I. Joel and Che, Together Again
It‘s a crisp spring night at UCLA, and the 36th debate between the six major candidates for mayor of Los Angeles is not proceeding like the previous 35. In fact, it’s not proceeding at all.
Several hundred students, after demonstrating all day outside a meeting of the UC Regents in favor of restoring affirmative action in university admissions policy, have occupied Royce Hall, site of the scheduled debate. UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale has already canceled the debate, but mayoral candidates are filtering in. Former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who‘d counseled student leaders weeks earlier on how best to move the Regents (he did not suggest occupying Royce Hall), has rushed to the campus to keep things from getting out of hand. Congressman Xavier Becerra arrives some 30 minutes later, and joins Villaraigosa to help mediate a kind of public negotiation between students and the administration. After a half-hour’s standoff, and prompting from the former speaker, the students agree to leave Royce by 8 p.m., and Carnesale agrees to hold back the cops.
By 7:50, the students file out, cleaning up Royce as they go — but not before they‘ve heard from the candidates. Becerra isn’t particularly well-known to the crowd — he‘s introduced as “Antonio Becerra” — but readily connects with them, saying, “You didn’t cancel the debate — you started one! You didn‘t deny us the right to become mayor, you defended the right of people like yourselves to become future mayors, doctors and lawyers.” Villaraigosa, it seems, hardly needs an introduction; he is greeted with deafening cheers. He’s an affirmative-action baby, he begins. “Some people have said I got in through the back door,” he tells the students. “But I left through the front — I‘m the first UCLA graduate to become speaker. But because of SP1 and 2 [resolutions the Regents adopted back when Pete Wilson was governor, enacting a prohibition on affirmative action stricter than Proposition 209’s], we had just one African-American student at Boalt Hall [Berkeley‘s law school] last year. I said then, ’This is not Mississippi in 1960; this is not Alabama! This is California, the golden state; people from every corner of the world come here to realize the American Dream.‘ And what you’re asking is that we reaffirm the values that make America great.”
For Villaraigosa, the evening must seem an illustration of Faulkner‘s maxim that the past isn’t dead, or even past. Twenty-eight years previous, he had headed the UCLA chapter of MEChA, the main Latino students‘ organization. He was, in the spirit of the ’60s left, a movement guy above all else; indeed, he left UCLA six weeks before graduation to do full-time organizing in East L.A. (He finished his degree requirements some years later.) Becerra, by all accounts, was more the model student: He tells the protesters about his role in a demonstration against the Supreme Court‘s anti-affirmative-action Bakke decision back in 1976, but throughout his years at Stanford, as both an undergrad and a law student, that kind of politics was more the exception than the rule.
But Becerra was as Lenin himself compared to the third mayoral candidate who suddenly pops up in the lobby of Royce. City Council Member Joel Wachs bustles in, and quickly lives up to his reputation as one of the fastest studies in California politics. Wachs, too, had been a student leader at UCLA — student-body president in 1961 — but that was a decade before Villaraigosa, and several years before there actually was such a thing as a campus left. These kids are not his people. (Wachs’ people are an odd assortment; his endorsers include the Reform Party, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and many figures in the city‘s arts community.) Besides, Wachs often seems to gain his understanding of the city’s most pressing social issues less through raw encounters with the stuff of life than through the medium of the arts: He learned the most about the ‘92 riots, he told the Weekly, from Anna Deveare Smith’s play Twilight, and his decision to support the city‘s living-wage ordinance, he said, was prompted at least partly by a painting hanging in MOCA.
By mutual consent, Wachs and the student leaders agree he should not address the crowd — he hasn’t heard of SP1 and 2 until just now, and such a talk might seem an episode out of When Worlds Collide. But he quickly tells everyone in earshot how disappointed he is that the debate isn‘t being held, with the protesting students included. “I’m a strong believer in affirmative action,” he tells the kids. “We should have discussed it; it‘s relevant to city policy; the diversification of the city work force is a major issue.”
Soon, he’s declaiming to a group of students, one of them wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. “It‘s amazing to me they canceled the debate! It’s so dumb! If you‘re having a debate at the university, you invite the students! Like, HELLO!”
The kid in the Che T-shirt nods his head. We are light-years from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — and in quite a different place from Richard Riordan’s L.A. It is unimaginable that the outgoing mayor of Los Angeles would have interceded in tonight‘s commotion. To the tribunes of the new L.A., a vast polyglot metropolis with a vast number of poverty-wage workers and home to the most dynamic social-change movements in the nation, Richard Riordan is an irrelevancy. And tonight, as Becerra and Villaraigosa extol those movements, as Wachs burbles on to the Guevara-clad kids, Los Angeles seems, if only for a moment, a city of strange and infinite possibilities.
