WASHINGTON — The Caucus Room restaurant was already bulging with people Tuesday when a blond woman in a beige pantsuit walked through the door with a question that summed up the reason for this midday soiree.
"The money?" she asked urgently. "Where do I give the money?"
Antonio Villaraigosa was in town on an East Coast fund-raising swing in his bid for Los Angeles mayor, and it was clear that he had tapped a rich vein in the federal city--nearly $150,000 in checks poured in for a race 2,500 miles away.
Organizers said that even in politics-obsessed Washington, it was one of the largest turnouts in memory for a nonincumbent in a mayoral race, testifying to the curiosity about Villaraigosa's candidacy. If he wins, Villaraigosa would become the city's first Latino mayor since 1872, which could make him a compelling face for Democratic efforts to increase party support among Latino voters nationwide.
"This town doesn't do mayors. It does governors, senators, members of Congress," said Joe Velasquez, a Washington political consultant who helped organize the event. "People in this town give money to incumbents they are pretty sure will win, not to candidates for open seats."
It was one stop in what looked to be a lucrative day for Villaraigosa, with a breakfast fund-raiser in New York and an evening event in Miami.
Just how much he raised was not known, but the cross-country sojourn drew criticism from the camp of his rival and fellow Democrat, City Atty. James K. Hahn, who spent his lunch hour pumping hands at the Tommy's hamburger stand in Pico-Union. He was celebrating endorsements from the Los Angeles police union and the Central City Assn., which represents more than 300 downtown Los Angeles businesses and organizations.
"Villaraigosa is going to cities across the country finding special interests to pony up while we are talking to people in Los Angeles," said Hahn spokesman Kam Kuwata.
To which Villaraigosa, hoarse from mingling, countered: "That kind of remark doesn't dignify a response. Jim [Hahn] has traveled all over the country" for fund-raisers.
Villaraigosa's Washington event drew an eclectic crowd of Latino leaders, former Clinton administration officials, Democratic members of Congress, and Washington-based lobbyists and business leaders. Attendees included AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and former Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced).
Conspicuously absent were Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), who was eliminated from the mayor's race in the April primary and has yet to back either Villaraigosa or Hahn.
For Villaraigosa, an endorsement from a mainstream Democrat like Feinstein could help counter Hahn's attempt to paint him as dangerously liberal. And failing to capture Becerra's support could be an embarrassment, given their common base of support.
Gov. Gray Davis and the state Democratic Party have endorsed Villaraigosa, but the national party will not weigh in on a battle between two Democrats. Still, many at Tuesday's fund-raiser mused about how as mayor Villaraigosa could well serve the party as it courts the ethnic vote--a photogenic, articulate Latino who is good on the rope line.
"He not only has a terrific record, but people in national politics believe in the same things he does," Podesta said.
Elizabeth Birch, the woman in the pantsuit who eagerly dropped off a $1,000 check, took note of Villaraigosa's appeal outside Los Angeles. (He says he has received invitations to visit about 40 cities nationwide.)
"When someone energetic comes from an underrepresented community, there is an euphoria about empowering those people," said Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay political organization. "It's about having a solid, concrete vision for a city, but if that person also happens to be Latino and charismatic--that can be exciting."
Other supporters without ties to California said they were inspired by other factors.
"Big-city mayors have the bully pulpit and L.A. is the major city right now," said John Wilson, an education advocate from North Carolina who gave $500. "We don't have a lot of strong mayoral voices for education, so this good ol' boy from North Carolina is willing to put his money in the pot."
Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, the candidates' back-and-forth over compressed work schedules for police officers flared up again as the Police Protective League announced its endorsement of Hahn. The city attorney has signed a pledge promising to implement shorter workweeks--including three-day weeks for some officers--within 90 days.