Antonio Villaraigosa made history in a big way Tuesday, sweeping into office in a landslide that put an emphatic punctuation mark on the hard-fought Los Angeles mayor's race.
But there is a less celebrated footnote to the groundbreaking contest: the incoming head of the nation's second-most populous city was chosen by just a fraction of its registered voters.
That does not lessen the significance of Villaraigosa's election as the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in well over a century. Rather, the meager turnout -- expected to be about one in three registered voters when all the ballots are tallied -- reflects a steady decline in civic participation over the past several decades.
Consider that in the 1973 mayoral runoff, another breakthrough election often compared to this year's race, winner Tom Bradley received nearly as many votes -- roughly 433,000 -- as Villaraigosa and Mayor James K. Hahn combined.
Going back further, roughly 100,000 fewer votes were cast Tuesday than in the 1953 mayoral runoff, when the city had roughly half today's population of 4 million residents.
Villaraigosa's meager share of the city's registered voters, about 18%, should not hamper his ability to accomplish things in City Hall, most analysts agree. After all, President Bush failed to win the popular vote in his first term yet managed to wield enormous clout.
Further strengthening his political hand, Villaraigosa swamped Hahn by a 17-point margin, carrying nearly every part of the city and voters of just about all descriptions.
"A mandate is something that's claimed. It's never given," said David King, a Harvard University professor of public policy and an expert on civic engagement. "It's really up to Villaraigosa to say what his mandate is."
Still, King and others say the widespread lack of participation is not healthy, particularly at a time when Los Angeles faces serious problems with crime, traffic and a deeply troubled public school system.
"People get mobilized and activated in politics when they're asked to participate, when they believe their vote will make a difference and when they have a stake in the community,'' King said.
By abstaining themselves from the election, many residents indicated they wanted no part of city politics, which raises the question of how invested they are in the city itself.
"This could be a sign of potentially greater middle-class flight over the next few years," said Arnold Steinberg, a longtime Republican campaign strategist, who stayed neutral in the mayor's race. If that were to happen, Los Angeles could eventually become a city much more akin to San Francisco, with the rich, the poor and few residents between.
Of course, civic ennui is hardly a new phenomenon in Southern California. Starting from a high-water mark of 76%, the turnout in the 1969 Los Angeles mayor's race, voter participation has steadily declined to roughly the one-third level in the last two mayoral runoffs, which featured Villaraigosa and Hahn.
Analysts say that the 1969 contest is a good starting point for discussing why people vote or opt to stay home.
Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and fresh memories of the 1965 Watts riot, a great deal seemed to be at stake when Bradley, bidding to become the city's first black mayor, faced incumbent Sam Yorty.
"Politics was in. Social change was in. And L.A. was really at the forefront of a lot of that stuff,'' said Bob Kholos, press secretary to Bradley in his 1973 campaign, when he defeated Yorty in their rematch. Turnout fell in that election to 64%.
Apart from race and its roiling undercurrents, there were also substantive differences between Democrat Bradley and Republican Yorty. By contrast, said Bill Carrick, a Hahn strategist in Tuesday's election, "You had differences on this issue or that issue" between the incumbent and Villaraigosa. "But by and large they shared the same philosophy and political values. So people say, 'Who cares who's mayor? They're both fine.' "
The ceaselessly negative tone of the Hahn-Villaraigosa runoff -- and the lack of specifics from either candidate -- may have also depressed turnout.
"It was a terrible campaign," said Robert Gottlieb, director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Los Angeles' Occidental College, expressing a view widely shared across the city. Indeed, more than one in four voters said they considered the choice between Hahn and Villaraigosa a matter of picking between "the lesser of two evils," according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll.
"The TV ads, the debate, what was presumed to be issues being debated -- the back and forth was pretty awful, enough to turn anybody off," Gottlieb said.
There are also larger, structural reasons that could help explain the city's low rate of voter participation.