II. On New Terrain
But is it? To be sure, Los Angeles is a city that has undergone a great transformation over the past decade, in its demographics, its economy, its politics. It is the epicenter of the great third wave of immigrants to America — the migrants from Latin America and Asia who are transforming the face of the nation, so much so that earlier this month the Census Bureau told us that America is now home to as many Hispanics as it is to African-Americans. It is also the city in which the middle fell out of the economy. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the local aerospace industry, hundreds of thousands of middle-income whites, failing to find work at comparable pay, up and left, to be replaced by millions of immigrants in low-wage, nonunion, service-sector, construction and manufacturing jobs.
And L.A. is the one American city where these two great transformations have produced a progressive political response: the emergence of a Latino-labor alliance that is changing the city’s politics a much as an immigrant-labor alliance transformed New York‘s 100 years ago. The change is visible in the level of union organizing in L.A., which is now home to far more newly unionized workers than any other American city; in the city’s living-wage ordinances, which go further than those in other cities. The change is visible in L.A.‘s voting patterns — which, in last November’s presidential vote, saw L.A. vote Democratic on the presidential and senatorial lines in the identical percentages as the perennially left Bay Area.
Indeed, look at the past decade‘s election statistics and you can actually see L.A. moving leftward (albeit by the admittedly not-hugely-progressive measure of Democratic presidential voting). In 1988, L.A. County gave 51.9 percent of its vote to Michael Dukakis — 4.3 percent more than his statewide percentage. In 1992, it voted at a 52.5 percent rate for Bill Clinton — 6.5 percent over his California total. In 1996, it was Clinton again, at a 59.3 percent clip — 8.2 percent over his statewide figures. And last November, Al Gore pulled down 64 percent of the L.A. County vote — 10.4 percent higher than his overall statewide share. Plainly, the Los Angeles that over the past half-century inflicted Richard Nixon, Howard Jarvis and Ronald Reagan on an unsuspecting nation is no more.
But has that change trickled down to the level of city politics, too? By some measures, it clearly has. The kind of white-backlash campaign that the demagogic Sam Yorty waged against Tom Bradley in the mayoral elections of 1969 and 1973 could not fly here today; the stratum of the electorate that might respond to such a campaign has diminished dramatically. In 1993, Richard Riordan ran a campaign that oh-so-genteelly tugged on some backlash heartstrings, but that was one year after a convulsive riot and in the midst of a massive economic downturn. Riordan ran, and won, on the promise of 3,000 more cops. Today, that kind of law-’n‘-order anxiety has subsided, though not vanished; candidates today are pledging to create a fleet of 3,000 city buses.
And yet — turnout in city elections is, historically and invariably, far lower than that in presidential or gubernatorial contests. It’s working-class voting that particularly subsides, while middle-class turnout also declines, but in no way so precipitously. Which is to say, it‘s still possible that Steve Soboroff — the Riordan-backed Republican businessman, the sole opponent in the mayoral field of the LAPD’s consent decree with the feds, this year‘s law-’n‘-order lulu — could win this race.
But first, Soboroff, like his five fellow candidates, has to navigate through the subcontests, the races-within-races, that will determine who makes it past the April 10 primary into the June 5 runoff. By the terms of California’s nonpartisan municipal election code, unless one candidate manages to get 50-percent-plus-1 of the primary vote, the top two finishers in the primary, regardless of party, will advance to the runoff. With the estimated primary turnout set at roughly 600,000, the election bean counters predict that it will take about 125,000 votes to make it into the runoff.
Each candidate, of course, has his or her own way of counting to 125,000. City Attorney James Hahn has the advantage of having one distinct electoral base largely to himself — L.A.‘s African-American community. Hahn, of course, is not himself African-American, but he is the Only Son of the Favorite Son of L.A.’s African-American oldsters (who make up a disproportionate share of the city‘s black electorate): legendary county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who represented South-Central on the Board of Supes for a full 40 years. The younger Hahn has been elected to citywide office five times himself (once as controller, four times as city attorney), so he starts with a formidable base — even if the black share of the L.A. electorate, like the black share of the L.A. population, is shrinking.
Soboroff and Wachs must fight each other for the city’s more conservative voters. The L.A. Times mayoral poll released earlier this month actually measured something other than the preferences of likely voters, but it nonetheless made unmistakably clear that neither Soboroff nor Wachs has any appeal to nonwhite voters. Soboroff the Republican and Wachs the former-Republican-turned-independent are duking it out chiefly for Valley moderates and conservatives — Wachs with greater name identification (he‘s represented the Valley on the City Council for 30 years), Soboroff with a heftier campaign treasury.
