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Villaraigosa cruises to his coronation

March 03, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR
  • L.A. mayoral candidate Phil Jennerjahn takes down a campaign poster after a debate last week at USC. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa did not attend.
L.A. mayoral candidate Phil Jennerjahn takes down a campaign poster after… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

Jim Hubbard was one of the legions of people who followed the 2008 presidential campaign obsessively. Primaries, polls: He took it all in, from Iowa to election day.

"I got a bit neurotic about it," he told me.

But on Thursday night, the professor and photographer found himself on the USC campus, walking past the epicenter of another battle for political power -- and he didn't even know it.

I did my civic duty and informed him: Six candidates to be the next mayor of Los Angeles were about to gather inside the classroom building before us, "right up these steps."

Professor Hubbard looked up and was perplexed. The foyer behind the glass doors was empty of people, except for a lone woman placing fliers on a table. And if it was a mayoral debate, as I was telling him, then where was the mayor himself, Antonio Villaraigosa?

"I guess I've tuned it out totally," Hubbard told me. Not to worry, I said. So have the rest of us.

I don't know a single person who got "neurotic" about the 2009 campaign for mayor. I'm a certified political junkie who's covered elections in 10 countries. I've obsessed about the accuracy of polling in Guatemala and squinted to study hanging chads in West Palm Beach.

But the forum at USC wasn't a big-time event. This mayor's race didn't have any events truly worthy of a big-city campaign.

Villaraigosa ignored his no-hope challengers. He took victory laps around the city while the nine unknowns running against him staged a series of "debates" of the sort you'd expect in some wind-swept burg with a single traffic light.

"None of the other guys on the ballot thinks they can really win besides me," Craig X. Rubin, a pastor and medical-marijuana activist, told me after the forum at USC.

During the debate, Rubin told voters he believed a "miracle" would take place on election day. He was heartened, he said, by the positive reaction to his role in the television drama "Weeds," in which he played a man who runs a medical marijuana clinic.

"Pot smokers are my base," he said. "And my people get out and vote."

The "crowd" assembled to see this sideshow consisted of three dozen voters and four journalists dispersed across a classroom with three times as many seats as people.

"This feels like a lecture for a class no one wants to take," a photographer whispered in my ear.

The six candidates sat under a periodic table of the elements.

"He's not even on the ballot," one whined, directing his irritation at a man in an ill-fitting suit down the table to his left.

"I'm a write-in," candidate Stevan Torres said in a weak voice.

"No, you're not," said candidate Phil Jennerjahn. "You're not registered with the city clerk as a write-in. That means you'll get this many votes." (He made a zero with his fingers.)

As they took their turns, it became clear very quickly that most were aiming their messages at slivers of the electorate. Carlos Alvarez said he was running as the candidate of socialist revolution. Jennerjahn and Walter Moore spoke of their plan to win over one of our larger minority groups: Los Angeles Republicans.

Unfortunately for those Republicans and other dissidents, no one with a serious political resume challenged the mayor. The political cognoscenti decided he was unbeatable, which left us with nine guys who didn't know any better.

In his younger days, Villaraigosa was a man so garrulous that his friends gave him the nickname "Tony Rap." But he took a look at the nine featherweights and made the very smart, if cynical, decision to give them the silent treatment.

He ran as if he were the only star on the stage, confident he could win over any doubters with his deep pockets, his earnestness and his inexhaustible font of charm.

Judging from the crowd reaction at two campaign stops Sunday, the mayor's faith will be rewarded.

The mayor had come to the San Fernando Valley as part of his 24-hour citywide bus tour. He threw out the first pitch at the opening ceremony of the Encino Little League and made a few remarks about "teamwork." You could hear his confidence in the words he didn't say. Not once did he remind the 300 or so gathered parents to vote.

Looking at the mayor's weekend itinerary, you'd think he was already running for governor. Tony Rap crossed the city from San Pedro to Pacoima, from Westwood to the Eastside, 21 stops in all.

And he didn't look the least bit tired when he arrived at his last stop, at the El Tepeyac restaurant in Boyle Heights.

There had been some grumbling at the restaurant before the mayor arrived. The line outside for a table was long, and it wasn't moving. I brought my kids, who were hungry. Standing behind us was a guy who seemed irritated when told Villaraigosa was headed our way.

He said he'd prefer Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor to Villaraigosa.

Then the bus pulled up to the restaurant, and members of the crowd began chanting the mayor's name.

"I've been coming here since I was 7 years old," the mayor said. He was in his element, surrounded by an entourage of about a dozen supporters and campaign workers, and not breaking a sweat.

The crowd pushed forward, pointing cellphone cameras. For 10 minutes, we lived inside the mayor's bubble of celebrity. It's a happy place, where the mayor who knows he'll stay the mayor smiles at people and most of them smile back.

Someone in the Villaraigosa campaign handed the grumbler behind me a yard sign.

A moment later he was asking the mayor to sign it.

--

hector.tobar @latimes.com

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