IN AMERICA, ALL CITY POLITICS TENDS TO be racial — and, if the racial groups have been around long enough, tribal. This isn't true at other levels of government. In state capitals and in Washington, where issues of wealth distribution are determined, class politics exist alongside those of race. At the municipal level, however, governments deal more with issues like housing and policing, issues that are racial to the core. The cries of police brutality, the complaint “There goes the neighborhood” — these are shouted at city halls, not statehouses.

Marx to the contrary notwithstanding, it's always easier to strike a deal on questions of class — at least, on how to divide up the pie — than it is on race. Tribal politics are zero-sum games. The Temple Mount is either Israeli or Palestinian. The next police chief of Los Angeles will be of one race or another (though with rates of intermarriage soaring, this will not always be the case), and that will predispose some groups to support him and others to yelp to the skies. Not that colorblind meritocracy doesn't have its claims, but Mayor Jim Hahn has to select a chief of police in a city where race still matters — no matter how liberal, cosmopolitan and multicultural that city may be. He may go off alone to make his final choice, but the politics of race will be there at his side.

There are three local tribes that Jim Hahn can't — and won't — lose sight of in making that choice: Latinos, African-Americans and Valleywhites. This isn't to say that a majority or plurality of these groups, or the political elites of these groups, will insist upon a Latino, or African-American, or Valley-friendly chief. But Hahn has to seem to be weighing these groups' concerns, whoever his choice may be. While Hahn can be insensible to other quadrants, he also knows that the largely liberal white population south of Mulholland is not quite so emotionally invested in this choice, unless he picks a chief in the mold of Bill Parker or Daryl Gates. Which he won't.

There's a fourth group, too, that Hahn can't ignore: the LAPD itself. Former Chiefs Willie Williams and Bernie Parks were both brought down in large part because they provoked heavy opposition from elements of the department — in Williams' case, the conservative old guard; in Parks', the rank and file and their union, the Police Protective League, to whom Parks came across as a drill sergeant with a toothache. The PPL's political clout was already such that in last year's mayoral election, every candidate sought its support. As it is also the grim reaper of recent chiefs, any mayor would need some indication that his choice, at least for an initial period of time, would fly with the flatfoots.

OVER THE PAST DECADE, DIFFERENT groups of Angelenos have laid claim to two key civic-leadership positions. After Daryl Gates, Rodney King and the '92 riots, after it was clear to almost all that the LAPD's historic racism was also the LAPD's ongoing racism, much of the African-American community insisted, with good cause, that the best possible new chief would be black. That surely was a factor in the decision of Tom Bradley's Police Commission to choose Philadelphia's chief, Willie Williams. When Richard Riordan, whose mayoral bids had fallen flat with black voters, sacked Williams, he decided to anoint Bernie Parks not only as a matter of personal preference, but because he needed to keep politics in black L.A. from exploding.

Similarly, as the L.A. Unified School District became overwhelmingly Latino (the percentage in fall of 2001 was 71.4 percent) and the God-awful condition of LAUSD schools became a huge concern for Latino parents, many Latinos concluded that the position of district superintendent would best be filled by one of theirs. When Richard Riordan's school board moved to sack Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, the reaction in Latino L.A. was strong and swift: First came the cries that Zacarias be brought back; then, the demands that his successor be Latino.

The Zacarias affair was but a prelude to the eruption of rage that followed Hahn's decision to dump Parks. Los Angeles is a city where truly nut-case ethnic politics, mercifully, is a sometime thing (unlike New York, where it's a constant), but the reaction in the black community to Parks' heave-ho was a wake-up call to anyone who thought multicultural L.A. had left ethnocentrism in the dust. Parks had taken on the PPL, which is disproportionately the political home of the good old (and younger) boys so feared and loathed by the African-American community. That made Parks, in the eyes of many black Angelenos, the enemy of their enemy; and what more could you want in a friend? In every other particular, though, Parks aggressively worked to restore the good old days of Daryl Gates. He opposed civilian control of the force, resisted Christopher Commission reforms to weed out the out-of-control officers, opposed the monitoring of traffic stops to see just how many driving-while-black citations his officers wrote.


Yet any number of the African-American leaders — from Maxine Waters on down — who'd raised holy hell about all these policies when Daryl Gates enacted them rallied to Parks' side when Hahn removed him. Hahn was labeled a traitor to his base, and their race. These were not the only voices raised during the Parks and Zacarias controversies: Then-Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa tried to mediate the Zacarias dispute, while civil rights attorney Connie Rice dared to point out that Parks was not the perfect cause célèbre for black liberals. But the nationalist voices were certainly the louder ones.