State Controller Kathleen Connell is the odd woman out in this field — a candidate without a readily identifiable base. As Connell notes, she’d be the first woman mayor of a major city since Jane Byrne was elected mayor of Chicago in the late ‘70s. Problem is, there’s scant evidence that Byrne, or other female mayoral aspirants, successful and not, benefited from a gender bump: If there‘s a distinct vote helping female candidates in municipal politics, it remains undetected. Still largely obscure to city voters, Connell is leapfrogging many of the demands of retail politics (endorsements, public appearances), and running almost entirely on a well-crafted media campaign stressing her bona fides as a fiscal watchdog. (A campaign consultant for another candidate calls her “a Democratic woman running as a Republican man.”) Which leaves her battling Wachs for the nervous-taxpayer vote, and hoping to augment her support there with whatever gender bounce she can get going.
Becerra and Villaraigosa, of course, are the two chief contestants for the city’s burgeoning Latino vote. Public and private polls differ on their relative levels of support therein, but they concur on one key particular: Becerra has virtually no support outside that community, while Villaraigosa is the only candidate besides Hahn with a base a in Latino, white and black Los Angeles. Becerra also remains the least well-known of the candidates, and lags far behind the others in funds raised. Thus, while L.A.‘s punditocracy is hesitating to make any hard predictions about this year’s mayoral contest (not after Richard Riordan, dropping $6 million of his own fortune, came from nowhere to win the 1993 race), it has achieved consensus on two points only: First, that Becerra has no chance of getting through the primary into the runoff. Second, that the chief effect of his campaign is to make it difficult for Villaraigosa to do the same.
Difficult, but not impossible. For Villaraigosa has racked up an astonishing assortment of endorsements from virtually every labor, environmental and progressive activist group in town, as well as the official support of the Democratic Party. (This Tuesday, he also won the backing of Governor Gray Davis.) Together, these groups will probably spend around $2 million on campaigns on Villaraigosa‘s behalf between now and April 10; they will mobilize thousands of activists to walk precincts and make phone calls. Much of this energy will be targeted at the city’s 305,000 Latino registered voters — a number that the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project is trying to boost to 315,000 by Election Day. According to Southwest Voter‘s president, Antonio Gonzalez, Latino turnout on Election Day will likely constitute 22 percent to 23 percent of the electorate — that is, 2 percent or 3 percent lower than the black share of the turnout in 1973, the year that Tom Bradley was first elected mayor.
Bradley’s name is much invoked on the campaign trail this year, particularly when the candidates address liberal or nonwhite audiences, but by any measure, it comes up more than Richard Riordan‘s. Connell cites Bradley as her mentor (she served as his first housing czar); Wachs talks about his work with Bradley in enacting the city’s 1978 rent-control ordinance; Hahn, campaigning throughout the African-American community, brings up Bradley frequently, if not so often as he does his own father.
But it‘s Villaraigosa who is actually trying, and very consciously, to do in this campaign what Bradley did in 1973. Bradley’s strategy was to put together a citywide coalition, rooted in the black community, but extending outward to include the largely Jewish Westside and liberals everywhere. In a sense, his campaign was the culmination of a decade of black and Jewish involvement in the cause of civil rights. Villaraigosa‘s coalition, correspondingly, begins with the Latino vote, and radiates outward to include the liberals, the unionists, the enviros — all the faces of progressive L.A. As Bradley relied on a vibrant Democratic-club movement to provide him with foot soldiers, so Villaraigosa relies on the institutions of the Latino-labor alliance to put him over the top.
The Bradley-Villaraigosa parallel runs deeper than mere strategy, however. In winning election, Bradley established the model for the black-led urban coalitions that dominated American cities for the next two decades, which deepened the Democratic Party’s commitment to civil rights and social-welfare programs. If he wins, Villaraigosa would establish the model for the next generation of urban coalitions, Latino- and immigrant-led, and championing the cause of economic equity, of justice — decent pay, affordable housing, better schools — for the working poor. Come what may, that coalition will begin to take hold in America‘s megacities over the next 10 or 15 years; a Villaraigosa victory would hasten that day.
Voters, of course, don’t base their votes on historical epochs, but on the candidates‘ records, positions, affiliations, race and, well, vibrations. (We can say that in L.A.) Herewith, a quick look at them all.
III. Kenny’s Boy
On a Sunday morning in mid-March, James Kenneth Hahn, for 16 years the Los Angeles city attorney, and for the four years before that the city controller, is making the obligatory rounds at black churches. And making them fast; he actually leaves the Union Baptist Church, a venerable congregation in the center of Watts, a full half-hour before his press schedule says he is to arrive.
Talk to the parishioners and the pastor, however, and it‘s not clear which Hahn actually came calling. “Jim Hahn?” says one woman, decked out in her Sunday finery. “Oh, you mean Kenny Hahn’s son!”
