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Villaraigosa Joins Race; Heat on Hahn Rises

August 03, 2004|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Ending months of speculation, Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa said Monday that he will launch a rematch against Mayor James K. Hahn, the man who beat him for the city's top post in 2001.

Villaraigosa, perched on a couch in the living room of his Mt. Washington home, said he intends to challenge the one-term mayor with "a vision for a future and a plan to make that future as bright as possible."

The first-term councilman said he wants to build trust in city government, bring high-paying jobs to Los Angeles and combat gang violence.

"A great city deserves a strong leader with the ability to bring people together and take on the challenges we face," he said.

Villaraigosa, whose last mayoral bid drew national attention and turned into a bitter fight, is the last of the big-name contenders who had been expected to enter the race. His decision, seven months before the March election, sets up a widely anticipated contest involving the incumbent and four veterans of Los Angeles politics.

Councilman Bernard C. Parks, the city's former police chief; state Sen. Richard Alarcon, a former city councilman; and former Assembly speaker Bob Hertzberg have been campaigning and raising money for weeks.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst and senior scholar at USC, said the race appears wide open at this point. "This is a game of three-dimensional chess," she said. "I have no idea how this is going to play out.... That's the bottom line. The only observation I'm comfortable making is that Hahn is in danger of his base eroding further."

In the 2001 race, Villaraigosa, who had hoped to become the city's first Latino mayor in modern times, beat Hahn in the April election, but not by enough to avoid a runoff. Hahn then assailed Villaraigosa in hard-hitting television ads and won with 53.5% of the vote.

With a changed political climate and new candidates in the race, the 2005 election will be more than just a rerun.

Among his key accomplishments, Hahn can boast that he hired a popular police chief in William J. Bratton and kept the city together amid the threat of secession by the San Fernando Valley. But federal and county corruption probes into Hahn's administration have weakened his position, as has persistent criticism of his low-key style.

And the candidates have altered the political dynamic.

With Parks in the race, Hahn cannot be assured of the support of the city's black voters, who were essential to his 2001 victory. Parks was an influential figure in the city's black community even before he became the city's second black police chief. And Hahn alienated some voters when he replaced Parks with Bratton.

Alarcon, who is from Sylmar, and Hertzberg, from Sherman Oaks, both boast strong support in the San Fernando Valley. Hahn's campaign to keep the Valley part of Los Angeles may have persuaded some voters there to look for a different mayor.

Villaraigosa, meanwhile, is much better known than when the 2001 campaign began. Despite his position as the speaker of the California Assembly, he was then hardly a household name.

The city's Latino electorate also has grown. More than 80% of Latinos backed Villaraigosa the last time, but Hahn's support in the Valley and in South Los Angeles was enough to beat Villaraigosa.

On the other hand, Villaraigosa may not be able to count on as much support from labor unions as he did three years ago. Hahn has worked closely with the municipal unions since his election.

And Hahn, who has the power of incumbency, is a famously tough campaigner who has never lost a race in six citywide campaigns.

He and the other candidates also have a huge head start on Villaraigosa in raising the millions of dollars that candidates are expected to need to wage a successful campaign. Hahn has raised $1.6 million, Hertzberg $700,000, Alarcon $200,000 and Parks $80,000.

But despite his late entry, Villaraigosa is expected to be an adept fundraiser. And because he is well-known to voters, he will not have to spend as much money trying to teach people to recognize his name.

Among the challengers, Villaraigosa "immediately becomes the top guy," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles and a Villaraigosa backer in 2001. "The question is, is it 2001 all over again, in which Hahn wins?"

Villaraigosa, who said he intends to make his candidacy official today, made his announcement by summoning reporters to his hilltop home for a series of interviews. The usually ebullient politician was in a serious mood, his sentences broken by long pauses as he appeared to search for precisely the right words.

If he wins, Villaraigosa would become the city's first Latino mayor since 1872. But the 51-year-old councilman said he doesn't view his candidacy through the prism of a Latino political awakening.

"I'm a bridge builder," he said. "I think what's important about my candidacy is my vision for what the city could be. Not who I am or where I came from."

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