The days dwindle down; the Hahn fear offensive ratchets up.
With the race for mayor in its final week, the image the Jim Hahn campaign wants to leave voters with is a crack-cocaine pipe being held up to a flame. This inflammatory imagery, followed by a grainy shot of Antonio Villaraigosa, provides the visuals for the ad that Hahn‘s campaign is carpet-bombing TV viewers with this week, attacking Villaraigosa for his letter on behalf of drug dealer Carlos Vignali.
And that’s not all. The Soboba Indians (who sound for all the world like an invention of W.C. Fields — ”Ahhh, the Sobobas . . .“) have told the City Ethics Commission they‘re about to drop into the mail a couple hundred thousand attack pieces on Villaraigosa with the cheerful titles ”Child Pornography“ and ”Sex Crimes.“ Of course, the real crime that Villaraigosa committed, in the eyes of the Sobobas and the other casino-owning tribes who even now are contemplating joining the fray, was to have backed the right of casino employees to join a union.
Nor is Villaraigosa soft merely on crack cocaine, sex crimes and child pornography. Consider the strange case of the unsigned green sheet — a plain green piece of paper, devoid of letterhead, that in various incarnations was plopped discreetly on my windshield, first at the candidates’ Crenshaw High debate a couple of weeks ago, and, again, outside a predominantly African-American church in Pacoima when Hahn spoke there this weekend. The Crenshaw green sheet accused Villaraigosa of failing to speak out ”against the systematic destruction of Black families“; in Pacoima, this was amended to ”Black and Brown families.“ Both versions lamented that the former speaker had declined to condemn the policy of ”incarcerating a crippling number of Black men.“ (In Pacoima, ”Brown men,“ too.)
In fact, Villaraigosa has spoken precisely against the incarceration of a generation of young men, as Hahn has not; he did so to a South-Central rally of several hundred people on the day of the Crenshaw debate. But to acknowledge that would muck up this leave-no-fingerprints attack piece directed at African-American voters. ”I hate it when they play the race card,“ Hahn supporter Jimmy Woods Gray sighed when she came across a stack of these sheets in the lobby of yet another Pacoima church that Hahn visited last Sunday. And yet, they‘re playing it with impunity.
In all these various Hahn communiques, one thing is missing: Hahn himself. He has become the invisible man in his own campaign. Hahn’s consultant, Bill Carrick, rightly notes that his candidate was all over his earlier advertising. Now, however, in the final week, when the campaign has $600,000 worth of ads up on TV, when it has become really serious about reaching the all-powerful undecideds, it is not exactly encouraging voters to contemplate the prospect of Jim Hahn as mayor.
And they‘re not — even, or perhaps most especially, Hahn’s committed supporters. On Sunday, Hahn‘s tour of African-American churches in Pacoima reached its high point at the New Christ Memorial Church of God in Christ, where he was elaborately serenaded by both pastor and choir. Then the pastor, Elder Andrae Crouch, brought Hahn to the pulpit with these words: ”A gentleman you know (you knew his father) seeks to lead this city — our beloved brother, Kenneth Hahn.“ Just nine days before the election, the ghost of his father and the specter of his opponent remain more vivid, more corporeal, than the candidate himself.
Lest he fade away altogether, Hahn was accompanied on his churchly rounds this Sunday by Maxine Waters, who is not exactly the wallflower type. Waters’ support for Hahn, as she explained it to me, has a disarmingly maternal aspect. ”Hahn is the boy next door,“ she said. ”I helped guide his first campaign [in 1985] for city attorney. He wanted to save his money for the runoff; I told him to spend it, that he could win it in the primary. [He did.] He‘s a boy from the hood.“
While Hahn is a proven listener and advice taker, Villaraigosa is apparently some guy who blew into town — on an ill wind — just yesterday. When I asked Waters if Villaraigosa wasn’t closer to her position on criminal-justice issues than Hahn is, she quickly wrote the former speaker out of L.A. progressive politics. ”When was he president of the ACLU?“ she demanded to know. (1993.) ”I don‘t remember Antonio Villaraigosa there. I remember Stanley Sheinbaum and Ramona Ripston, not Villaraigosa. He was not in the Bradley campaigns, the Hahn campaigns, the Waters campaigns. Six years [the length of Villaraigosa’s term-limited tenure in the state Assembly] is a flash in the pan. I don‘t know him.“
Considering that Villaraigosa has worked in local progressive politics for the past quarter-century, coordinated the activities of the teachers union in South-Central, co-founded the Black-Latino Roundtable and is nobody’s wallflower himself, this was a remarkable claim. But Maxine was just warming up. On Tuesday, at a rally with Hahn, she let slip that ”We still don‘t know who this man really is, and now we hear that there’s still MORE we‘re about to find out about him.“
Wow! Some tease, that Maxine! I don’t know what MORE we may find out about Villaraigosa, but we‘ll soon find out if L.A.-area progressives are such saps that they’ll keep funding Maxine‘s pet causes out of some misplaced nostalgia, while she merrily hones her innuendo to a level worthy of Joe McCarthy.