And so it goes, one after another congregant discussing only Hahn‘s son-ness, until I reach the Rev. Milton Marshall Sr., pastor at Union Baptist for the past 53 years. “So, Hahn was here,” I begin.
“Oh, Lord,” says Marshall, “he came here for every election!”
“His father! I knew him all those years! [The late Kenny Hahn was first elected supervisor in 1952.] He was one of the best we ever had. Ain’t nobody can replace him, though that woman [Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, his successor as supervisor] is doing a fine job. He was unbeatable! He‘s still living, you know, still living in this world!”
I’m not sure if this is a reference to the elder Hahn‘s good works generally, or to such tangible legacies as the 911 call boxes he got installed on freeways. But the question is: How is his son, also still living in this world, faring?
“I knew his son when he was a little boy,” Marshall answers. “He followed his dad around at election time. I introduced him today as Kenneth Hahn’s son, and everyone clapped.”
A lesser campaign might view Jim Hahn‘s unbearable lightness of being as a weakness, but the consummate pros running him for mayor have converted it into a strength: In black L.A., Hahn’s calling card is his father‘s good name.
Hahn is a tribune for the African-American community in one other, unfortunate particular: Alone among the mayoral candidates, he remains largely supportive of a Police Chief Bernard Parks. The chief, he told the Weekly, is “a man of integrity, fearless in rooting out police corruption, who fired more officers than the last two chiefs combined.” Parks will have to enact genuine reform, Hahn adds, but he’s more hopeful than most that Parks will be up to this task. (One of the oddities of this election is that the black community‘s historical emphasis on police reform — a major factor enabling such mayoral candidates as Bradley and Mike Woo to amass huge black majorities — is nowhere in evidence now that the chief is black and the victims of the latest spate of police violence are largely Latino.)
To his credit, Hahn fought off the mayor’s opposition and devised the consent decree enabling a federal court to oversee the reform of the LAPD. He played a significant role in the omnibus lawsuits that states and cities brought against tobacco companies and gun manufacturers; he helped craft the settlement with Smith & Wesson. Critics note, however, that his office systematically refused to alert the LAPD about those officers who‘d been sued for misconduct. The Feminist Majority’s Katherine Spillar notes with “anger” that the City Attorney‘s Office “put the brakes on the council’s support for creating greater gender balance on the LAPD.” And “anger” certainly describes the feelings of a number of L.A. Unified School District and City Hall officials trying to accelerate the construction of new schools. Describing one deal to convert a government office building into a school site, one school-district official says, “The City Attorney‘s Office was a disaster. They are so slow to respond, they don’t want to take any chances. Around here, that office is known as the black hole of city governance.”
By most measures, Hahn‘s office hasn’t been a particularly innovative civic law firm. Environmentalists express frustration that Hahn hasn‘t had much of an environmental-enforcement operation; just this week, the Sierra Club complained that he’s done nothing to stop what they contend is the illegal bulldozing of Playa Vista. Anti-sweatshop activists decry his inattention to workplace violations.
While not particularly adventuresome, Hahn is well within the city‘s Democratic mainstream. He supported the living-wage ordinance and marched with the janitors during their strike. When it comes to affordable housing, he supports the creation of a city trust fund for such housing, but, like all the candidates except Villaraigosa, refuses to commit to imposing a one-time fee on major developers as a way to put some money in that fund. (This policy of “linkage” has led to the creation of a significant number of housing units in Boston and other major cities.)
Neither Hahn nor his critics contend that a Hahn mayoralty will be exciting. For all that, he is breaking new ground in campaigning — in the uncorporeality of his candidacy. People look at Jim Hahn, and see — his father.
IV. Help From Beyond
Kathleen Connell is uncorporeal in a much more common way than Jim Hahn. That is, to voters, she exists almost entirely through her television advertising.
Her ads, crafted by Mandy Grunwald, are the best of the lackluster mayoral spots now flooding the airwaves. The “hard” and “soft” sides of Kathleen Connell — fiscal watchdog, single mom — come across in attractive balance. Whether that synthesis is enough to overcome her obscurity, and to make Angelenos want to vote for her, is not at all clear, however.
Connell has had a substantial career in the public sector, though often far removed from the public’s view. While still in her 20s, she impressed Tom Bradley so much that he asked her to start up the city‘s first housing program in a quarter-century. “She created it from whole cloth,” says Gary Squier, who was Bradley’s housing coordinator in the final two terms of his five-term mayoralty. Accessing federal funds, she helped create 10,000 units of affordable housing. After a stint in the private sector (including several years as an investment banker for Chemical Bank of New York), Connell came out of nowhere to win election as state Controller in 1994. There, she has audited a range of state programs — most notably, Medi-Cal and the lottery, uncovering over a billion dollars in fraud and abuse. She also helped restore some of the state‘s public-employee pension funds to solvency — though it’s notable that none of L.A.‘s public-employee unions endorsed her bid.
