With less than two weeks to go before the May 17 mayoral runoff, Mayor James Hahn’s fate is largely out of his hands as he relies on a field operation run independently by the consultant who nearly ousted him in the March primary, and as he banks on continuing bad news for front-runner Antonio Villaraigosa. Hahn narrowly escaped elimination after outlasting former Assembly speaker Bob Hertzberg, who is continuing to work for Hahn’s defeat with his endorsement of Villaraigosa. But the architect of Hertzberg’s witty and imaginative campaign, John Shallman, is going the other direction, trying now to re-elect the mayor with an independent campaign on behalf of a coalition of pro-Hahn labor groups including construction unions, public employee unions, home-care workers and others. Construction workers in unions like Laborers Local 300 and electrical workers in IBEW Local 11 are fierce Hahn backers because of the explosion of building the city has seen over the last four years and because of Hahn’s plan for virtually rebuilding much of Los Angeles International Airport. Together with city employee unions like SEIU local 347 and the United Firefighters of Los Angeles, the labor groups have reported raising more than $800,000 that they plan to spend on phone-banking and precinct-walking — efforts that typically are handled directly by the candidate’s campaign. Hahn’s people have been conducting their own in-house mail and phone campaign as well, but they apparently are also focusing on a TV ad blitz to compete with the two broadcast ads and one cable ad that Villaraigosa has put out in the last month. Since Hahn came in a distant second on March 8, the race appears to be Villaraigosa’s to lose. The rub is that Villaraiogosa appears to be capable of losing it. Through no positive effort of Hahn’s, the Villaraigosa campaign suffered a severe setback last week with a report by David Zahniser of the Daily Breeze on the candidate’s fund-raising from employees of two Florida companies involved in the airport concessions business. The gist of the initial story was that Villaraigosa took more than $40,000 from company employees, several of whom couldn’t or wouldn’t explain why they gave to a Los Angeles mayoral candidate at $1,000 a pop. The implication — and there is no direct evidence of wrongdoing at this point — is that these companies may have been making a play for airport-concession contracts in L.A., splitting the contribution into $1,000 increments and making them in the name of their employees to remain in compliance with campaign-contribution limits. That would be money laundering, and it would be illegal. But it still wouldn’t implicate Villaraigosa — unless it could be proven that the money was given in exchange for a Villaraigosa promise. That, of course, would be pay-for-play, the very thing that Villaraigosa has made the cornerstone of his campaign against Hahn. Villaraigosa vowed to return the money but, frankly, it doesn’t matter. Zahniser’s reporting in the Daily Breeze spurred three straight days of negative front-page stories in the L.A. Times, including the story that District Attorney Steve Cooley has opened a criminal investigation. The reporting may well take the wind out of the sails of Villaraigosa’s most recent attack ad on Hahn, reminding voters of Cooley’s continuing probe into 2001 donations to Hahn by attorney Pierce O’Donnell and the City Ethics Commission’s finding of illegal laundering of contributions to Hahn’s 2001 campaign, and other campaign violations, by developer Mark Alan Abrams. Now Hahn has an ad based entirely on the Florida angle. It makes you wonder what the mayor was planning, absent some good reporting by the Daily Breeze. The various strings of the story conjure some delicious ironies. For example, the Florida donations focused media attention on one Richard Meruelo, a Republican real estate magnate with substantial holdings here and in Miami. Meruelo is funding a phone and mail campaign targeting Republican voters and featuring former Mayor Richard Riordan and former California Republican Party Chairman Tirso del Junco. Meruelo was also a supporter and donor to President Bush in the last campaign, and his brother was a big donor to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign that was so devastating to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign. The Meruelo spending on Villaraigosa’s behalf became public on Friday — the day before Kerry came to town to endorse Villaraigosa, his campaign’s former national co-chair. And the first Florida donations that are the subject of Villaraigosa’s headaches came after a meeting the national co-chair had with the president of one of the companies last September, when Kerry was locked in the final stretch of his election battle against Bush. At the core of the controversies involving both Hahn and Villaraigosa is the campaign-finance system, which is meant to even the playing field among candidates. The problem is that in a city the size of Los Angeles, candidates need lots of money, and they have to raise it from the only people who generally care enough about city elections to put their own money on the line: public labor unions and their members, who want to be sure they are treated well by elected officials; private labor unions and their workers, who want to be sure they are included in publicly funded construction and service jobs; and anyone out for a City Hall contract. Limit the amount that any one donor can give, and you give them an incentive to hide extra contributions by laundering their money through friends, family or employees. Limit the amount that any campaign can spend, and you encourage a candidate’s fans to run an “independent” campaign. Independent expenditures weren’t even a factor in campaigns before 2001, when supporters of both Hahn and Villaraigosa landed on this new way of getting money around the various limits and into the campaigns. This time around, the big players are the unions for Hahn, and Meruelo for Villaraigosa. Are they truly “independent”? No one knows. It takes so long to investigate campaign-finance allegations that the next mayor will be elected, in office and perhaps nearing the end of the term before a probe can be completed.