by Harold Meyerson
The future is on hold here, at
least for a few more years. Give Jim Hahn credit: He 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
support to defeat Antonio Villaraigosa in Tuesday's mayoral contest.
Dispatching Villaraigosa required Hahn to engage in the kind of
sliming the city had not known since the heyday of Sam Yorty,
but Hahn proved equal to the task.
In essence, this city was sucker-punched over the past two weeks. Antonio Villa-raigosa is the most skilled, accomplished and charismatic leader the city has seen in a long time, but as a public figure who did most of his work in Sacramento, he was still an unknown quantity to many Angelenos when Hahn's campaign began airing its now notorious attack ad against him. And the ad in which Villaraigosa came off looking like a drug-ring kingpin plainly worked. Hahn had been narrowly trailing Villaraigosa in the polling before the ad went on the air; once it aired, he surged into a lead he was not to relinquish.
Actually, it's amazing that Villaraigosa did as well as he did. The challenge before him was to put together a progressive electoral majority in Los Angeles without substantial support from the African-American community inasmuch as Hahn had already inherited that support from his father. Had Villaraigosa been running against Republican Steve Soboroff instead of Hahn, he surely would have won the lion's share of black support and with it, the Mayor's Office. Indeed, if California did not have nonpartisan municipal elections, Villaraigosa would have faced Soboroff, since he would have defeated Hahn in the Democratic primary. It's no small historic irony that the one state that could have produced a national leader for America's burgeoning Latino population is also one of the few states with an electoral system that kept that from happening.
Jim Hahn now takes office amid an era of bad feelings that he himself created.
Villaraigosa's supporters felt far more intensely about their candidate than Hahn's did for theirs even in defeat, there were three times the number of people at Villaraigosa's election-night bash as there were at Hahn's and they feel understandably livid at Tuesday's victor. Which creates a peculiar challenge for the new mayor, since the people he has most alienated include the fastest-growing segment of the L.A. population and most of the activists in his own political party. Sam Yorty could offend Tom Bradley's base with impunity, but Jim Hahn's political future most especially if visions of a governorship dance in his head depends on his repairing his relationships with both Latino voters and Democratic stalwarts.
Like no other election in recent memory, the mayor's race of 2001 has created, or at least widened, major fault lines within key Democratic constituencies.
Within the African-American community, the elders (Maxine Waters, Yvonne Brath-waite Burke, Nate Holden) endorsed Hahn while the youngers (Mark Ridley-Thomas, Anthony Thigpenn, Connie Rice) backed Villaraigosa; younger black voters were much more likely than older ones to back Villaraigosa, too. Within the Latino community, Council Members Alex Padilla and Nick Pacheco, who already tended to side more with Mayor Riordan than with the unions to which their constituents belonged, bet on a Hahn victory for fear of being mar-ginalized under a Villaraigosa mayoralty or out of some obscure vendettas of their own.
And within labor, some of the union honchos who have been chafing at the leadership of County Federation of Labor chief Miguel Contreras (who engineered the Fed's endorsement of Villaraigosa) went with Hahn in an effort that some of them hoped would also weaken Contreras. The old-guard union leaders who supported Hahn may well feel emboldened by his victory, but none of them has anywhere near the vision or track record to mount a credible challenge to Contreras, who's widely viewed as the nation's most successful local labor leader.
Considering that it was the Hahn campaign that prevailed, it's remarkable how many of his key supporters damaged themselves in the course of working for his victory. By her demagogic attacks on Villa-raigosa, Maxine Waters has justly ensured her exclusion from L.A. civil-libertarian and Westside liberal circles where she's been a fixture for decades. By their stumblebum attempts to subvert Villa-raigosa's campaign in the primary (sending out a phone message featuring a Gloria Molina sound-alike who accused the former speaker of being soft on crime), Pacheco and Congressman Xavier Becerra marginalized themselves to the point of inviting electoral challengers the next time they face the voters.
In his dealings with all these constituencies, Hahn ä faces a choice: whether to focus chiefly on rewarding his supporters (problematic though they be), or on mending fences with the Latino, Jewish, labor and younger black leaders who backed Villaraigosa. In deciding his course of action, he must weigh whether he's irretrievably estranged some of Villaraigosa's backers by the very way he came to power.