The auditor’s lot is often a thankless one, and Connell has made strikingly few friends in her years as controller. (Her audit of the state Controller‘s Office, performed just after she was first elected, certainly didn’t endear her to that office‘s previous occupant, one Gray Davis.) For whatever reason, her candidacy has the shortest endorsement list of them all. A more immediate conundrum is how far she can get positioning herself as the business Democrat in the field. Her agenda as mayor, she’s made clear, would be to audit a government she bemoans as riddled with waste and mismanagement, to the tune of $1 billion in liabilities. It is not the most inspiring of agendas; at times, she sounds as if she‘s running for city controller rather than mayor.
Affordable-housing advocates credit her with targeting more funds to low-income housing in her role as a member of the state’s Tax Credit Allocation Committee (a name that should give you some idea of the obscurity in which Connell often labors). But Connell is very wary of imposing any fees on local developers to create affordable housing, and expresses real reluctance to expand the city‘s living-wage policy beyond the city contractors it currently covers to recipients of community-redevelopment aid. “The impacts could be quite negative for business owners in the city. We don’t want to discourage small mom-and-pops from investing capital in the city.” In fact, there‘s not a living-wage advocate in the land who’s proposed extending the policy to small mom-and-pops; even in Santa Monica, its most ambitious proponents speak only of a extending it to the large beachfront hotels.
When Connell talks about improving jobs, her emphasis is on education, and bringing in more jobs in fields like biomedical research and digital editing. Unarguable goals, but how this can improve the lives of the million or so working poor in today‘s L.A. is unclear at best.
Connell is cognizant that she must grapple with Wachs for the green-eyeshade vote. “I admire Joel’s effectiveness in reducing the subsidy to Staples Center,” she says, “but while he was crusading about a single project, somebody forgot to look at the city budget. As a result, we have a billion-dollar liability that is far more expensive than any subsidy we could have given to the developers at Staples.”
Connell may be short on endorsements, but her campaign more than makes up for that by claiming one from the Great Beyond. As she concluded her interview with the Weekly‘s editors and reporters, her campaign consultant, John Shallman, thought to add this notable suggestion: “Tom [Bradley, who died in 1998] chaired Kathleen’s  campaign for controller, and what would be surprising to a lot of people is that if the former mayor were alive today, he‘d be endorsing her candidacy.” Connell herself then added, “On election night, I can see Tom Bradley smiling down from heaven and saying, ’Good job!‘”
If you’re keeping score: Hahn runs as a dead man; Connell, with a dead man‘s support.
V. D.C. Bound
Congressman Xavier Becerra, by contrast, is a living, breathing candidate with living, breathing supporters. It’s his campaign that‘s on life support.
In a sense, Becerra is paying for his virtues — and for the brevity of his career in Los Angeles. Born and raised in Sacramento, educated at Stanford, Becerra did not move to L.A. until 1989, when, as a staffer for state Senator Art Torres, he split his time between Torres’ Capitol and district offices. In 1990, at Torres‘ suggestion, he ran for and won a state Assembly seat. In 1992, at the urging of other Latino power brokers, including Supervisor Gloria Molina, he ran for and won a congressional seat just north and east of downtown. In the years since, Becerra has been a conscientious liberal member of Congress — immersed in the House Ways and Means Committee and in addressing constituent concerns, and otherwise invisible not only to Angelenos generally but to the city’s political elites as well. In 1999, I began routinely asking political types around L.A. how many of the possible mayoral aspirants they had personally met. Very few of them — even very few liberal activists who shared his politics — had met Becerra.
All of which made his decision to run for mayor very, well, curious. It wasn‘t as if he had, or has, that compelling a rationale. From his vantage point in Washington, he says, it’s clear that L.A. isn‘t getting its fair share of dollars: “Sacramento County gets $6 for every one L.A. gets.” From his vantage point on the Eastside, it’s clear that “My community, like many other communities in L.A., isn‘t really partaking of what could be provided by my city.” In his earlier contested races, to be sure, Becerra clearly outshone his rivals: He was brighter, more articulate, a comer who one day could lay claim to a much wider audience. Why he thought that day had already come, however, is anybody’s guess.
Increasingly, Becerra‘s candidacy has looked like a grudge match against Villaraigosa, and privately a number of Latino leaders have none too subtly suggested he leave the race. There’s much speculation (none of it confirmed by the campaigns) that should Villaraigosa and Hahn make it into the runoff, Becerra would support Hahn — an endorsement whose reverberations would shake Latino politics in L.A. for years to come.
