The lyric is 70 years old, but Ira Gershwin‘s mighty couplet on John P. Wintergreen, the candidatehero of the Gershwins’ 1931 musical Of Thee I Sing, can be applied, with one simple word alteration, to L.A.‘s own Antonio Villaraigosa:
He’s the man the people choose
Loves Latinos and the Jews.
(Ira had it, “The Irish and the Jews” — and what with the former speaker‘s current courtship of Richard Riordan, Villaraigosa’s love of the Irish probably knows no bounds, either.)
Among the many factors behind Villaraigosa‘s first-place finish in this month’s mayoral primary was his solid backing in the Jewish community — coming in tied with Steve Soboroff for a plurality of Jewish voters, while his runoff rival, City Attorney James Hahn, lagged 10 points behind. As historian Ken Burt has reminded me, it was a coalition of Latinos and Jews, way back in 1949, that elected Ed Roybal to the City Council — the first Latino member of the L.A. council since the 19th century. (At the time, there was still a significant Jewish presence in Boyle Heights.) Now history could repeat itself at the level of mayoral politics.
Since the coming runoff pits a mainstream Democrat (Hahn) against a progressive one (Villaraigosa), the normal runoff-election dynamics have been considerably scrambled. The swing voters in this election — the Jews and non-Jewish whites who voted for Soboroff and City Councilman Joel Wachs — hail largely from the more conservative sectors of L.A. politics. This leaves Hahn and Villaraigosa competing not for the voters who fall between them on the ideological spectrum, as is normally the case in American elections, but for voters who stand to the right of them both.
The conventional wisdom for some time has been that Hahn is better positioned than Villaraigosa to pick up the Valley-cons and other right-thinking voters, and with them, City Hall. While few voters can actually tell you anything that Hahn has done in his 20 years as the city‘s controller and attorney, he has a low-key, reassuring, unthreatening (at times, somnambulistic) presence. Conservatives may not cotton to Hahn’s coalition — black L.A., public-employee unions and the downtown lobbyists — but it‘s a known quantity and, in some ways, a declining one. Villaraigosa, on the other hand, is the new guy with the liberal pedigree, and represents an uppity new coalition that is plainly transforming the city. (As is evidenced by the glaring age gap in primary voting: The only age group in which Hahn led Villaraigosa on primary day was voters over 65; he had 35 percent support there to Villaraigosa’s 20 percent, according to the L.A. Times exit poll. Conversely, among voters under 30 — just 8 percent of the electorate, alas — Villaraigosa polled an overwhelming 46 percent to Hahn‘s 19 percent.)
Most crucially, perhaps, for voters prey to ethnocentric phobias, Villaraigosa is the Latino chief of the Latino tribe. No way, the conventional wisdom has insisted, is he a smart bet to take this thing.
Now the first post-primary poll is out, and it consigns the conventional wisdom to the nearest dustbin. KABC-TV’s poll shows the race to be a dead heat, with Hahn and Villaraigosa each claiming 47 percent support. With both candidates so painfully close to 50, it‘s fairly clear what they’ll be doing to win that final, elusive 3 percent. Hahn has already begun to accuse Villaraigosa of being “soft on crime” for opposing a few of the more sweeping war-on-gangs bills that moved through the Legislature during his tenure. Villaraigosa can counter that Hahn‘s own role in the war on gangs — in particular, looking the other way during the Rampart scandal — has cost the city millions of dollars that could otherwise be spent on public safety. The soft-on-crime attack is a hardy perennial of L.A. politics, of course; Richard Riordan employed it against Mike Woo, Sam Yorty against Tom Bradley, and Norris Poulson against Sam Yorty.
Villaraigosa’s legislative record is actually his chief selling point; as speaker, he did a terrific job in winning L.A. more parks, schools and health coverage. He surely needs some cover on the law-‘n’-order front, however: While Tom Bradley could point to his years on the LAPD, Villaraigosa‘s own tenure heading the local ACLU board may prove a tougher sell. But cover is likely to come, since Villaraigosa may well win the endorsements of L.A.’s conservative leadership just as he‘s won the support of its liberal icons.
