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Campaign Trail as Unscripted Spectacle

It's out among the voters where the differences between Hahn and Villaraigosa come into sharper focus.

May 09, 2005|Daniel Hernandez and Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writers

As the May 17 mayoral runoff draws near, Antonio Villaraigosa ricochets around Los Angeles in the role of the energetic uniter.

He grips and grins from Tarzana to South Los Angeles, repeating a favorite campaign slogan like a verbal tic: He will "roll up his sleeves," he says, bring his "energy and vision" and get to work for Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, the famously low-key mayor, James K. Hahn, has inhabited the role of no-nonsense crime fighter.

He has stuck to his core themes with the straightness of "Dragnet's" Jack Webb: Los Angeles is safer. The Los Angeles Police Department is running smoothly. And his opponent is an empty suit.

The campaigns have spent countless behind-the-scenes hours honing these messages, targeting voters with scripted television advertisements, mailers and phone calls.

But it's hard to learn much about either candidate from their most recent TV ads, which trade insinuations of scandal and untrustworthiness. And the mailers tout the candidates for their support of safe streets and quality schools. No surprise there.

It's the daily pageant of the campaign trail that offers the most unscripted look at the opponents. It's out there, under the stress and nonstop spectacle, where their differences come into sharper focus.

On Sunday, Mother's Day, Villaraigosa made an emotional visit to Our House, a nonprofit support center for children and parents who have lost a family member.

He listened to them as carefully as a professional counselor. Then, as he is wont to do on the campaign trail, Villaraigosa shared an intimate glimpse into his personal life -- in this case, by describing his late mother.

"My mother was my mother, my father, my grandmother, my grandfather," he said quietly. "She was everything."

Hahn, meanwhile, brought his mother, Ramona, with him to Reseda's Jewish Home for the Aging.

Hahn described her as the "strongest of Christian women" and explained her appearance in the context of the Hahn family business.

"In our family, we celebrate Mother's Day like any other day -- it's politics," he said, noting his mother had been in many campaigns for her husband, the late county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn.

Hahn is generally less emotive than the challenger, and his humor considerably drier. Instead of focusing on his family story, he focuses on his proudest achievements.

At a recent news conference in MacArthur Park, he made a lawyerly case for his reelection by citing the dramatic drop in crime in the area. He credited the success to a revamped LAPD under Chief William J. Bratton and noted that Bratton had been his choice for the job.

"That's why children can play soccer in this park," he said. "We even had the Pasadena Pops Orchestra perform a symphony in the park. Businesses are improving around the park because we know crime is down."

Hahn also used footnote-like numbers to support his contention that Los Angeles is safer. All of it was delivered in a matter-of-fact tone -- the same one he uses when he is on the attack.

A typical jab at Villaraigosa came at an Eagle Rock news conference. "He's accomplished exactly nothing during his tenure on the City Council," he said dispassionately.

When the latest Hahn slam is relayed to Villaraigosa, the city councilman from the 14th District fires back, calling Hahn's administration the most investigated since the 1930s.

But he quickly returns to his core themes, as expansive as Hahn's are concrete: racial harmony, reinvigorating the middle-class dream, building a subway to the ocean, reforming the second-largest school district in the country.

Sometimes, he'll address the nitty-gritty of his vision, but he never admits to doubts about his optimism.

"I'm often asked why I propose such a plan when the city is not in the healthcare business," Villaraigosa said Wednesday, announcing the City Council's adoption of a bulk drug-purchasing proposal that he had pushed. "My answer is simple: because we must. We must take action to lower the cost of prescription drugs."

With his idealism comes a tactile style to match.

Villaraigosa is a serial squeezer.

After shaking a hand, he reflexively grabs for a shoulder, an elbow, even a wrist, drawing voters close to his compact frame for friendly, conspiratorial huddles. He speaks to strangers like old friends, talking of change and coalition building.

His efforts to appear energetic can sometimes walk the line between dorky and endearing.

"Oh, my goodness, look at this! Westside in the house, right?" Villaraigosa shrieked, greeting supporters before a news conference at a Westwood elementary school.

The supporters, described by aides as "Westside mothers" who were recruited to hold signs in the traditional backdrop, smiled nervously. Villaraigosa hugged each one before addressing reporters.

At a forum at Macedonia Baptist Church, Delores Cotledge, an undecided voter from Watts, found herself face-to-face with the Villaraigosa charm.

She had to admit, after exchanging pleasantries, that she was impressed.

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