Race Conquers All

New York, like Los Angeles, now has its new mayor; that's the bad news.
Seldom has a city elected a leader about whom it knew less or who seemed to know
less about his city. Their mutual ignorance--New York's of Michael Bloomberg,
Michael Bloomberg's of New York--seems almost total. In the course of his
campaign, Bloomberg said nothing whatever to indicate how he'd govern, save that
he'd try to follow in Rudy Giuliani's footsteps. And in Los Angeles, new Mayor
James Hahn most certainly knows L.A., but L.A. knows less about him now than when
he was a candidate. Five months into his term, ducking decisions and staying
largely out of public view, Hahn has done virtually nothing to indicate how he's
governing--or even that he's governing. Two blank slates now preside over
America's two megacities.

The news goes from bad to worse. New York and Los Angeles had major
opportunities in this year's mayoral elections to inaugurate a new era of urban
progressivism in America, and both cities came up short. For much of the past
century, cities have been a spawning ground of liberal policies and pols; but
business-oriented centrist mayors have dominated the urban scene for the last
decade--presiding over a restoration of law and order and the revival of downtown
life, as well as a heightening of economic inequality and, in some instances, an
increase in racial tensions. This year, however, Republicans Rudy Giuliani and
Richard Riordan were termed out of their respective city halls, and with the
candidacies of Democrats Mark Green in New York and Antonio Villaraigosa in Los
Angeles, two smart, tested liberals seemed poised to take power and reinvent a
vibrant center-left urban politics. Only, they lost.

And--the worst news of all--they lost in no small part because of the racial
tensions within their own coalitions, because leading Democrats in both cities
played the race card against them precisely to keep this new generation of
non-nationalist liberals from coming to power. As a liberal activist for the past
quarter-century, Green had long been a champion of civil rights, and as New
York's elected public advocate for the past eight years, a constant critic of
Giuliani's tolerance of racist police practices. Nonetheless, in the run-up to
the general election, four leading Democrats--Bronx Borough President Fernando
Ferrer, Bronx party head Roberto Ramirez, union local leader Dennis Rivera of the
Service Employees International Union, and the ineffable Al Sharpton--had sought
to portray Green as the new-age version of a white-backlash pol. Although Green
had, in fact, aired one racially suggestive attack ad against Ferrer, who'd been
his opponent in the primary, the charge was ridiculous. But by depressing
nonwhite turnout and helping steer half the Latino vote to Bloomberg, it played
just well enough to make him mayor. Even more ludicrous, some African-American
leaders in Los Angeles--California Representative Maxine Waters, most
particularly--accused former Assembly Speaker Villaraigosa, who'd founded the
city's Black-Latino Roundtable and headed up the local chapter of the American
Civil Liberties Union, of posing a menace to blacks. Villaraigosa would have lost
the black vote to Hahn in any event, but this scurrilous charge certainly widened
Hahn's margin and helped to ensure his victory.

Los Angeles and New York, I need hardly point out, are vastly different
cities, but for the past dozen years, they have marched in woeful political
lockstep. In 1993, following terms in office marred by racial violence, the
cities' African-American Democratic mayors, Tom Bradley and David Dinkins, were
succeeded by white Republicans Riordan and Giuliani. Emphasizing public order and
a renewal of business confidence, both new mayors won wide backing, at least in
their first terms. They were handily re-elected in 1997; only African-Americans
supported their white liberal challengers--Tom Hayden in Los Angeles, Ruth
Messinger in New York.

The 1997 elections also registered a dramatic shift in the composition of both
cities' electorates. In Los Angeles, the number of Latino voters surpassed the
number of black voters for the first time since the mid-nineteenth century; in New
York, the number of Latino voters almost equaled that of their African-American
counterparts for the first time ever. In both cities, the declining relative size
and growing political isolation of the black communities meant that there were no
serious black candidates for mayor in either 1997 or 2001. The liberal forces
vying to supplant Riordan and Giuliani this year would find their standard-bearers
elsewhere.

In Los Angeles, that candidate was clearly Antonio Villaraigosa, whose staunch
progressivism was complemented by exquisite political skills that enabled him to
cultivate supporters across the political spectrum. His support for union
organizing, for an aggressive expansion of the city's living-wage ordinance, and
for greater civilian control of the police marked a clear break with city policy
under Riordan. And yet, Villaraigosa took pains to acknowledge Riordan's success
in improving the city's business climate--eventually even winning Riordan's
support in his runoff against Hahn.