There are really four endorsements that matter between now and the June 5 runoff. One is that of a mainstream Democrat, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. The second is of neither-Dem-nor-Rep City Councilman Joel Wachs, the veteran Valley legislator who ran fourth in the primary. The third is Soboroff’s, who ran third. The fourth — and much the most important — is Richard Riordan‘s.
If I had to front some money right now on where these folks would go, I’d bet they all four end up supporting Villaraigosa. Yaroslavsky is a master of the hesitation waltz, as his lengthy deliberations about his own mayoral candidacy showed (he opted, finally, not to run), and he seems to be engaged in a similarly lengthy pondering of his endorsement decision. But given his past work with Villaraigosa on the parks bond and other measures, and his understanding of the changing dynamics of the city (as attested to by his support of last year‘s janitors’ strike), it‘s hard to imagine he wouldn’t end up backing the ex-speaker. Wachs is a longtime nemesis of the permanent government — the lobbyists and developers who are Hahn‘s foremost supporters — which suggests a tilt toward Villaraigosa as well. Soboroff, to all appearances, grew genuinely to like Villaraigosa and genuinely to dislike Hahn during the course of the primary campaign; Villaraigosa’s record as a legislator who delivered for Los Angeles plainly appealed to Soboroff‘s can-do spirit.
There are genuine differences of economic vision, of course, between Villaraigosa and Soboroff — and more so between Villaraigosa and Riordan. The former speaker is a champion of extending the living-wage ordinance that Riordan tried to block, and there’s no doubt that our outgoing mayor would like some assurances from this onetime union organizer that he will not terminally chill the “business-friendly” climate in which Riordan takes such pride. Villaraigosa could argue that without the kind of commitment that he has (and Riordan lacks) to creating affordable housing, L.A. businesses may have to relocate to more friendly housing markets. I suspect that scoring points in this manner, however, is not the way to Riordan‘s heart. What Villaraigosa can point to is his acknowledged ability to work with Republicans as well as Democrats, business as well as labor, when he was speaker. More decisively, perhaps, Riordan has long given every appearance of hating Jim Hahn. For Riordan, Hahn personified the set-in-its-ways, ossified culture of City Hall, and never more so than when Hahn caught Riordan’s deputy mayor, Michael Keeley, going outside channels to try to settle a lawsuit against the city. Keeley was one of Riordan‘s wonder boys, and one particularly beloved by the mayor, and Hahn’s revelations essentially forced Riordan to fire Keeley for what, in Riordan‘s eyes, was simply a smart move to save the city some money. I spoke with Riordan at the time, and he was in agony: Firing Keeley was like amputating a limb. Shortly thereafter, the mayor recruited a friend to run (ultimately unsuccessfully) against Hahn for city attorney.
Riordan’s options in the runoff, then, come down to endorsing Villaraigosa or staying out altogether. The mayor has already endorsed in every other race — and not very successfully thus far; most of his candidates in the primary went down in a heap. Save by endorsing Villaraigosa, he consigns himself to irrelevance — one major argument on Antonio‘s behalf.
Indeed, Villaraigosa might even win statements of support from the state’s Republican legislative leadership in Sacramento. He took over the speakership when the reverberations from Willie Brown‘s last year as speaker had brought interparty relations in the Capitol to a new low. (Brown had clung to power by persuading a succession of Republican legislators to desert their party for him — not a tactic calculated to promote bipartisan comity.) As speaker, Villaraigosa thawed out the ice age by allowing the Republicans to select their own committee members and leaders, and by forging compromises with them at times when he could have passed legislation with narrower, unipartisan support. Indeed, it’s possible that Hahn may pick up the support of Democrat Bob Hertzberg — Villaraigosa‘s longtime friend, onetime roommate, and successor as speaker, who had a falling-out with Villaraigosa over the transfer of legislative power — while Villaraigosa picks up at least nods of support from such GOP legislative leaders as state Senator Jim Brulte.