If Villaraigosa were not already in the field, Becerra would have clear claim now to the mantle of L.A.‘s next liberal leader. In Congress, he has been a voice, and more recently a force, for the rights of immigrants. He’s authored tax credits for corporations that donate old computers to schools and libraries; he‘s endeavoring to create a tax credit for studios that don’t engage in runaway production. His liberal credentials aren‘t letter-perfect: In his first term, he supported NAFTA; since then, he’s placed greater emphasis on including worker rights and environmental standards in trade treaties themselves, rather than in unenforceable side agreements.
But the differences between Becerra and Villaraigosa are considerable and instructive. To some degree, they are the differences between the way a wonk (Becerra) sees the world and the way an organizer (Villaraigosa) views it. Becerra, for instance, is running as a mayor for the neighborhoods — and when it comes to getting neighborhood councils in communities that haven‘t paid much heed to such things (chiefly, poorer and nonwhite communities), he sees a clear role that a Mayor Becerra could play. “You go into the neighborhoods,” he told the Weekly. “You hold town meetings, you make yourself available. You bring in the head of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and some people who have done neighborhood councils in other parts of town.”
For his part, Villaraigosa doesn’t think sending in the mayor — even if he‘s the mayor — would do the trick. “My concern is that some communities will lack the ability to organize. They need community organizers nurturing the development of neighborhood councils,” says this onetime community organizer.
At times, Becerra’s commitment to neighborhoods runs up against his wonk‘s faith in his fellow wonks. Assessing the many failings of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, he argues that “It’s probably better to remove the politics from the policymaking. We‘ve got a lot of expensive and talented engineers and planners a within the MTA, and we hire out for a lot of even more expensive and very good planners and engineers.” What happens, though, if the neighborhoods don’t like their expensive and very good recommendations? “That‘s where I would make the decisions. If I believe the experts are right, I go to the neighborhoods and tell them so.” And if the neighborhoods are right? “I go to the experts and say, ’Can‘t you tweak it?’”
One recent Friday evening, Becerra is meeting with roughly two dozen people at Lucy Florence‘s cafe in Leimert Park — the heart of the city’s African-American arts community. The meeting is one of 61 town meetings Becerra is conducting in the campaign‘s closing weeks (if the turnout is at all representative of the other meetings, he needs more like 610 meetings if he’s going to have a chance). It‘s a friendly crowd, with Becerra making all the right noises on questions of racial comity. Then one middle-aged man asks a question about housing. Becerra calls for the creation of tax credits for development — pretty much all the candidates do — and adds, “If we only ask the developers to provide a fee or set aside for affordable housing, they’re going to skip town.” Then, irrepressibly, the wonk surfaces. Becerra describes how, if downtown becomes a happening, “24-7” place, the next place for affordable housing will be south of downtown, in what is now a warehouse district.
The questioner has been fishing for an answer that‘s less visionary, more immediate. “But you’re talking about 10 to 12 years from now,” he gasps.
“If we don‘t start now,” says Becerra, “we’ll be talking about 15 to 20 years.”
In many of his answers, in town meetings, candidate forums and interviews, Becerra sounds more like the serious congressman he is than the serious mayoral candidate he isn‘t. From environmental policy to housing programs, he refers constantly to what the federal government can do — noting repeatedly that the city is in no position to go out on its own. His primary solution to housing, for instance, is to persuade W., Trent Lott, Bill Thomas and the GOP capital gang to include a targeted tax credit for developers in their god-awful tax bill. I point out that W. has always said he’s against this kind of targeting. “I‘m telling you,” says Becerra, “that unless you want me to raise your fees and taxes to pay for all the affordable housing you need, I need to find creative ways. Can I convince a Republican president and Congress? Obviously, the task is harder now than it was a year ago.”
Becerra’s heart may or may not be in this race, but his head clearly remains in Washington.
VI. “One of You”
“I‘m here today as one of you,” Antonio Villaraigosa begins his opening statement at the mayoral forum sponsored by the Progressive L.A. Network. “I came out of the civil rights movement. I went to work on the Farm Worker boycott when I was 15. I led the walkouts at the Eastside schools; I’ve worked with Jobs With Peace . . .”
No one questions Villaraigosa‘s progressive pedigree, but it fails to explain why every progressive organization in Los Angeles has thrown itself, to the maximum degree its tax status permits, into his campaign. The key to Villaraigosa’s success is simple: He had a spectacular speakership.