Villaraigosa was both the champion and the beneficiary of the city's burgeoning
labor-Latino alliance: a coalition of dynamic unions and economic-justice
organizations that advocated for the city's largely Latino working class, with a
distinctly class-based and nonnationalistic perspective. (County Federation of
Labor leader Miguel Contreras justly took pride in his organization's success at
persuading Latino immigrant voters to back white and black progressives over
Latino centrists in several elections.) Villaraigosa's pre-primary endorsements
by the Federation and then the county Democratic Party signaled not just a
personal success but also the emergence of a coherent citywide progressive force.

In New York, no such force existed, but Mark Green began the race in a far
stronger position than Villaraigosa had in Los Angeles, and it was by no means
clear that he needed that kind of institutional boost. By all appearances, he was
perfectly positioned to pick up the pieces of post-Rudy New York. Decades of
liberal activism, and eight years of blasting Giuliani, made him a known quantity
to the city's myriad progressives (even if to know Green was seldom to love him),
and he staked out enough of the center by campaigning incessantly with William
Bratton, Giuliani's first chief of police. Green promised the consolidation of
Giuliani's achievements and the repudiation of Giuliani's bile, which had been
disproportionately directed at nonwhites. This was less of a message or a vision
than it was simply a position on the spectrum--left of Bloomberg and fellow
Democrats Peter Vallone and Alan Hevesi, right of Freddy Ferrer--but it seemed
the most advantageous position a candidate could hold.

In sum, both Green and Villaraigosa promised regimes of racial comity, minus
much of the ethos of ethnic entitlements that had long crippled urban Democratic
politics. Villaraigosa was much more the tribune of the working poor than Green
was, but the working poor were at the center of Los Angeles's progressive agenda,
while the New York version of that agenda had no discernible center at all.
Still, taking their résumés as well as their policies into account,
both candidates plausibly promised an urban-liberal renewal--albeit one that
incorporated the successes of the Riordan and Giuliani administrations.

And then--in strikingly similar ways--their candidacies crumpled.

Of course, a whole range of factors contributed to Green's defeat. Even by
the standards of New York at its most extravagant, the $70 million that Bloomberg
spent is a stunning amount of money; no nonpresidential candidate in American
history has ever spent a remotely comparable figure. As well, the value to
Bloomberg of Giuliani's endorsement was magnified many times by Rudy's masterful
handling of the city's September 11 trauma and its aftermath.

Green himself was more than a little complicit in his own demise. His campaign
lacked the economic-justice focus that had enabled Villaraigosa to reach somewhat
across the lines of race. His arrogance--on suicidal public display in his
assertion that he'd have handled the city's September 11 crisis as well as or
better than Giuliani--alienated thousands of potential supporters. And his attack
ad against Ferrer inflamed what proved to be a very inflammable constituency.

But none of these weak points would have sufficed to elect Mike Bloomberg had
it not been for one final factor--the very same factor that helped make Jim Hahn
mayor of Los Angeles: identity politics.

For Mark Green did not lose Latino voters to Freddy Ferrer (much less to Mike
Bloomberg) because his opponents were better on Latino issues, just as
Villaraigosa didn't lose black voters to Hahn because Hahn was the stronger
champion of black concerns. To the contrary, on the defining issue of concern to
L.A. African-Americans--the racist brutality of the police--Villaraigosa had long
been a champion of greater civilian control, while Hahn, who'd been city
attorney, had been at best a foul-weather critic of the Los Angeles Police
Department, and at worst had defended L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates throughout
the Rodney King controversy. In New York, Green's record of assailing the racial
profiling practiced by the Giuliani-era police force was longer and clearer than
Ferrer's. In the primary campaign, Ferrer morphed into the champion of the "other
New York," but little in his record as a leader of the Bronx Democratic apparat
suggested a notable commitment to improving the lot of the poor.

But Ferrer's appeal to New York Latinos and Hahn's appeal to Los Angeles
blacks wasn't really based on performance or ideology. Ferrer was simply "one of
us"--an impression reinforced by his lack of interest in winning white
progressives to his column. Hahn was almost "one of us" (his father, the late
County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, had been the white godfather of L.A. black
politics for four decades), and just as important, he wasn't "one of them"--the
Latinos who, by sheer dint of numbers, had altered the identity of long-black
communities and diminished the political power of black Los Angeles.