II. You Can Take the Boy out of Carolina . . .
James Kenneth Hahn is not a race-baiting demagogue, but for the past 10 days, he's played one on television. Well, not Hahn himself, heaven forfend; his image and voice were scrupulously absent from his campaign's climactic attack ad on Villaraigosa. But it was the hit ad that turned the campaign around in its last fortnight, and, indeed, it was the hit ad on which the Hahn campaign was always premised. All this year, Hahn's two consultants, Kam Kuwata and Bill Carrick, expressed confidence that Villaraigosa was supremely vulnerable to the charge that he was untrustworthy as a result of his letter on behalf of Carlos Vignali.
Just in case he wasn't vulnerable enough, however, Carrick crafted an ad that suggested through its imagery that Villaraigosa wasn't simply untrustworthy but actually dangerous a shady-looking character surrounded by drug paraphernalia, a cross between a drug kingpin and our homegrown version of Marion Barry.
As editorialists, columnists, clergy and others began to weigh in against the ad calling it our homegrown version of Willie Horton the Hahn campaign countered that it was factually accurate and that it had been Villaraigosa who'd gone negative first. This latter claim produced considerable head scratching within the press, however, and when Hahn leveled it at a post-debate press conference Thursday night at the Museum of Tolerance, the Daily News' Rick Orlov asked Hahn just what exactly were the negative spots produced by the Villaraigosa campaign. Hahn replied that in the primary, when the Moron-go Indian gambling consortium spent $200,000 on radio spots saying, "You can't trust Antonio Villaraigosa," the former speaker's campaign answered with radio spots of its own, asking where those Morongo ads really came from, and concluding with the line "Ask Jim Hahn."
Now, in the vast cavalcade of negative ads, this linking of the Hahn campaign with a scurrilous ad offensive intended to help it out is small beer indeed.
Moreover, the very day of the Museum of Tolerance debate, the L.A. Times ran a piece documenting that Daniel Wein-stein, a longtime Hahn ally who'd raised considerable funds for his campaign, had solicited a number of casino-owning tribes to wage independent-expenditure campaigns against Villaraigosa (who as speaker had backed the right of casino employees to unionize). In sum, the line "Ask Jim Hahn" was not only not-very-negative, it was actually an entirely germane suggestion, which the media quite reasonably acted upon.
The second defense that Hahn mounted for his ad is that it was factually accurate and so it was. For that matter, the Willie Horton ad was factually accurate, too: Michael Dukakis had indeed authorized a disastrous weekend-furlough program for imprisoned felons. The Willie Horton ad achieved its notoriety as a result not of its spoken text but its imagery: black men, in what was intended to be frightening succession, exiting a door. For his part, Hahn defended his ad's imagery as not racist, and it was certainly not as racist as Lee Atwater's masterpiece against Dukakis. But it didn't have to be; it couldn't be without boomeranging. It was merely racist enough.
The irony is that Bill Carrick, the ad's producer, was always the Good South Carolinian among political consultants, just as the late Lee Atwater was the Bad South Carolinian. Carrick started out working for Ted Kennedy and Richard Gephardt, then moved to L.A., where, with Kuwata, he's been Dianne Feinstein's consultant, and by himself has done a brilliant job over the years for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Now, alas, we know that while you can take the boy out of Carolina, you can't take Carolina out of the boy: Carrick has produced an ad that, in the innuendo of its imagery, is worthy of Atwater.
The decision to run the ad, of course, wasn't Carrick's or Kuwata's; it was Hahn's. It was a decision that clearly surprised a lot of people who mistook Hahn's low-intensity demeanor for an internal ethical compass. "You look at the Vignali letter," said Father Greg Boyle at a Villaraigosa campaign stop the Saturday before the election, "and say, `That was a mistake.' You look at the Hahn ad and say, `That was morally reprehensible.'"
