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It's Hard, Now, Not to Take Villaraigosa Very Seriously

April 01, 2001|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

Give Antonio Villaraigosa all the credit he deserves. A few years back, when he set his sights on becoming Los Angeles' first Latino mayor in more than a century, not many of us took him seriously.

Now, with just 10 days left before city voters go to the polls to winnow a field of 15 candidates to two, it appears very possible that one of the finalists will be the former Boyle Heights street kid who grew up to become speaker of the California Assembly.

Let me admit up front that I am among the critics who have questioned whether Villaraigosa has the tools to be chief executive of the country's second-largest city. I'm not ready to completely let go of my assessment, but I have been very impressed with Villaraigosa's grit and determination as a campaigner.

Of course, getting into a mayoral runoff is still one huge step short of the prize Villaraigosa wants. But it is no small achievement given where he started--as a bit player supporting Latino political heavyweights like California's Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who have both endorsed Villaraigosa for mayor.

Molina's endorsement, announced last week, was the most notable of several developments in the mayoral race that indicate how much momentum Villaraigosa's candidacy has developed in the campaign's waning days--momentum that could carry him into a June runoff against the man widely regarded as the front-runner, City Atty. James K. Hahn.

A series of private opinion polls show Villaraigosa closing in on Hahn. After being trapped in a second-place pack with four other major candidates--businessman Steve Soboroff, state Controller Kathleen Connell, City Councilman Joel Wachs and Democratic U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra--the polls now show Villaraigosa as Hahn's strongest challenger.

Those polls may have prompted the decision by outgoing Mayor Richard Riordan, who makes no secret of his dislike for both Hahn and Villaraigosa, to start spending some of his own money to help the man he wants to succeed him, Soboroff.

The polls were definitely instrumental in Molina's endorsement, which is important to Villaraigosa for both symbolic and practical reasons.

Symbolically, it represents a mending of relations between the two. Molina first helped Villaraigosa win an Assembly seat in 1994, but then distanced herself after his marriage nearly fell apart over his dalliance with a female campaign staffer.

Practically, it represents a big boost from the very politico that most Latino activists have long assumed would be Los Angeles' first Mexican American mayor since Cristobal Aguilar left office in 1872. With a safe county seat, fund-raising ability and a positive public image, Molina has long been considered, even by her peers, as the pol most likely to succeed. But she didn't have the interest, or maybe the stomach, for a mayoral campaign.

The former Assembly speaker, in contrast, has had the proverbial fire in the belly for a long time. Indeed, with his passionate stump speeches and glad-handing campaign style, Villaraigosa just seems to want to be mayor more eagerly than the other major candidates, especially Becerra.

The smart but low-key congressman is now in the uncomfortable position of playing spoiler to Villaraigosa.

Of the leading mayoral candidates, Becerra lags far behind in most polls. The polls also indicate that Becerra's potential voter support is centered on the Eastside in the heavily Latino precincts he represents in Washington and that Villaraigosa represented in Sacramento. Which sets up the nightmare scenario that Latino political activists have feared since Becerra and Villaraigosa both announced for mayor: Two Latino candidates divide their natural base of constituents, assuring that neither makes the expected runoff election.

That is the final reason Villaraigosa's apparent momentum is so important. Because it just might preclude such a scenario from unfolding. That is a key reason Molina decided to enter the fray at such a pivotal time.

"The coalition Antonio has put together is impressive, and so is the money he's raised," she says. "I want to help him solidify his Latino support."

Like me, Molina is taking Villaraigosa's candidacy a lot more seriously than she once did. If he does make the runoff, the whole city will have to decide just how seriously it takes the man who would be L.A.'s first Latino mayor in 129 years.

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