Indeed, it was the threat to the old-guard nationalists within Los Angeles's
African-American political elite that fueled their attack on Villaraigosa.
Belying her image as a principled progressive, Maxine Waters not only falsely
disputed Villaraigosa's long record of working in and for the black community but
attacked the younger black leaders who supported him as insufficiently
African-American. Support for Hahn became a measure of one's blackness.

In New York, a Green misstep triggered a similar dynamic--though, like
Villaraigosa, he was surely more sinned against than sinning. His anti-Ferrer
primary commercial questioned whether "we" could trust Ferrer to manage the
city--an ad that Ferrer supporters and more-neutral observers alike viewed as
racially tinged. But even placing the worst possible interpretation on this ad,
to suggest that it negated the differences between Green and Bloomberg was
delusional.

As it happened, though, some of New York's most adept political figures are in
the business of peddling delusions. Al Sharpton, whose affinity for race baiting
and the Big Lie has been clear since his bogus defense of Tawana Brawley,
attacked Green as though he were Jesse Helms. Ferrer and his political capo
Ramirez, who are attempting to shape and lead a Latino-black coalition that they
believe will eventually dominate city politics, made clear that Green's election
was a matter of utter indifference to them and their city; on election day, the
Bronx organization took the day off. Dennis Rivera, whose hospital workers' union
normally mobilizes more nonwhite voters than any other group in the city (and who
increasingly is allied with Republican Governor George Pataki), declined to turn
out a single voter.

The result was a collapse of Latino support for Green. He polled just 49
percent in the Latino community to Bloomberg's 47 percent--well below the levels
of backing for his Democratic predecessors David Dinkins (64 percent in 1989, 60
percent in 1993) and Ruth Messinger (57 percent in 1997). Turnout plummeted as
well: Latinos constituted 20 percent of the electorate four years ago and 24
percent in this year's primary, but just 18 percent in the November runoff.
Sharpton, meanwhile, took his toll in the black community: Green's 75 percent
backing was down from Messinger's 79 percent four years previous, and the black
share of the electorate, 23 percent, should have been larger given the Latino
quasi-boycott of the polls.

New York emerges from November's election with a political culture that's
hard-wired for racial resentment. Outgoing State Democratic Chair Judith Hope has
actually suggested that one of the two aspiring Democratic challengers to Pataki
in next year's gubernatorial election--State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who is
black, and former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who
is white--should drop out, since the ability of the party to cohere after a
primary between these two moderate candidates of different races is now presumed
to be nil.

The situation in Los Angeles is not this dire. Villaraigosa made substantial
inroads among younger African-American political and community leaders. The
structural difference between the two cities is that Los Angeles has one powerful
institution that bridges, however imperfectly, the gap between races in the
Democratic coalition, espouses a nonracial politics of class, and wins real
victories under that banner: the County Federation of Labor. An omnibus grouping
representing a very diverse 800,000 workers, the County Federation is
overwhelmingly the dominant progressive force in local politics.

New York's Central Labor Council, unfortunately, is less than the sum of its
parts. It's the individual unions--the teachers, the city workers, the hospital
employees, the public-safety workers, the building trades--that dominate New York
elections, often on behalf of parochial agendas and not-particularly-diverse
memberships. No concept is more foreign to New York's unions than solidarity at
election time; they scattered their endorsements almost randomly during the first
round of this year's primaries. As New York Democrats polarize along lines of
race, New York unions offer hardly any countervailing pressure at all.

The best that can be said for Los Angeles is that there is at least a battle
of class politics against race politics. Recently, a Latino organization sued the
state for its new reapportionment, since it diminished the number of Latinos in
the district of longtime Democratic Congressman Howard Berman. Berman's old San
Fernando Valley district was home to a number of Latino nationalist pols eager to
oust this very non-Latino (in fact, white Jewish) member. But County Federation
leader Miguel Contreras rushed to Berman's defense, noting that Berman has for
decades been the chief congressional champion of both the United Farm Workers and
Latino immigrants generally. The vast majority of L.A.-area Latino pols (whose
seats, it should be noted, were also protected by the same reapportionment that
protected Berman) followed suit. This kind of cross-racial support is all but
inconceivable in today's New York.

In the end, the politics of race derailed the prospects for a new urban
liberalism in both cities this year. In Los Angeles, however, there is at least
an institutional vehicle for combating those politics. In New York, no such
vehicle exists, and in its absence, a future looms in which racial resentments
are both the means and ends of political life. Add a decent political culture to
the list of things New Yorkers need to rebuild.

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