The closer we get to election day the more insubstantial everything about the mayor’s race becomes.

First there was that televised debate a couple weeks ago at 5 p.m. on a weeknight. It’s as if the political Powers That Be tried desperately to find a time to stage an appearance of the candidates without anyone noticing. “I’ve got it!” some genius must have said. “It’s L.A.! We’ll have it during rush hour, when everyone’s in the car or on the bus or in the elevator or at the grocery store. No one will get hurt.”

Can’t get any lower-profile than that. Except maybe last Saturday morning’s debate. Yep, Saturday morning. 8 a.m. To control the number of witnesses, presumably.

But the candidates, too, are almost see-through. We already know Jim Hahn has a tendency to blend into the woodwork. Now Antonio Villaraigosa has started to vanish as well.

Vanishing, even with that 18-point lead and broad support around the city? Yes. Just for fun, check out the last couple weeks’ worth of Los Angeles Times headlines, up until Wednesday’s big story about the latest poll. It’s great that the Times has begun to put a few mayor’s race stories on the front page, which usually is reserved for articles on things like the gun trade in Iraq or changing life in West Texas. But I guess the Times doesn’t want to take this local stuff too far, because until this week the latest batch of mayoral stories ran under the fold and only one column wide and, sorry, Antonio, but “Villaraigosa” is just too long a word for headline writers to squeeze into one column.

So, to make things fit, Villaraigosa is now officially “Rival.”

March 25: “Waters Endorses Hahn’s Rival.” March 26: “Mayor Escalates Attacks on Rival.” March 30: “Hahn Portrays Rival as Waffler.” April 5: “Parks To Back Hahn’s Rival.” April 7: “Unlike Rival, Hahn Won’t Release Calendar.”

That last one really must hurt, because it was a four-column job in the middle of the California section with plenty of headline room. It’s just that the guy’s name has now become “Rival.” I’m starting to wonder whether voters will be stymied on election day when they walk into the voting booth and scan the ballot up and down, in vain, in an effort to vote for “Rival.”

I’m sure the Times isn’t really trying to make Villaraigosa disappear, since the paper has kind of, sort of, almost, endorsed him for mayor (the Times gave Antonio Villaraigosa and Bob Hertzberg a joint endorsement in the March 8 election and although it hasn’t yet done so, it will almost certainly endorse Villaraigosa for the May 17 penalty phase. I mean, runoff).

But I suspect that Antonio Villaraigosa’s people are only too happy that their candidate’s profile is being lowered a bit. They learned their lesson four years ago, when Villaraigosa’s exciting and purpose-filled crusade of a campaign riveted liberals, labor and Latinos.

It also may have freaked out high-propensity voters in South L.A. and the San Fernando Valley, and made them susceptible to Hahn commercials that questioned his Rival on crime, gangs, drugs and ethnicity. Villaraigosa was done in by the very same excitement that put him in the running.

His people don’t want to make the same mistake this time out, so they’re trying to go easy on that liberal, labor and Latino stuff. Disappointed as he was not to get the backing of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor again, Villaraigosa seems to relish the opportunity to depict himself as independent from Big Labor. As for the liberal part, there’s nothing about his message of restoring trust, improving traffic flow and adding more cops that’s particularly liberal, or particularly different from Hahn. On the Latino stuff, his aides have asked reporters and editorial writers to stop referring to him as the “Latino candidate” and to give a rest to such standard lines from four years ago like the one that goes, if elected he would be the first Latino mayor of L.A. since Cristobal Aguilar.

Yes, there still could be a bit of racism, possibly, at play among Anglo and African-American voters. But I think Hahn’s Rival is slightly off the mark if he thinks racism and fears of a rising Latino tide did him in last time and could do him in again. If that’s so, how do you explain Rocky Delgadillo, the underdog Latino candidate who ran away with the city attorney’s election in 2001 (and is cruising in for another term without opposition last month), scoring much of his ballot-box advantage in supposedly xenophobic South L.A. and the supposedly racist San Fernando Valley?