In his two years as speaker of the California Assembly, 1998 through 2000 (which is all that term limits allowed), Villaraigosa accomplished more for Los Angeles than Jim Hahn has in 20 years as a citywide official, or Kathleen Connell in six years as a statewide official, or Becerra in eight years in Congress, or Wachs in 30 years on the City Council. In those two years, Villaraigosa brokered a $9 billion school-construction bond, securing more funding for urban schools than then-Governor Pete Wilson really wanted. (Some Villaraigosa critics complain that the formulas in the initiative still favor suburban cities, but they neglect to factor in Wilson‘s tilt to the burbs.) Again fighting with Wilson, Villaraigosa enacted the Healthy Families program, which extended health care to children in families making up to 250 percent of the poverty line — a major achievement in a state, and a city, that are the American capital of the medically uninsured. He pushed through legislation, after the repeal of welfare, ensuring that legal immigrants would be eligible for state unemployment insurance, food stamps and SSI. And last year, he brought together rural conservationists and urban activists to produce Proposition 12 — a $2.1 billion parks-bond measure, half that amount dedicated to creating urban parks, nearly $100 million of which will go to restore the L.A. River.
“Prop. 12 was huge,” says Martin Schlageter, conservation coordinator for the L.A. and Orange County Sierra Club. “It was a big boost for our efforts in Baldwin Hills, on the L.A. River, in making L.A. more livable.” It was one reason why the club’s board voted by a 17-1 margin to support Villaraigosa for mayor.
Despite the large and growing Democratic majorities in the Legislature, Villaraigosa didn‘t ram his agenda down the GOP’s throat. “I‘d say to him, ’We‘ve got the votes; what are you waiting for?’” says Gil Cedillo, Villaraigosa‘s Assembly colleague and boyhood friend. “And he’d say, ‘No, we can get broader support for this.’ He always wanted broader support.”
Indeed, as speaker, Villaraigosa ended an era of bad feelings in the Capitol that had begun four years earlier when Willie Brown clung to power by inducing a Republican member effectively to switch parties. “I worked on bringing civility and bipartisanship, where I could, to the Assembly,” Villaraigosa says. “I gave the Republicans adequate staffs on the committees, the ability to name their own committee members and vice chairs.” At the same time that every left organization in the state was singing his praises, testimonials also poured in from Jim Brulte and other Republican legislative leaders.
When Villaraigosa‘s legislative successes are juxtaposed with his very rocky early life, they call to mind the career of another immigrant’s son: Al Smith, the kid with no more than a grade school education who rose to become governor of New York, the author of the first laws banning child labor and sweatshops, a progenitor, really, of the New Deal. Villaraigosa eventually made it through law school, but it wasn‘t easy going. A self-described “angry and defiant” kid, and a radical one at that, he was expelled from Cathedral High School in 11th grade, and dropped out of Roosevelt High before graduation. (He only went back to get his degree at Cedillo’s insistence.)
By his late teens, he had anchored himself to the movement — and to the legendary Bert Corona, a radical organizer and proponent of immigrant rights who nonetheless functioned in mainstream politics. (Corona played a key role in Robert Kennedy‘s 1968 presidential campaign.) With Cedillo and Maria Elena Durazo (much later to become president of the L.A. local of the hotel and restaurant workers), Villaraigosa became a full-time organizer at Corona’s Centro de Action Social Autonoma, CASA for short. But his faith in the far-left radical project began to wane when he made his de rigueur pilgrimage to Cuba. “I was completely turned off by the lack of freedom and the cult of personality,” he says today. “You can only find truth in the battle of ideas; and if you can‘t engage in that, you can’t make change.”
Villaraigosa then turned his organizing skills to the union movement. As shop steward for a local representing federal civil rights lawyers, he found an L.A. office where just a quarter of the attorneys were organized, and enrolled nearly 90 percent of them in the union. He soon went on the staff of UTLA, Los Angeles‘ teachers union, and when the union struck the school district in 1989, Villaraigosa was given the difficult task of building strike support in South-Central — which, through an ambitious program of house meetings, he did. Soon thereafter, Gloria Molina appointed him to the MTA board, where he was the only member to support the demands of the fledgling Bus Riders Union, and where he won support to reduce fares to 50 cents. In 1994, he was elected to the Assembly. A scant four years later, through the miracle of term limits and his own considerable political abilities, he was elected speaker.
Anthony Thigpenn, who, as the leader of the L.A. Metro Alliance, is probably the most successful community organizer in South-Central, first met Villaraigosa in the mid-’80s, when Villaraigosa co-chaired, with Mark Ridley-Thomas, the Black-Latino Roundtable. The goal of the organization, says Thigpenn, was “to create a common agenda, to assert we have more in common than we have in opposition.” Thigpenn sees Villaraigosa‘s mayoral campaign “as a historic moment in Los Angeles, in terms of getting the most progressive mayor the city has ever seen, who has a vision, a commitment, a strategy to bring all parts of the city together. We want to be a part of that historic moment.”