III. Shades of Bradley and Clinton
While Hahn disputes any and all equations of his campaign to Sam Yorty's, Villaraigosa has always linked his own effort with Tom Bradley's. The question in the closing weeks of the race was: Which Bradley campaign the 1969 defeat or the 1973 victory?
Bradley's '69 campaign was, like Villaraigosa's, an epochal cross-town crusade, filled with movement activists, inspiring thousands of volunteers. It had everything a campaign could want except an effective counter to Yorty's charges that Bradley was a soft-on-crime closet commie and black nationalist intimately linked to the Black Panthers.
As political scientist Raphael Sonenshein recounts it in Politics in Black and White, his history of L.A. politics in the Yorty and Bradley eras, "Bradley hardly responded at all [in 1969], taking a `high road' approach, assuming that the voters would see through Yorty's demagoguery. Bradley continued to portray himself as a reform-minded liberal who would be a more competent and able mayor than the mercurial Yorty. After Yorty's attacks began, the moderate Bell [Congressman Alphonso Bell, a Republican who'd run and lost in the mayoral primary] endorsed Bradley and the Los Angeles Times strongly backed the black challenger in an editorial blasting Yorty . . . Brad-ley's dignified response was therefore helpful in gaining some `establishment' support . . ."
Sounds mighty familiar. For Bell, substitute Joel Wachs; for the Times, substitute well, the Times (pols come and go; the Times remains). For Bradley's "high road" approach, Villaraigosa had his own talk-the-issues plan for the campaign's final two weeks, focusing on traffic, school construction, and policing. There was, in his campaign's assertion that these issues would dominate the election's homestretch, a great deal of wishful thinking. More than one Villa-raigosa campaign staffer was telling me a couple of weeks ago that they'd weathered Hahn's early hits on Vignali as if they could thereby assume the Hahn campaign had ruled out the nuclear option in the campaign's closing week.
So when the Vignali ad did go up on the air, Villaraigosa's campaign looked for the next several days a lot like Bradley's in '69 like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Part of the problem was that the campaign had pre-tested the tactic of firing back, of going on the offensive itself, and concluded that it only made matters worse. A series of focus groups with swing Valley voters had yielded a particularly fearful asymmetry: Those voters were predisposed to accept a Hahn attack on Villaraigosa, but their latent mistrust of Villaraigosa was only exacerbated when he mixed it up with Hahn. Part of the "problem" was Villa-raigosa himself, who was determined to wage a "high road" campaign.
Accordingly, for the first half of last week, a debate raged within the Villaraigosa campaign much like that which the Bradley '69 campaign never resolved: Should we hit back, and if so, how? By midweek, however, with Villaraigosa's support slipping in both public and internal polling, the answer to the first of those questions was plainly yes. Hahn had made Villaraigosa's character the issue in the Vignali ad; now Villaraigosa would make Hahn's character the issue for airing the Vignali ad. In Thursday night's debate at the Museum of Tolerance, Villaraigosa came out swinging, and his counterattack ad went up the following day. On the campaign trail, Villaraigosa and his surrogates harped repeatedly, straight through Election Day, on both the Hahn ad and its condemnation by much of L.A.'s civic establishment.
Villaraigosa's campaign had been a fairly artful practitioner of political jujitsu throughout spinning his failure to win the Police Protective League's endorsement into a demonstration of the candidate's refusal to compromise public safety, and his ability to stand up to a union. Its initial hesitation to go the jujitsu route when the Vignali ad first appeared, however, is testimony to the difficulties this campaign always encountered in striking the right balance. If Villaraigosa devoted a lot of attention to mobilizing Latino voters, his consultants feared, wouldn't that scare away too many white centrists who were already ambivalent (at best) about the demographic transformation of L.A. over the past 15 years? If Villaraigosa fought back too aggressively on the ad, wouldn't that reinforce the image of the angry kid from the streets of Boyle Heights?
While his initial reluctance to step down from the high road was clearly a contestable decision, Villaraigosa was in every other way a terrific candidate.