No, it wasn’t a race thing. It was a package deal — Harvard guy, football player, lawyer with a passing resemblance to Matt Dillon, and establishment, business-oriented ties. No excitement, no crusade, but also — and this is important — no fear that as city attorney Delgadillo would be getting in our face, asking uncomfortable questions and calling upon us to change.

Some hell-raising speeches are great, but then leave us alone. Last mayor’s race, a majority of voters who bothered to go to the polls looked at the choice between excitement and comfort and went with comfort. The tried and true. James K. Hahn. Elect him, forget him.

That’s the way we like our mayors in L.A. Look at Tom Bradley. Too much excitement in ’69. Toned it down in ’73, got elected, served a couple years, and then — poof! — he disappeared. His phantom stuck around for two decades but was calm and quiet. Comforting. Meanwhile, there was a quietly increasing gap between the haves and have-nots, and more people here lived their lives in virtual social and economic servitude.

Then came the riots, and L.A. was ready for more comfort. Dick Riordan. He talked a lot about privatizing the city workforce and changing L.A. forever, but sometime after the Northridge earthquake — poof! — he disappeared, or at least was transformed into a slightly goofy but lovable uncle.

Then Jim Hahn, and — no poof! — because he was coming the other way, having been already pretty much translucent. Many of his detractors complain that his lack of presence or a clearly discernable personality were his problems in the first place, but I think instead people in Los Angeles became uncomfortable with him only recently, when he started to materialize, and they didn’t like the shape he was taking. Saying he shouldn’t be held responsible for the top officials he selected and supervised — people like the resigned and investigated Troy Edwards, Ted Stein, Leland Wong — wears a little thin. That’s especially true in light of the court statement Monday by the federal prosecutor that there would be a superseding indictment in the Fleishman-Hillard fraud case. We don’t know yet whether any of the above-mentioned former Hahn officials will be named. But the mayor is just no longer — well, comforting.

He’s still pretty much see-through, though. He was introduced at Saturday’s debate as “The Honorable Mayor Mr. Kenneth Hahn.” He didn’t seem to mind too much, and as he spoke he actually kept referring to the real Kenneth Hahn, his late father, beloved by older black voters. People weren’t buying it, though. In South L.A. you’re starting to see lapel buttons with the words “Jimmy is not Kenny.”

His Rival — introduced as “Mr. Antonio Villa Glorosa” — countered with repeated references to Tom Bradley. In one especially wince-worthy moment, the two parried over who was most Bradleyesque, with Villaraigosa saying his coalition-building skills were most like Bradley’s and Hahn countering that he knew and worked with Bradley. I swear he was about to say, “and Mr. Villaraigosa, you’re no Tom Bradley” — but instead he just pointed out that Bradley’s family is supporting him. Big deal. Villaraigosa snagged the backing of black leaders who make a difference to voters. Maxine Waters, Yvonne Burke, Herb Wesson, all of whom were in Hahn’s camp last time. And now, Magic Johnson, who (with Waters) helped get black voters to go for Delgadillo for city attorney in 2001.

Villaraigosa is raising money at a furious clip, much of it from big business and law firms who no longer see in him an exciting (read: dangerous) change agent, but someone who knows how to make the system work, and how to work the system. His political differences from Hahn, if there ever were any, have evaporated. So in becoming Hahn’s Rival now, Villaraigosa, too, is starting to become translucent. It’s not the labor candidate, or the Latino candidate, or the liberal candidate who has opened up that 18-point lead. It is the Not-Hahn candidate. The Rival.

If Villaraigosa wins, his backers say, don’t worry — he will re-materialize as the man of excitement and action he was four years ago, with an agenda to improve the lot of the city’s have-nots.

Could be. But I think I read something about this in Tolkien. He gets elected and puts on that Ring of Power. And, then, well, you know.


LA Weekly