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2 Latino Candidates for Mayor Are Not Too Many

January 21, 2001|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times. E-mail:

They launched political careers challenging conventional wisdom. So why, 20 years later, did Henry Cisneros and Gloria Molina try to craft a back-room political deal so similar to the private arrangements they used to struggle against?

I refer to the secretive meetings held over the last year by Cisneros and Molina in an effort to convince one of the two prominent Latinos running for mayor of Los Angeles--Rep. Xavier Becerra and former state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa--to drop out of the race leading up to the city's April 10 primary election.

The explanation offered by Cisneros and Molina to Times' reporter James Rainey, who revealed the meetings in a recent news story about the emerging mayoral campaign, does make coldly pragmatic sense. Having two Latinos in a crowded field--a total of 24 candidates, six of them well-known public officials or major political fund-raisers--runs the risk of dividing the so-called Latino vote, roughly 20% of the city's electorate.

But who is to say that that isn't the same kind of conventional wisdom once heard around Cisneros' hometown of San Antonio? Despite a large, restive Mexican American population, folks said the Anglo businessmen who ran the shadow government known as the Good Government League wouldn't tolerate a Latino mayor. Then Cisneros came home from Harvard in 1974. Within a few months, he'd been elected to the City Council. Six years later, in his own words, Cisneros "transcended the ethnic factor" to be elected mayor, holding the post for four terms before President Clinton made him secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

And, concerning Molina, how about the even more egregious arrangement in 1982? That was when a private meeting of Latino politicos--all men--decided that one of them rather than Molina (then a staffer for a state senator from East Los Angeles) should run for a vacant seat in the state Assembly. Molina ran anyway, aided by other dissident women, and won.

Since then Molina has defeated one or another of the same guys who told her not to run in 1982 in subsequent campaigns for the Los Angeles City Council and the county Board of Supervisors. Today she is arguably a more powerful and secure incumbent than any of them.

Cisneros, who lived briefly in Los Angeles when he became a top executive for the Spanish-language Univision network, still has ties here even though he has returned to Texas, but it was perhaps presumptuous of him to play kingmaker in Los Angeles. It did, however, make a perverse sort of sense. By pushing others to run for mayor, Cisneros kept many eager and well-meaning Angelenos--including, on one occasion, yours truly--from promoting him as a mayoral candidate.

But Molina's involvement in back-room deals to designate "the" Latino candidate for mayor is more troubling. Not only does she know better but, with the number of Latino public officials growing with the Latino population, it is naive for anyone to think that the exclusionary power politics of the past can work any longer.

Becerra's decision not to ignore the pressure to drop out of the mayor's race is to be admired, even though (and here comes that conventional wisdom again) he is considered a weaker candidate than Villaraigosa. The former speaker has been unofficially campaigning for City Hall ever since he realized term limits would force him out of the Legislature in 2000, so he's better known to city voters and has raised more money than Becerra.

Villaraigosa also seems to have matured on the campaign trail. Once given to mouthing liberal platitudes, he now seems to have become more knowledgeable about the issues facing city government. But don't sell Becerra short. He is smart and glib, with a tough and efficient campaign staff that will help him make up the fund-raising and publicity gap.

Of course, there is a chance these two young pols will indeed hurt each other by dividing the Latino vote. That's certainly one scenario that can be drawn from a Times Poll last April, which indicated that 11% of city residents backed Villaraigosa while 10% said they would vote for Becerra. Among Latino respondents, 33% favored Villaraigosa and 22% Becerra.

But that scenario is just one more challenge these mayoral candidates have to overcome if they are to prove themselves not just against one another but against other candidates, like City Atty. James Hahn and City Councilman Joel Wachs.

Becerra and Villaraigosa should find ways to prove wrong the conventional wisdom. That, at least, is one subject Cisneros and Molina can offer them good advice on.

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