of 2000; if he loses the mayoral race in 2001, he'll be out of office altogether. By staying in the race, making it prohibitively difficult for Villaraigosa to advance to round two, Becerra gets himself around town, and positions himself to make a run in 2009, when the city's voter-registration numbers will be more favorable to a Latino candidate.
“Xavier and Antonio are in a mutual suicide pact,” says one veteran player in city politics. “If Joel and Zev slice and dice their vote and come up even, there's a chance Antonio could sneak into the runoff against Hahn — but Xavier's candidacy puts Antonio away. Here are two Latino pols, one of whom analyzed the Anglo world and went out and conquered it, while the other is a classic ethnic pol, like the oldtime Irish pols. That's not meant to be derogatory. But to think you can go from that role to a citywide role is the height of arrogance.”
WITH THE FIELD OF CANDIDATES STILL very much in flux, there are rumors of other aspirants who could further dim Villaraigosa's prospects. County Supervisor Gloria Molina recently told La Opinion that she hasn't ruled out a race, though her press spokesman, Miguel Santana, characterizes the remark as the kind of response she's routinely given since she first became a supe in 1991. “Is she campaigning today to seek that seat? No, she's not,” Santana says. “Other people are pursuing it more aggressively than she.”
In view of all the difficulties he may face, a number of Villaraigosa's allies have counseled him to give up the mayoral contest and run instead for Goldberg's Hollywood-area council seat, from which she, too, will be term-limited out. The argument goes that the city will be ready for a Latino mayor in 2009, that Villaraigosa can be the leading progressive, and a far more visible, force in city politics by serving on the council until that time, and that a council seat, particularly in Goldberg's multiracial district, would be an excellent springboard for the mayor's race. (To which Richard Katz retorts: “Tell that to Mike Woo” — the previous occupant of Goldberg's seat, whom Riordan defeated in the '93 election.)
Whether the speaker of the California Assembly can be persuaded to run for the 13th District seat on the L.A. City Council is anybody's guess. For now, the position that Villaraigosa has in his sights is mayor.
V. THE CHALLENGE OF ONE CITY
THE LAST TIME I SAW TOM BRADLEY, shortly before his death, was at the 1998 awards brunch of the Jewish Labor Committee. His voice silenced by a stroke, the former mayor nonetheless came to the podium to present the committee's “Tom Bradley Award” to Villaraigosa. The moment was rich in historical overtones — the architect of a legendary progressive citywide coalition bestowing a mute blessing on the one guy in town working hardest to build the next one.
Whether that coalition will be big enough, coherent enough, to take power in the 2001 election is certainly in question. What's not in question is that a range of candidates, both within that coalition and without, increasingly endorse much of the coalition's agenda on behalf of the working poor. What's not in question is that, whether or not the Valley secedes, Los Angeles already has become a collection of separate cities, divided by a widening chasm of wealth and income, superimposed over its fault lines of race. What's not in question is that the primary challege to confront our next mayor will be to make L.A. into one city — at a time when neighborhoods are walled off, people still fear to walk the streets at night, middle-class parents have pulled their kids from the public schools, and the city is home every day to a million private secessions.