Even by the fast-forward standards of California politics,
where term limits bump off the entire state legislature every eight years,
Antonio Villaraigosa has had a meteoric career. In the early 1990s, he was an
organizer for the teachers' union, a county supervisor's delegate on the L.A.
transit board, and president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern
California--none of these particularly promising starting points for a career in
politics. By 1998, astonishingly, he had become speaker of the California
Assembly--and today, he is the great progressive hope in the upcoming election
for mayor of Los Angeles.
The question now is whether Villaraigosa can hasten the course of L.A.
politics-- and that of urban progressivism generally--as he has his own career.
For if he is to win the election to succeed the term-limited (and conservative)
Richard Riordan as mayor, he must construct a brand-new electoral alliance among
communities that have almost nothing in common.
The Villaraigosa coalition begins with the Latino immigrants, who have been
voting for only the past few years, and with Los Angeles's Latino-led labor
movement, which has brought those immigrants to the polls. His coalition then
radiates outward to include those liberal, Democratic, and Jewish voters for whom
Villaraigosa's core electoral base is so economically and culturally distant from
their affluent Westside world that it may as well be on another planet.
Urban politics in America is the politics of ethnic succession, and a
Villaraigosa mayoralty would signal the transition from the black-led urban
liberal coalitions that came to power beginning in the 1960s to Latino-led
coalitions that will certainly dominate urban politics within a decade or two.
Most black-led coalitions sputtered and died in the early 1990s: As the
African-American share of America's major cities began to decline, and as black
communities became more politically isolated from their historic allies, Mayors
Tom Bradley of Los Angeles and David Dinkins of New York City, both black
Democrats, were each succeeded by white Republicans. In Chicago, Mayor Harold
Washington's early death led to a restoration of the Daleys. In the 1997 mayoral
elections in both New York and Los Angeles, the number of Latino voters equaled
(in New York) or exceeded (in Los Angeles) that of black voters for the first
It's clear from Los Angeles's changing demographics that the city's Latino
community will by sheer dint of numbers be able in eight years to elect a mayor
of its own. By running this year, however, Villaraigosa is attempting to do
something much more important. Precisely because the Latino vote is by itself
still too small to sweep anyone into city hall, he is building a cross-racial,
citywide progressive coalition--much as Tom Bradley did when he was first elected
mayor 28 years ago.
In the years leading up to his mayoral victory, Bradley built a crosstown
reputation as an apostle of civil rights and police reform while immersing
himself in the causes of a vibrant and very liberal Democratic-club movement.
Villaraigosa has consciously modeled his career on Bradley's, updating his
causes for the exigencies of the time. He is pre-eminently the tribune of
economic equity--a champion of the city's janitor and hotel worker unions, of
the living-wage and affordable-housing movements, of urban parks, and of
civilian control of Los Angeles's perpetually paramilitary police.
But the political landscape that Villaraigosa confronts may prove
more treacherous than the one that Bradley faced. The blacks and Jews who came
together to elect Bradley had been working together in the civil rights movement
for a full decade when Bradley first ran; they had gotten to know one another
through the city's Democratic-club movement. No equivalent crosstown fraternity
or political structure exists today; and the Democratic clubs that have wheezed
into the new century look for all the world like chapters of the American
Association for Retired Persons.
To be sure, the institutions of the next urban progressive coalition have all
endorsed Villaraigosa--the main environmental and women's groups and, most
important, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, which by expertly
mobilizing union members and Latino voters has won nearly every contest in which
it has intervened over the past five years. He also has the support of
Congressman Henry Waxman, an icon of Westside Jewish liberalism.
Indeed, of the six major mayoral candidates, Villaraigosa is one of only two
who poll respectably across racial lines. His problem is with constituencies
closer to home. He is splitting the Latino vote with a second Latino candidate,
Xavier Becerra, a congressman with an almost impeccably liberal voting record.
But Becerra has been as absent from Los Angeles's political scene and its
struggles as Villaraigosa has been ubiquitous. He registers virtually no support
outside the Latino community--yet his support within it is the reason why
Villaraigosa trails the leading candidate, City Attorney James Hahn, as the
April 10 primary election approaches. (In California's nonpartisan municipal
elections, if no candidate receives a majority in the primary, the top two
finishers then run against each other in the general election. The latest Los
Angeles Times poll shows Villaraigosa tied for second with Republican
businessman Steve Soboroff, whom Riordan supports; one of them will likely oppose
Hahn in the June runoff.)
Hahn owes his lead to the fact that he's the only candidate with an electoral
base largely to himself in the primary: the African-American community. Not that
Hahn himself is black. The black share of the L.A. electorate is too small, and
the black political leadership too old, to mount a candidate of its own. Hahn's
father, however, the legendary Kenny Hahn, represented South Central, the center
of black Los Angeles, during his 40-year term as a county supervisor; he
championed the community before any other local elected official dared do so, and
his son still reaps the goodwill his father sewed.
Villaraigosa's difficulties in black Los Angeles go beyond the Hahns, however.
Though it's Villaraigosa, not James Hahn, who is the leading exponent of police
reform in this year's mayoral field, the black community is no longer marching
under the police reform banner. Tom Bradley solidified his support in black Los
Angeles by standing up to the racist brutality of Chief William Parker's cops at
the time of the 1965 Watts riots. In 1993 mayoral candidate Mike Woo won the
votes of black Los Angeles over Richard Riordan by opposing the racist brutality
of Chief Daryl Gates's cops at the time of the Rodney King beating. Yet
Villaraigosa gets no such bump today. He's been a leading critic of the racist
brutality of Chief Bernard Parks's cops in the Rampart police scandal--in which
police have admitted to shooting manacled suspects and generally running amok in
a poor, immigrant neighborhood. But because Parks is black and the department's
victims were Latino, the black vote for the police-reform candidate--a sine qua
non of the old black-led liberal regimes--is nowhere in evidence.
Should the runoff pit Hahn against Villaraigosa, it would truly be a
contest between the last standard-bearer of the old urban liberal order and the
first standard-bearer of the next. Programmatically, Hahn seems like a throwback
to the Bradley past; he advocates a hugely expensive subway construction project
that endears him to some old-guard building trades unions. Villaraigosa's support
comes from the more low-wage, service-sector union locals. While Villaraigosa
errs on the side of spontaneity, Hahn combines some of the stiffness of Al Gore
with a bit of the dullness of George W. (like Gore, he's the career-pol son of a
career pol). Both candidates can be counted upon to support most mainstream
liberal causes--but Hahn would be led to them, while Villaraigosa would lead them
himself. Between this white black candidate and this Latino labor candidate, Los
Angeles will actually be choosing between epochs, between regimes.