L.A. Story

The old order still governs here; the future will not be rushed. Considering all the changes Los Angeles has gone through in just the past decade--white flight and immigrant influx, the displacement of the business elite, the rebirth of the union movement, the rise of a labor-Latino alliance--the idea that a new urban progressive coalition could officially take power this year might have been one transformation too many, one bridge too far (or, at least, too quick). Yet it almost happened--indeed, might have happened if the old order hadn't waged a disgraceful campaign to keep its hold on power.


In defeating former California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, a progressive Democrat, in Los Angeles's mayoral election on June 5, City Attorney James K. Hahn, a mainstream Democrat, organized one last victory for the old Los Angeles. In a city that's increasingly young and Latino, Hahn put together enough older white and black voters to prevail at the polls. Dispatching Villaraigosa required Hahn to run the most scurrilous campaign the city has seen in more than 30 years, but he proved equal to the task.


In recent years--and in the course of the campaign--Villaraigosa has emerged as Los Angeles's most charismatic leader of the past several decades; but as a public figure who labored chiefly in Sacramento, he was still an unknown quantity to most Angelenos when Hahn's campaign began airing its now notorious attack ad against him. The ad recounted one whopper of a Villaraigosa mistake--writing a letter that requested a pardon for a convicted drug dealer--but it was the Willie Horton visuals that really did the trick. Surrounding a grainy image of Villaraigosa with sundry drug paraphernalia, it managed to make the former Speaker look like one of the heavies from the movie Traffic. Hahn and Villaraigosa had been trading leads in several opinion polls before the ad aired; once it started running, Hahn surged into a lead he was not thereafter to relinquish.


Yet it was amazing that Villaraigosa came as close as he did. The challenge he faced was to put together a progressive electoral majority in Los Angeles without substantial support from the African-American community, whose allegiance Hahn (himself not just white but, that rarity of L.A. politics, a Wasp) claimed for reasons that were chiefly historic. (Or genetic: Hahn's father, the late, legendary Kenny Hahn, had represented South Central on the county board of supervisors from 1952 through 1992 and had been a steady champion of African-American interests throughout that time.) This dilemma--the political equivalent of squaring a circle--was partly a consequence of California's nonpartisan system of municipal government. In a party system, Villaraigosa's victory over Hahn in April's primary would have put the former Speaker into a runoff against Republican Steve Soboroff rather than against Hahn, and Villaraigosa would then have picked up the great majority of the black vote in June. Without that vote, however, Villaraigosa needed to best Hahn among the centrist and center-right Democrats of the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles's Westside--a formidable challenge at best, and an impossible one after Hahn's ad went up on the air.


And yet the city still moves--in Villaraigosa's direction. The mobilization of Latino and new-immigrant voters continues apace; the leftward movement of city voters is indisputable. The electorate that went to the polls in June was 22 percent Latino (up from a scant 10 percent when Republican Richard Riordan was elected in 1993), and the former Speaker pulled down 82 percent of this fastest-growing constituency. According to the Los Angeles Times exit poll, moreover, fully 49 percent of city voters identified themselves as liberal, while just 22 percent called themselves conservative.



Villaraigosa also won the backing of 57 percent of voters under 45. Indeed, to see Villaraigosa on the campaign trail was to understand that he was not simply the standardbearer for Latinos and progressives but also the natural candidate of Los Angeles's twenty-somethings, for whom a casual multiculturalism is as normal as it is abnormal for the city's sixty-somethings. Within the various constituencies of Democratic Los Angeles, the dividing line between Hahn and Villaraigosa supporters was often generational. The African-American officials who rallied South Central for Hahn tended to be in their sixties and seventies, while many of Villaraigosa's endorsers were roughly his age (48) or younger. Hahn's labor supporters were pillars of labor's ancién regime, including the building trades and public-sector unions that have on occasion absented themselves from the living-wage, organizing, and immigrant-rights campaigns that County Federation of Labor Chief Miguel Contreras and his associates have directed over the past half-decade.


