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Villaraigosa Sets a Post-Ethnic Standard for L.A.

April 15, 2001|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation

Aside from a few last-minute racially tinged radio ads, this year's L.A. mayoral campaign has been remarkably free of nasty ethnic undertones. In the not-so-distant past, the specter of a Mexican American mayor would have raised hackles in certain quarters of the city. This year, however, it's clear that the cultural and political ecology of Los Angeles has changed, maybe for good.

Rather than being hindered by his ethnicity, the leading Latino mayoral candidate was in part lifted by a growing sense that it's time for a Mexican American to lead L.A. Far from igniting the ethnic political revolution that campus activists dreamed of a generation ago, former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa sailed to the top of a 15-member field by tapping into a feeling of historic inevitability arising from demographic evolution. Villaraigosa is not the beacon of L.A.'s ethnic metamorphosis as much as he is a product of it.

But while history and ethno-symbolism worked in his favor in the primary, Villaraigosa earned every bit of his commanding first-place finish. He set the standard for the campaign's noteworthy post-ethnic tenor. While ethnic pride was undoubtedly a factor in his overwhelming Latino support, Villaraigosa did not resort to "boogeymen" to frighten supporters into the voting booths. Unlike recent Democratic candidates who sought to leverage ethnic distrust and link their adversaries to former Gov. Pete Wilson, Villaraigosa appealed to Latinos through hope and a healthy sense of ethnic ascendance.

Countless times during the campaign, the clear favorite among Latinos insisted that he was not a "Latino candidate." Fearing that an ethnic label would hurt his broader appeal, Villaraigosa asked reporters and editors to abstain from mentioning his ethnic background every time they published his name. After all, the press would never have ritually identified an Anglo politician as one of the leading "white politicians."

While his most fervent base was among left-leaning Latino labor activists, Villaraigosa's message is not limited to them. At his election-night celebration at Union Station, supporters chanted 1960s-style political slogans and waved American flags. By combining "Si, se puede" with the Stars and Stripes, the Villaraigosa campaign has seamlessly updated the iconography of Chicano politics.

When first elected to the Assembly in 1994, Villaraigosa was a strident, left-wing ethnic advocate. Whether a byproduct of intellectual evolution or just pure ambition, Villaraigosa has evolved into a multifaceted, Clintonesque politician who tries to offer something to everyone. With so many--sometimes competing--interests backing his candidacy, it makes one wonder which Villaraigosa would assume the reins of the city if elected. A legislator can juggle competing constituencies by political horse trading; by contrast, a chief executive often has to say "yes" or "no." Having inspired so much passion at his base, one has to wonder if a Mayor Villaraigosa could ever muster the courage to say "no."

What is most appealing about the Villaraigosa campaign and potential mayoralty is its ability to inspire greater participation among working-class, particularly immigrant, Latinos. His overwhelming Latino support at the polls perhaps even surprised the high-powered allies who once sought to cut a back-room deal to remove Rep. Xavier Becerra from the race for fear of splitting the Latino vote. In hindsight, it is clear that such a maneuver would have dampened any victory. Becerra ran an honorable campaign, and Villaraigosa is now a much stronger candidate for having won convincingly at the polls and not in a smoke-filled room.

Ironically, Villaraigosa's pan-ethnic appeal is ultimately what transformed him into the favored Latino candidate. A week before the election, The Times poll showed Becerra and Villaraigosa evenly splitting the Latino vote. But last Tuesday, nearly two-thirds of Latino voters chose the candidate who had the greater appeal to non-Latinos and, therefore, the better chance of winning.

Latino underparticipation in civic affairs--from PTAs to local philanthropy--has long been a thorn in the side of the entire body politic. Such power vacuums have fostered a political calculus that allows for scapegoating campaigns like Proposition 187 in 1994. Filling those vacuums and bringing new citizens into the culture of regular civic participation will stabilize Los Angeles in the long run. We know Latino voters will come out en masse to cast ballots against a common adversary; Villaraigosa is giving many Latinos something to actually vote for.

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