No candidate in the history of modern Los Angeles has inspired the kind of dedication that Villaraigosa did among his followers, through his commitment, his affability and his sheer hard work. In the last 48 hours before the polls closed, the former speaker ä made some 40 separate campaign stops. Just before midnight on Monday, at the end of a 19-hour day, he was making the rounds at Canter's Deli, talking to, embracing and seeming to win over virtually everybody there, patrons, waitresses, deli countermen and busboys. In my years covering campaigns, I've seen this kind of tenacity just once before: from Bill Clinton in the 1992 New Hampshire primary. Someone estimated that Clinton had actually shaken the hands of more than a quarter of the state's Democratic voters that year. Villaraigosa shook a lot more hands than that, but there are many more voters in L.A. than there are Democrats in New Hampshire.
Despite his defeat, Villa-raigosa showed an ability to assemble a broad-based coalition that was in certain instances almost mind-boggling. As he addressed his followers on election night, not only was he flanked by Governor Davis and Mayor Riordan, but standing behind him, next to each other, were Eli Broad and Cornel West. Whatever else Villaraigosa may have been, he was certainly the candidate of odd couples.
IV. Options for the Next L.A.
Perhaps the biggest question leaping out of Tuesday's election results is that of the future of Latino political leadership in Los Angeles. With Villa-raigosa's defeat, and the surprise victory of Rocky Del-gadillo as city attorney, one model of Latino coalition politics is now challenged by another. For if Villaraigosa was pre-eminently the candidate of the labor-Latino alliance, Del-gadillo was the first major candidate of the business-Latino alliance. Running against City Councilman Mike Feuer, who proved to be a woefully lackluster campaigner, Delgadillo greatly benefited from the assistance of the mayor and the gaggle of business interests that he'd helped in his post as deputy mayor for economic development.
Delgadillo is a self-proclaimed moderate Democrat, who's come up in the world by affixing himself to a succession of powerful patrons: Warren Christopher, Peter Ueberroth, Richard Riordan. (Although, ironically, Delgadillo owes his election in good measure to the get-out-the-vote effort in the Latino community waged on Villaraigosa's behalf.) As Gregory Rodriguez suggested in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times, most Latino mayors within the few major cities that have had Latino mayors have been more closely aligned with business interests than with labor. Then again, those mayors have hailed from cities San Antonio, El Paso, San Jose with nothing resembling the vibrant labor movement that exists in Los Angeles, and in L.A.'s Latino community in particular.
For the Latino working class of Los Angeles (which is to say, the new majority in the city), the question of whether a Villaraigosa or a Delgadillo emerges as the next civic leader is hugely important. One recent study by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy concluded that in its scattershot attempts to generate new jobs around L.A., Delgadillo's office signally failed to engender jobs that paid a living wage an allegation that Delgadillo didn't really dispute in his interview with the Weekly editorial board. For Villaraigosa, by contrast, the creation of jobs that specifically paid a living wage was a centerpiece of his economic platform.
And Villaraigosa is surely not going away. His campaign, like Tom Bradley's first, failed mayoral bid of 1969, has created a standing army of supporters who will certainly be there for him the next time he seeks office. Moreover, even as his was a breakthrough campaign for Latino voters, it was also a campaign that won major support among L.A.'s younger voters no matter what their race or ethnicity. To see Villaraigosa working the crowds at Pink's and Canter's on the night before the election was to see the first natural candidate of L.A.'s 20-somethings, for whom a casually multicultural life is every bit as normal as it is abnormal for L.A.'s 60-somethings. Alas for Villaraigosa, in municipal elections 60-somethings outvote the 20-somethings all the time.
It may be cold comfort, but Villaraigosa must realize that it took Tom Bradley two tries to get into the Mayor's Office, two campaigns before the city felt comfortable with this initially unfamiliar figure who personified a new governing coalition and whom, eventually, L.A. came to love. Bradley lost by 6 percent in his first run for mayor in 1969; Villaraigosa, by 7 points this Tuesday. Like Bradley, Villaraigosa has already come further in his career than anyone would ever have predicted, and, more important, has already made Los Angeles a better place in the process.
So is Antonio washed up? Yeah. Like Tom Bradley in 1969.
Reprinted from the L.A. Weekly, June 8 - 14, 2001.