It's election day, folks. Only most of you don't know it. Here in LA, we're picking which of the 5 mayoral candidates are going to advance into the runoff, at which point they can bludgeon each other senseless in a one-on-one air war. But, unlike the unrelenting disappointment that has been national politics, LA's election is an all-Democrat affair, which means the issues are subordinate to personal rivalries, ethnic tribalism, and good media strategy. In other words, it's a lot of fun. So here's your guide to the hopefuls:
Richard Alarcon: Think Kucinich. He's a good guy who makes great sense, but he's polling in low single digits, and has actually been going in the wrong direction numbers-wise. So long as Villairagosa is in the race, Alarcon's got nothing. As things stand, he's a progressive gadfly, upping his name recognition and bringing otherwise ignored issues to the fore.
Jim Hahn: Son of legendary supervisor, Hahn is the incumbent, and surprisingly vulnerable. Last time around, he advanced to the runoff, with most thinking he was about to be steamrolled by the grassroots uprising Villaraigosa was leading (see below). But Hahn proved them wrong, smearing the hell out of his opponent with a series of ads featuring Villaraigosa and a crack pipe. The argument was that the former Speaker of the Assembly had helped a contributor's cracked-out kid get an early release; the effect was the Hispanic guy constantly on TV with his face next to drug paraphernalia. Hahn won.
Aside from his political hardball, Hahn's been less bad than boring. A constant drip of scandals and controversy have easily triumphed over his nonexistent attempts to trumpet achievement or garner positive press. Worse, his ethnic coalition has cracked down the middle. Last time around, he cobbled together blacks (who both loved his father and were afraid of Villaraigosa) and Valley whites, but his decision to fire Bernard Parks and oppose the Valley's attempt at secession pretty much crushed that unlikely alliance (both moves were the right ones). Bottom line, folks are sick of him, and he's done little to build up goodwill over the past four years.
Bob Hertzburg: The freshest face in the race, Hertzburg is a tall, husky, gregarious white guy whose propensity to embrace everyone he sees has earned him the nickname of "Huggy Bear". A former Speaker of the Assembly, Hertzburg is a moderate technocrat who's run a campaign based on three things, and three things only -- traffic, breaking up LA Unified (the school district), and putting more cops on the street.
The problem is that LA's mayor has no authority to break up LA Unified, so the pledge, while fine in theory, is simply opportunistic. And while I like the focus on traffic, we're going to need more serious reforms than synchronized lights and a moratorium on daytime construction. But Hahn's super-simple campaign has been genius, far and away the best in the race. His ads, which make him into a Godzilla-esque giant stomping through LA, are genius, a lot of fun (watch them). He's pulling in Hahn's old supporter in the Valley, Jews, and Republicans. He's got [former mayor] Dick Riordan's support as well as Arnold's tacit endorsement, in the form of some joint press conferences and photo-ops. The worry with Hertzburg, however, is that it's unclear where his loyalties lie. Having run such a laser-focused campaign (Joe Trippi was one of his strategists, by the way), we really have no idea where he stands on Labor, or health care, or pretty much anything. So while he's certainly the most exciting candidate in the race with the most entertaining and attractive campaign, what sort of mayor he'd be is really up for grabs.
Bernard Parks: Parks was the police commissioner and the city's highest ranking black official. Hahn engineered his removal from office in favor of Bill Bratton, the current chief. Hahn was right -- Parks wasn't cleaning up the LAPD and was too slow to implement needed reforms. The jobless ex-chief has spent the intervening three years as a Hahn-seaking missile, his mission in life being the erosion of Hahn's support in the black community. For his part, Parks has basically no chance to win -- his reason for running is a personal grievance. He's shown no ability to forge multiethnic coalitions nor attract unexpected support. His candidacy is all Shakespearean revenge on Hahn, and it's probably going to work.
Antonio Villaraigosa: San Franciscans will know him as Tom Ammiano, only less queer and more Mexican. Villaraigosa ran last time around and created a progressive insurgency that swept the city and made the race -- gasp! -- exciting. That was until the runoff with Hahn, where the crackpipe ads elicited weak reprisals, and Villaraigosa crashed and burned. He spent the intervening time in the City Council, promising not to run and finding reasons to break the promise.
The comparison with Ammiano is instructing in more ways than one. Like Tom, Villaraigosa's second candidacy has lacked the sizzle of his first. The excitement his original insurgency has garnered has given way to a more entitled feel. The guy who beat him cheated, at least ethically, and so he deserves the second try. Villaraigosa is a progressive, a former labor organizer and an all-around good guy. He's a highly experienced namebrand most are comfortable with, if not particularly excited about -- he's the consensus anti-Hahn choice, and currently leading in the polls.
Tomorrow: Today's vote decides which two of the big three (Hahn, Villaraigosa, and Hertzberg) enter the runoff. The safe money is on Hahn and Villairagosa, though the safest money is simply on Villaraigosa, with some combination of the other two. Hahn's got Labor helping him with GOTV, and Hertzberg really has no infrastructure, a problem in the pre-runoff election as the polls are not the most popular morning destination. My runoff predictions are, depending on the combination, Villairagosa beats Hahn, Hahn beats Hertzberg, and Hertzberg beats Villaraigosa, but events can (and probably will) prove me wrong on that. As I see it though, Hertzberg's fresh-faced moderation works better against a progressive firebrand -- even in his second, calmer incarnation -- than it does against a steady mayor who, all things considered, really hasn't done a bad job. Villaraigosa, however, will almost certainly beat Hahn, as Labor's support for the mayor becomes a name only endorsement when their former favorite son enters the ring.