There is a broader political context to the demands of the Latino and black communities. The Latino community is ascending to a level of political (though clearly not social or economic) parity with the city's white population, and having a school superintendent or police chief who's Latino is a mark of that ascendancy. The black community, by contrast, is, in relative terms, shrinking, and its political clout diminishing accordingly. After two decades in which the city's dominant political coalition was the alliance of blacks, Jews and other liberals that Tom Bradley had cobbled together, the ascending (though not yet ascendant) alliance that emerged in the last mayoral election was that of Latinos, Jews and other (largely nonblack) liberals that Antonio Villaraigosa had assembled. The appointment of a new African-American police chief, then, would not only signal a continuing civic commitment to reducing the LAPD's antagonism to blacks, but also deliver a loud message that black L.A. still retains some political clout.

IT IS JIM HAHN'S MISFORTUNE THAT HE also must make his choice at the very moment when the Valleywhites have reached the apex of their own identity politics. Secession is likely to lose citywide, and I wouldn't bet the mortgage that it will even carry in the Valley, but it almost certainly will win majority support among the Valley's white voters. Hahn's foremost purpose between now and Election Day must be to do all he can to keep the city unsundered. A choice for chief that would alienate the Valley now is obviously off the table. But what kind of choice would do that? The Valley conservatives at the heart of the secessionist movement would doubtless like a chief as close to the Gates/Parker model as possible — but their votes aren't in play in the secession battle anyway. The more moderate swing voters in the Valley would likely be reassured by an LAPD veteran who'd done time in Valley station houses, who had a working knowledge of Woodland Hills and Studio City. Such a choice, moreover, could be Latino or black. In short, a twofer. And twoferness is absolutely the most important political attribute that Hahn could find in a prospective chief.

Hahn's choice is also complicated by the rather stunning fact that a little more than a year after taking office he really has no political base at all. Hahn's Election Day coalition was a one-day wonder, consisting chiefly of L.A.'s more conservative whites who feared that Antonio Villaraigosa was too liberal and just maybe too Latino, and most of the city's black voters, who feared that Villaraigosa's victory would usher in a Latino-led municipal regime and usher out whatever clout blacks still wielded in city politics. But his opposition to secession cost Hahn what was always the tepid support of the Valleywhites, who constitute the vast majority of L.A. center-right and conservative voters. And his dumping of Parks cost him what had been the genuine, if not avid, support of much of black L.A. That leaves, by actual count, just about no one.

The irony here is that it's the two sides of Hahn's erstwhile coalition that are the sectors of Los Angeles least likely to be pleased by the same choice. One can imagine other permutations and combinations of support for a nominee — Latinos and the Valley coming together to welcome one nominee; the Westside, black L.A. and some Latinos backing another, and so on. But in all of Los Angeles, Hahn's Election Day alliance is the house most divided against itself on the question of who would make the perfect chief.

On the other hand, not having a base can be somewhat liberating. And looking ahead to his 2005 re-election campaign, Hahn does occupy the middle of the city's political spectrum, which will make any challenge difficult unless he screws up something major. If he does face a serious challenge, it won't likely come from his right: L.A.'s not conservative enough to elect that kind of mayor absent the kind of backlash that followed the '92 riots. The black community hasn't fielded a plausible mayoral candidate since Tom Bradley's last go-round in 1989, and the appeal of Magic Johnson as a mayoral candidate — something quite distinct from the appeal of Magic Johnson as a person — is very untested. A serious rival might emerge, as one did in 2001, from Latino L.A. But weighing these threats against one another (Magic has crossover appeal but may well not run; the Latino-ization of the L.A. electorate will just keep rolling along) really leads to no clear conclusion.


In any event, it's not a given that the tribal wars of Los Angeles will be so fierce this time around. My guess is that if L.A. has a silent majority today, it's made up of people who devoutly wish Hahn's choice not be subjected to ethnic second-guessing.

Ultimately, the politics of ethnic entitlement are difficult to sustain without an explicitly ethnic regime. (And, let us remember, the one long-running ethnic regime in Los Angeles history is still the white Protestants who dominated the city's life from the late 19th century straight through the Yorty administration.) From the late 19th century through the mid-20th, Boston and New York may have had an almost endless string of Irish-American chiefs, but that was because these cities were ruled for most of that time by Irish-American political machines. Los Angeles is a very diverse and fairly tolerant city that has never been big on machine politics of any ethnicity. If anything, this predisposes L.A. to practicing a kind of ethnic rotation in its chiefs of police. Good-government types might prefer ethnic blindness instead, but so long as race remains the dominant factor in city politics, ethnic rotation is not only the pattern we'll likely be seeing, but the better one.

Hahn can't announce a rotation, however, just a chief. If I had to bet, I'd plunk my money on an LAPD veteran who's Latino and knows every block of Ventura Boulevard. Or, if not a twofer, my hedge would be a complete outsider, a stellar no-fer. Word of caution, though, having been around politics as long as I have: I'm not a betting man.

Read Joe Domanick's open letter to Mayor Hahn

LA Weekly