In an historic yet contentious mayoral election in which the candidates turned off more voters than they turned on, Councilmember Antonio Villaraigosa heralding himself as a candidate with energy and vitality, becoming the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in more than 132 years.
In winning Tuesday’s election, a rematch of their 2001 runoff, Villaraigosa resurrected a political career momentarily stalled by his earlier defeat at the hands of previous Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn.
In Tuesday’s election, Hahn, who was Los Angeles city attorney before becoming mayor in 2001, never recovered from allegations of a “pay to play” scandal, in which two top aides resigned amidst allegations of city contracts being given to campaign supporters.
In television ads and in public, Villaraigosa described Hahn as heading “the most investigated administration since the 1930s.” In his defeat, Hahn became the first incumbent Los Angeles mayor to lose a reelection bid since 1933.
As the leader of the second largest city in the nation, Villaraigosa’s political influence could resonate far beyond Los Angeles, and make him a player on the national political scene.
“It’s going to be interesting having a mayor like Villaraigosa,” said Martin Saiz, assistant political science professor at CSUN. “(As a Latino mayor), he’s going to get instant national attention. (He’s) going to be in the spotlight. We’ll see what he does with that.”
How Villaraigosa got there is much like a civics lesson in Los Angeles politics, where ethnic, political and economic interests have shifted in recent years.
Tom Hogen-Esch, assistant political science professor at CSUN, said the African American community, with its political power waning as the group’s overall population numbers go down, may have been the deciding factor in this race.
“The black vote has been a block since the 1960s,” Hogen-Esch said. “This election is the first time you’re seeing a split in the black community.”
According to a recent Los Angeles Times poll, going into the election, 43 percent of African Americans polled said they supported Villaraigosa, compared with 40 percent who said they planned to vote for Hahn. Sixteen percent said they were undecided.
In the 2001 election, about 80 percent of African American voters supported Hahn, according to L.A. Times polling figures. That support was largely the result of voters paying homage to the legacy of Hahn’s father, the late Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, a legend in the African American community.
Hahn’s decision not to support former Police Chief Bernard Parks in his bid to remain at the helm of the Los Angeles Police Department angered many in the African American community.
This time around, many African American leaders, including California Congressmember Maxine Waters and businessperson Earvin “Magic” Johnson, broke away from the Hahn campaign to endorse Villaraigosa.
“Race is never an afterthought in Los Angeles politics,” Hogen-Esch said. “It is always there, (as) an undertone. The question is, ‘How do other groups respond (to a Latino mayor)? With fear?’ (I’d) like to think Los Angeles politics has matured to the extent where black voters will not be threatened by a Latino mayor.”
Hogen-Esch said he thinks Villaraigosa’s election is an indication that all Angelinos are getting used to the city’s changing demographics.
“Slowly but surely, Angelinos are becoming accustomed to sitting at the table of power with Latinos,” Hogen-Esch said.
Villaraigosa contended that the city needs to reestablish honesty and openly questioned Hahn’s trustworthiness, which nearly backfired on him when late in the campaign it was reported that Villaraigosa received $47,000 in donations from employees working for a Miami businessperson with financial interests at Los Angeles International Airport. The employees reportedly knew little about the donations, and the case is now under investigation. Villaraigosa returned the money.
According to the L.A. Times poll, voters said the “ethics” question surrounding both candidates dulled their interest in the mayoral race.
Saiz said Democrats Hahn and Villaraigosa are, politically speaking, nearly identical, with Hahn a bit more conservative and Villaraigosa more liberal. Saiz said support that seemingly plays out along racial lines might not be racial at all.
“People vote for people (who are similar to) them,” Saiz said. “It’s predictable that Latinos are voting for Villaraigosa. Are they being racist?”
According to the L.A. Times poll, 77 percent of Latinos polled said they support Villaraigosa, with 17 percent supporting Hahn. Six percent were undecided. In the same poll, 48 percent of Caucasians supported Hahn, compared with 45 percent supporting Villaraigosa and 7 percent undecided.
Saiz said that since Caucasian voters from the San Fernando Valley are more conservative than most Angelinos, they often vote for the candidate who most closely represents their interests.
“Hahn is more conservative and has asked for their vote,” Saiz said. “The voters can only choose (what is) available to them.”
Saiz said where he has seen race play out unfairly has been in television ads promoting Hahn as being tough on crime.
“(Hahn) has exploited the crime issue,” Saiz said. “Most people associate crime with race.”
Saiz said that by identifying Villaraigosa with the ethnicity of criminals, he is subtly suggesting that Villaraigosa is “soft on crime.”
On the other hand, Saiz said Hahn has not received enough credit for the 20 percent drop in crime that has occurred under his watch, as well as for the hiring of William Bratton as police chief of the LAPD. Hahn accused Villaraigosa of flip-flopping by allegedly supporting and then criticizing the decision to oust Parks, depending on the community Villaraigosa was addressing.
Villaraigosa publicly supported the hiring of Bratton.
Hogen-Esch said some of the mudslinging, particularly Villaraigosa’s attack on Hahn’s “pay to play” allegation, is nothing new.
“The truth is, Hahn’s administration is no more corrupt than (past) administrations,” Hogen-Esch said. “Go back as far as you want in Los Angeles history (and you will find similar problems). The larger problem is the extent of money affecting elections.”
Villaraigosa’s alleged donation from the Miami employees proves “he’s not immune to that (problem),” Hogen-Esch said.
According to L.A. Times figures, Villaraigosa had raised $2.8 million through the end of April, and Hahn, about $1.2 million.
CSUN student and Villaraigosa field worker David Rahimian, senior political science major, said last night from Villaraigosa’s San Fernando Valley campaign headquarters that he was hopeful.
“We’re going to build bridges that have been torn down by the previous administration,” Rahimian said.
Hogen-Esch said Villaraigosa’s potential reaches beyond the mayor’s office, and could include a run for the U.S. senate or the governor’s office.
“Villaraigosa is going to be a national star,” Hogen-Esch said. “The question is, ‘How long is he going to stick around?'”
Today?s story ?Villaraigosa makes history in L.A. mayoral race,? incorrectly stated that Mayor James Hahn is the first incumbent Los Angeles mayor to lose a reelection bid since 1933. He is actually the first to lose since 1973.