Villaraigosa understands his role in that historic moment; he milks it for all it’s worth. A couple of weeks ago, he attended a candidates‘ forum sponsored by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the venerable working-class community organizing group, based largely in Catholic churches, which has only now geared up its efforts in L.A. after years of inactivity. After Soboroff and Becerra make their closing statements, Villaraigosa takes the mike, walks out from behind the panelists’ table to center stage, looks up to the packed balcony, and tells the crowd in an impassioned Spanish how he was there with them in the janitors‘ strike, the hotel workers’ strike, the fight against 187, the fight for health care, for parks, for schools; he is guttural, bellowing, on overdrive: Garland at Carnegie Hall; Jolson at the Palace. He needs their vote; he needs their help. And he‘ll get it.
VII. Alternative Futures
Soboroff’s attendance at the forum hosted by the IAF — a group that in Los Angeles is dedicated to increasing the clout of the city‘s largely Latino working class — is one of a succession of appearances that he and Wachs have made at progressive conclaves where they stand no chance of winning support. There’s an element of calculation in this (Maybe I‘ll end up in a runoff against someone they like even less than me), but sometimes, as in Wachs’ appearance at the UCLA demonstration, also an element of Why the Hell Not?
That certainly seems to describe Soboroff‘s performance at the IAF, where he begins, with a kind of disarming desperation, with a cry of “Hola! Shalom!” In forums such as these, Soboroff will answer questions on the living wage by talking about his programs to turn kids away from gangs (a non sequitur he has down pat by now). If he’s lucky, no one will ask him about the consent decree (which he opposes), since all these lefties view it as a done deal.
On the stump, Soboroff comes across as a somewhat less awkward, more articulate version of Richard Riordan — a minor achievement if ever there was one. At his worst, he calls to mind the second-term Dick Riordan, the Riordan who could no longer deal with the City Council or strike deals with other power centers in the city, after he‘d cut his ties with his longtime consigliere Bill Wardlaw.
The cause of the Riordan-Wardlaw rupture was Soboroff himself. Wardlaw didn’t share his longtime friend‘s appreciation of Soboroff’s skills (which my colleague Marc Haefele details in the accompanying piece). He thought L.A. was more ready for a centrist Democrat like himself — someone like Zev Yaroslavsky, whom he tried and failed to recruit into the race. At that point, Wardlaw discovered virtues in Jim Hahn that had previously gone undetected, and he became the power and brain behind the Hahn campaign. The Riordan-Wardlaw relationship was, for all their differences, a friendship of peers. The same cannot be said of the Hahn-Wardlaw relationship.
For those trying to glimpse the shape of the next mayoralty, then: Soboroff gets us Riordan without Wardlaw. Hahn gets us Wardlaw without Riordan.
Joel Wachs gets us a highly intelligent running commentator, socially liberal, fiscally conservative, not much in the follow-through department: a more benign Ed Koch. Kathleen Connell has the same basic ideological pedigree as Wachs, but she‘s never been called upon to act in the public spotlight in the arena of day-to-day, let’s-make-a-deal retail politics. On such matters, she is virtually a tabula rasa, and her mayoralty is accordingly the most difficult to foresee.
Xavier Becerra gets us a studious liberal of innocent mien and byzantine political calculations — but he will be manifesting these qualities on the floor of Congress rather than in city hall. Antonio Villaraigosa turns Los Angeles into the next proving ground for American progressivism, the place where the great wave of new immigrants stakes its claim on the nation‘s conscience, bounty and future.
It’s an uphill climb for Villaraigosa to get there, and his first TV commercial — a dull and pointless ode to education — hasn‘t helped him a bit. The second ad is an improvement on the first, however, and, most important, Villaraigosa’s not making his climb alone. The powerhouse of local politics, the County Federation of Labor, is calling its members from 200 phones every night until the election. Thousands of union activists are walking the east San Fernando Valley to pull out the union vote; thousands more are going to the Democratic Party‘s effort to pull the Latino vote on the Eastside. Then there are groups like the IAF that aren’t working for a particular candidate, but whose efforts are focused entirely on increasing turnout in the Latino working class. The IAF calculates that 60 of its member churches and school-parents groups will hold house meetings for prospective voters — 20 to 30 such meetings per institution. Not to mention the South L.A. operation, steered by Thigpenn, which will target 40,000 voters; or the Sierra Club‘s outreach to its own members, or NOW’s . . . By every indication, Villaraigosa will be the beneficiary of the single largest field operation any local campaign has seen in decades.
Which is as it should be. The kind of transformation that a Villaraigosa victory would signal cannot be won top-down. Like the janitors‘ strike, like the unionization of 74,000 home-care workers, and the Sports Arena rally of 20,000 immigrants demanding amnesty, the Villaraigosa campaign mobilizes forces that we didn’t even know were there. Whether or not Villaraigosa prevails, his campaign is remaking a city that we even now must strain to recognize.