|Illustration by Miguel Valenzuela|
Is there a political consultant in America who would have advised Antonio
Villaraigosa to take the jobs he took if he one day wanted to be elected to
a major political position? Let’s see — there was organizing immigrant workers
in the 1970s, before the great wave of immigration from Mexico and Central America
even commenced (that is, before there was any public that would have remotely
appreciated such endeavors). There was organizing for the teachers union, historically
the whipping boy of left-wing community activists and centrist and right-wing
education (or just anti-union) reformers. There was his volunteer gig as president
of the Southern California ACLU — no elaboration required.
These are not generally thought of as smart career moves for the politically
ambitious. But then, little about Villaraigosa’s ascent fits into a conventional
pattern. His rise to power is a testament not only to his own attributes — commitment,
charisma, energy, an ease among strangers, an ability to persuade adversaries
to compromise — but to the rise of labor, Latinos and a civic left in Los Angeles.
None of these were enough in themselves to make him mayor — if they had been,
he would have been elected in 2001 — but he could not have won without them.
Which is one way, I suppose, to define Los Angeles exceptionalism. There is
no other city in the United States where this same constellation of forces could
significantly propel anyone into, or even close to, the Mayor’s Office. When
Latinos have achieved high office in other cities, it has often been largely
through the sponsorship of business elites, who certainly helped Federico Peña
and Henry Cisneros become the mayors of Denver and San Antonio, respectively.
(Cisneros also had the considerable help of Communities Organized for Public
Service, a Latino working-class Alinskyite community organization, but then
San Antonio is more than three-fourths Latino.) Here in L.A., City Attorney
Rocky Delgadillo was a protégé of Warren Christopher. But none of L.A.’s business
leaders or elites sponsored Villaraigosa’s political career in its early phases.
Indeed, when Villaraigosa first ran for the state Assembly in 1994, his opponent
was the one with the heavy-duty backing. Richard Polanco, then the chief anointer
of Latino candidates for office, had represented the district. Polanco was moving
on to the state Senate, and as his successor, he picked his chief district operative,
Bill Mabie, and bestowed on him the support of most of the Latino political
In Politics in Black and White, his definitive history of the rise and
fall of the Bradley coalition in L.A. politics, political scientist Raphael
Sonenshein found the seeds of Bradley’s 1973 mayoral victory in the victory
he won a decade earlier in the 10th Council District. The 10th was a polyglot
place, home to both blacks and a sizable number of progressive whites, and in
forging a coalition from those two groups there, Bradley put together a prototype
of the citywide coalition he was to build a decade later.
Sonenshein’s thesis could just as well be applied to Villaraigosa’s victory
over Mabie in the ’94 Democratic primary in the 45th Assembly District. The
district was majority Latino, but — like Bradley’s 10th — it contained a large
number of white progressives, in such communities as Mount Washington and Echo
Park. And in winning the primary, Villaraigosa put together an alliance of Latinos
and white liberals that would be the core of his own mayoral majority a decade
He did it, it’s worth noting, without the assistance of the new and improved
County Fed, which at that time (before the ascent of Miguel Contreras) was still
old and unimproved and far from the Election Day miracle worker it has become.
Some key unions did back Villaraigosa, but he himself had to — and did — put
the development of a biracial progressive alliance in his district on fast-forward.
It was impossible to cover that campaign and not be impressed by Villaraigosa’s
political skills. What was not so easy to foresee was that the city would evolve
in the direction of the 45th — that Latinos and progressives would loom larger
than they had in citywide elections.
But what Villaraigosa began in the 45th, Contreras continued countywide. Beginning
with the election of Villaraigosa’s high school buddy Gil Cedillo to the Assembly
in 1997, the L.A. County Fed backed a succession of labor-progressive Latino
candidates against more centrist and nationalist candidates supported by Polanco,
and won every time. Those candidates provided Villaraigosa with his core support
when he decided to run for Assembly speaker, though by then, he was able to
win the backing of a wider spectrum of members as well. And under Contreras’
leadership, the Fed had taken the lead in the efforts to naturalize, register
and get to the polls many thousands of new immigrants.
In this, the Fed was following the example of the big-city political machines
of a century ago, New York’s Tammany Hall most particularly, which understood
that if you wanted the votes of immigrants, you had to find them and get them
to the polls. If the immigrants of 1920 voted in New York but not in the coal
country of Western Pennsylvania, say, that was because there was no one in coal
country who took an interest in their vote. If the rate of immigrant participation
is higher today in L.A. than, say, Chicago, that’s because Chicago has no functional
equivalent to the L.A. County Fed (other than nominally). Labor created the
Los Angeles that elected Villaraigosa.
Not that Villaraigosa was the passive beneficiary of this transformation, any
more than Tammany’s favorite son, New York Governor Al Smith, was in the early
years of the 20th century. The relationship of candidate and organization was
in both instances complementary and symbiotic. What’s remarkable about Los Angeles
is that no other city today has a comparable organization — and even if labor
wasn’t in Villaraigosa’s camp this year, the base of Villaraigosa voters that
the unions had helped create didn’t switch their allegiance or go away. Villaraigosa
forged a bond with those voters, and with white liberals, during his 2001 campaign.
This year, he increased his margins among both groups but also won the allegiance
of more African-Americans and centrists.
It’s hard to say which is more remarkable — Villaraigosa’s improbable career
or the political evolution of the city where he’s about to become mayor. What’s
indisputable is the harmonic convergence of the two.
That’s not to say that all the groups in the Villaraigosa coalition want
the same things. By the evidence of all the polling, Latinos are particularly
concerned with the quantity and quality of schools, and by the evidence of the
dropout rates, they have every reason to be. Schools were the number-one concern
of Villaraigosa voters, as they are of anyone who looks at the quality of the
L.A. labor force, now and tomorrow. Inescapably, they have to be the number-one
concern of the incoming mayor.
So it should come as no surprise that Villaraigosa is talking about increasing
the mayoral responsibility for and control over the school district, which for
now is statutorily and effectively nonexistent. And it should come as no surprise
that this distresses to no end the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), Villaraigosa’s
onetime employer, whose political clout is such that it can elect the members
of the Board of Education, but not such that it can elect a mayor.
Across the nation, the record of mayorally controlled school districts is mixed
at best. But it’s no great stretch to see how a district under Villaraigosa’s
control, and subjected to his intensity, might build schools faster and smaller,
and might have a far larger mentor program than it has today. UTLA leaders have
said it’s one thing to bestow such power on the union-friendly (or, at least,
-sensitive) Villaraigosa, another to bestow it on his successors. But for the
majority of Angelenos — and the majority in Los Angeles is Latino and working-class
— schools are the primary civic issue, and the most important one by which they
judge their mayor.
That, of course, is just one of many challenges that Villaraigosa will confront.
There’s affordable housing (an issue on which the current City Council has been
an abject failure), mass transit (where federal funding has all but vanished),
a development policy that rewards the creation of good jobs, and the perpetual
powder keg that is the LAPD (a little more emphasis on gender balance in the
department sure wouldn’t hurt). Daunting challenges all, but who, looking at
Villaraigosa’s career, would say with assurance that he can’t make a dent in
To read Robert Greene's article, The Amazing Adventures of Super Mayor,