In the settling of scores that is already under way now that the election is over, the old guard is turning its ire on the labor-Latino alliance generally and on Contreras--who successfully prodded the County Federation to back Villaraigosa--in particular. On election night, Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters, one of Hahn's most strident supporters, told the Los Angeles Times that for labor, Hahn's victory means that "instead of going to him with their agenda, they are going to have to say, 'How can we work together?' and åWhat would you like to see done?'" (Always looking out for the working stiff, that Maxine.)


What, then, becomes of the L.A. model--that combination of union, political, and community organizing that has produced groundbreaking health care, environmental, and municipal-wage policies in the past several years? On the whole, it rolls on unimpeded. The institutions that have spawned and supported it--chiefly, the Service Employees International Union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, and the County Federation--will keep on doing what they've been doing. (There's no figure from labor's old guard who could plausibly challenge Contreras at the Fed.) With Villaraigosa's defeat, they will not have their foremost champion in the mayor's office, but it's important to remember that everything they've done to date has been accomplished during Riordan's mayoral tenure and that Hahn will be at least marginally more predisposed to their projects than Riordan was.


While Los Angeles's labor-Latino alliance remains an institutional powerhouse, a new challenge to it emerged from the recent election. As commentator Gregory Rodriguez has noted, the relatively few Latino big-city mayors in America--among them, Henry Cisneros in San Antonio and Federico Peña in Denver--have tended to come to power not with union backing but rather as candidates of a business-Latino alliance. This is hardly surprising, since Los Angeles is the only city in which a sizable labor-Latino alliance has developed. But Rodriguez is right that two distinct paths to power are emerging. And on the morning after the election, Los Angeles awakened to find itself with its first civic leader who personified this business-Latino coalition: newly elected City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo.


A nominal Democrat, Delgadillo is a protégé of Riordan, whom he served as deputy mayor for economic development. He is the most accidental of victors; his campaign was the intended beneficiary of a great deal of business money and the unintended beneficiary of the Villaraigosa get-out-the-vote campaign among L.A. Latinos, who punched their chad for Delgadillo once they'd voted for Villaraigosa. But for the Latino working class of Los Angeles (which is to say, the city's new majority), the question of whether a Villaraigosa or a Delgadillo emerges as the next Latino standard-bearer is hugely important. Running Riordan's economic-development shop, Delgadillo placed no emphasis whatever on creating living-wage jobs--policy that was always a priority for onetime union organizer Villaraigosa. No smart money would bet against labor or Villaraigosa in Latino Los Angeles on election day, but Delgadillo's victory does raise the stakes.


For the past couple of weeks, longtime Angelenos could be forgiven for thinking they were reliving a particularly searing season from Los Angeles's inglorious past. In 1969 liberal city council member Tom Bradley finished first in April's mayoral primary. Bradley was the first African American to seriously contest for mayor, and his campaign was an epochal crosstown crusade that was filled with movement activists and inspired thousands of volunteers. It had everything a campaign could want--except an effective counter to the demagogic incumbent, Democrat Sam Yorty, who charged that Bradley was a soft-on-crime closet Commie and black nationalist with secret ties to the Black Panthers. In the June runoff, Yorty defeated Bradley by 6 percentage points.


For old timers, then, Villaraigosa's campaign for mayor was an exercise in civic déjà vu. No candidate since Bradley in 1969 had inspired the kind of dedication that Villaraigosa did among his followers through his commitment, affability, and sheer tenacity on the campaign trail. And when Hahn went on the attack, Villaraigosa seemed every bit as defenseless as Bradley in 1969. Villaraigosa's campaign had con-ducted a series of focus groups with swing voters from the Valley and turned up a particularly fearful asymmetry: Those voters were predisposed to credit a Hahn attack on Villaraigosa, but their latent mistrust of Villaraigosa was only exacerbated when he mixed it up with Hahn. Like Bradley in 1969, then, he refrained from going on the offensive. And like Bradley in 1969, he lost--in his case, by 7 percentage points.


The parallels don't have to end there. Four years after his initial bout with Yorty, Bradley ran again--better known and harder to demonize than he'd been in his first campaign--and won. Like Bradley, Villaraigosa has already come further in his career than anyone would have predicted and, more important, has already made Los Angeles a better place in the process. In all likelihood, he, his alliance, and his city still have a date with history.

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