Speaking of misplaced nostalgia: The Hahn campaign seems very familiar to anyone who remembers the campaigns that Sam Yorty waged against Tom Bradley in 1969 and 1973. Like Villaraigosa, Bradley was depicted as new and untrustworthy. (When he first ran for mayor in 1969, he’d served on the City Council for six years — exactly the length of Villaraigosa‘s Assembly career, as Waters conveniently failed to note while decrying the former speaker’s lack of experience.) Like Villaraigosa, Bradley was attacked for being soft on crime. The Yorty campaign played the race card more directly than the Hahn campaign, but L.A. was a different city then, and Hahn, unlike Yorty, has to take care not to overplay his hand.
The question before the Villaraigosa campaign is whether it‘s the Bradley campaign of ’69 (which never did figure out a way to counter Yorty‘s charges) or ’73 (which did). In a debate Tuesday, Villaraigosa issued not a peep about Hahn‘s attacks. To date, his response has been to concede, and apologize for, his intervention on Vignali’s behalf, and to argue, at least by inference, that Vignali notwithstanding, his overwhelming lead in endorsements among well-regarded leaders and institutions that have weighed the candidates‘ merits makes clear he’d be the better mayor. As this weekend‘s endorsement from the Times, and Wednesday’s effusions from the Washington Post‘s David Broder, dean of the D.C. commentariat, make clear, Villaraigosa has managed to emerge as the establishment’s consensus pick as well as the progressives‘ darling. It’s a stunning tribute to his skills as a leader. Then again, Tom Bradley had both character references and character, too, and still lost the first time out.
That said, this is not the Los Angeles of the backlash year of 1969, and the situation may be nowhere so bleak as Tuesday‘s Times poll, which put Hahn ahead by 47 percent to 40 percent, suggests. In Villaraigosa’s own poll, conducted by Mark Mellman and completed the same day as the Times‘, he actually held a 44 percent to 41 percent lead over Hahn. And while the Times’ last pre-primary poll understated Villaraigosa‘s vote by 9 percent, the last Mellman poll before the primary had Villaraigosa ahead by 5 percent — which is precisely where he finished.
Convinced that their man won’t come out ahead in a mud bath, Villaraigosa‘s consultants are counting instead on the endorsements he’s won, on the massive field campaign being waged on his behalf, on the intensity of his supporters — and, finally, on the charisma of the candidate himself. More than anyone else plying the politician‘s trade in L.A. or California today, Villaraigosa is a natural — able to touch a crowd, to inspire it with his energy and affability and, like Bradley, with the symbolism of his story. Quite unlike the reserved Bradley, however, Villaraigosa also inspires a mix of familiar affection and rock-star excitement at his rallies. In the late-afternoon sun of a Memorial Day barbecue for 300 returning precinct walkers in the east San Fernando Valley, the effusive and dapper candidate hugged and bantered with his backers. High school girls laughed and squealed, and one young man greeted him with ”Cool shirt, man!“ A few minutes later, Villaraigosa climbed onto the speaker’s platform, and told them about the need to create profitable businesses, then added, ”When we create wealth, regular people should get their share; we should get some of it back. And we shouldn‘t feel ashamed when that happens.“
He is one of them even as he has become this almost unimaginable projection of what they aspire to; he speaks to the nation now, but remains, at least partly, of the hood — a very polyglot hood. In much the manner that Al Smith (the great New York governor of the 1920s) would extol the Irish-Jewish-Italian Lower East Side where he grew up, Villaraigosa gets a visible kick out of the ethnic mishmash of volunteers who walk for him, whom he’s brought together in common cause; out of the ethnic mishmash that is Los Angeles, which he now aspires to bring together, too. He is the face of our future; the only question is whether that future arrives next Tuesday or several years hence.