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'Latino' and 'L.A. Mayor' May at Last Come Together

April 12, 2001|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

Is Los Angeles ready for its first Mexican American mayor in almost 130 years?

That's the question everyone has been asking since public opinion polls first indicated that former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa was likely to be one of two finalists in next June's runoff election.

Now that Villaraigosa has emerged as the top vote-getter in Tuesday's primary--he got 30% of the vote as opposed to City Atty. James K. Hahn's 25%--expect to hear that same question posed even more frequently. And not just in Southern California, because the possibility that the nation's second-largest city may elect its first Latino mayor since 1872 is a big national--even international--news story.

Unfortunately, it's the wrong question.

The real issue facing Villaraigosa as he braces himself to face Hahn mano a mano is this: Are Los Angeles voters ready for their first Latino mayor in more than a century?

Unfortunately for the energetic and charismatic politician, those are two very different questions. And they may have different answers.

L.A. has been ripe for a Latino mayor for at least a decade, maybe longer, as the number of Latinos living in the city and its sprawling suburbs has surged dramatically, nearing 40% in the five-county Los Angeles region. The trend was made all the more obvious when we got the results of the 2000 census, which found that Latinos make up about 46% of the city, with whites at 32%, blacks 12% and Asians 11%. Nationwide, Latinos have narrowly surpassed African Americans to become the nation's largest minority group, and are even established in communities where few Latinos lived before, from the rural Midwest to the Deep South.

Whether in California or the Carolinas, that growth was fueled by two factors--a surge in immigrants from Latin America and a high birth rate among native-born Latinos. But while those factors show immediate results on demographic charts, it takes longer for raw population numbers to translate into dramatic election results.

For example, according to a Times exit poll taken Tuesday, Latinos represented only 21% of the city electorate--half of their proportionate population.

Villaraigosa and his campaign staff knew this would be the case, and extended their efforts far beyond his natural base on the city's Eastside, which he represented in the state Assembly. Indeed, they did such a good job of this that some ardent Latino activists faulted Villaraigosa for allegedly ignoring his roots and rallied to the rival mayoral candidacy of Eastside Democratic Congressman Xavier Becerra, who got barely 6% of the primary vote.

Becerra is widely rumored to be on the verge of endorsing Hahn. Whatever Becerra decides, it is unlikely to have much impact. The Becerra supporters I've spoken to intend to vote for Villaraigosa.

The Times Poll showed that Villaraigosa did well among voters on the city's affluent and liberal Westside and among Jewish voters all over town. He was even able to hold his own in the city's bastion of conservative suburban voters, the San Fernando Valley.

Villaraigosa's challenge now is to win over more of those Valley voters, just as his role model throughout this campaign, the late Mayor Tom Bradley, did during his 20 years as the city's first black mayor.

Of course, as often as Villaraigosa and his supporters cite the spirit of the widely revered former mayor, they forget to mention one very uncomfortable fact: The first time Bradley ran for mayor, he lost.

That was in 1969, when the low-key councilman ran against then-incumbent Sam Yorty. It was an ugly campaign, especially for a city that still bore emotional and physical scars from the 1965 Watts riots. Yorty played to the fears of white voters and tarred Bradley, despite being a former LAPD lieutenant, with the law-and-order issue, which in the '60s was code for anti-black bigotry.

In this, Villaraigosa may be lucky, because Jim Hahn is no Sam Yorty. He knows this city's often sad history of racial polarization better than any white pol in town, because he learned it from another revered political leader, his father. The late County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, despite being a white man, found his most loyal supporters among the black voters of his South Los Angeles district. Not surprisingly, many of those same black voters now form the base of his son's support.

Sadly, the fact that both of our current mayoral candidates can point to honorable role models is no guarantee that they will run honorable runoff campaigns. But if they do, we could get an unambiguous answer to the question of whether L.A. is really ready for a 21st century-style Latino mayor.

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