It’s hard to imagine any other major Democrats supporting Hahn. About the only one not already in Villaraigosa‘s camp is Dianne Feinstein, who’s been busy in Washington voting with the Republicans and 14 of her fellow center-right Democrats for a $1.2 trillion tax cut, largely for the rich, that would block any chance for universal health insurance. Feinstein has obvious connections to Hahn — her two chief political strategists, Bill Carrick and Kam Kuwata, are running his campaign — and after a legislative lulu like her tax-cut vote, Angelenos should probably welcome any diversion that removes her from the capital. Still, endorsing Hahn would put her on the opposite side of her party, of labor, and of the fastest-growing voting bloc (Latinos) in the state. The better part of valor would be for her to stay out.
Endorsements are just one way Villaraigosa can pick up some of the far-flung support he‘ll need to become mayor. His record as the least ethnocentric of pols, as a genuinely citywide coalition builder in the Tom Bradley mold, is another.
Anyone fearful that a Villaraigosa mayoralty would unleash a wave of Latino nationalism should review the events of October 1999, when the newly elected LAUSD board members fired the district’s mediocre superintendent, Ruben Zacarias. It was an extremely tense moment in the city‘s ongoing ethno-political psychodrama. Zacarias was Latino, most of the new board members pushing him out were white and not one was Latino, and the interim leader they sought to replace him with, attorney Howard Miller, was Jewish. The actual voting alignments were not so neatly ethnic: Two of the three Jewish board members actually voted to keep Zacarias, but the atmosphere quickly turned poisonous nonetheless. State Senator Richard Polanco, head of the more nationalist wing of local Latino politicos, called the board members “knuckleheads” and threatened the district with dissolution, so that a Latino-led district could be carved out of it. “There are those who think, ’We need to have our own team managing that,‘” Polanco said.
There was one public figure in Los Angeles that October who was working to see that the Latino-Jewish tensions didn’t explode, and it wasn‘t Mayor Riordan (he endorsed, and may well have instigated, the board’s firing of Zacarias). It was Assembly Speaker Villaraigosa, who defended the board against charges it was on some ethnic vendetta and tried to persuade the board to reach out to its Latino critics. “Accountability has to be colorblind,” he told one reporter. “In a city like this, we can‘t afford to racialize these issues this way. But we also can’t be paternalistic with top-down solutions.”
As with Villaraigosa, moreover, so with his supporters: Labor, the constituency that is the linchpin of his coalition, is the single most potent anti-nationalist force in the city. Time and again over the past five years, the County Federation of Labor has opposed ethnocentric candidates backed by Polanco with class-oriented candidates of its own. In last year‘s Democratic primaries, it successfully persuaded Latino-immigrant voters to vote for non-incumbents Jackie Goldberg (a Jewish lesbian) and Jerome Horton (an African-American) for their respective state Assembly seats, though both of them had Latino opponents.
Indeed, the first mayoral candidate to be subjected to an anti-Semitic attack in the mayoral primary wasn’t Steve Soboroff; it was Villaraigosa. Precisely because the former speaker is nobody‘s ethnocentrist, a demented Latino nationalist Web site attacked him last month as “a lackey for Jewish interests.” (His specific sins were his involvement in the “Jewish-run” ACLU and his support for Bob Hertzberg to succeed him as speaker.)
This kind of racist lunacy, alas, is nothing new in L.A. politics; Tom Bradley had black-power critics who said that he was a tool of the Jews, even while Sam Yorty was insisting that Bradley was a closet Black Panther. Villaraigosa can’t really be all that surprised by this attack; it goes with the territory he‘s carving out, as Bradley did before him, as the standard-bearer of a multiracial, cross-town alliance. Like Bradley — hell, like John P. Wintergreen — he’s down with the Irish, the Latinos, the blacks and the Jews.