TOPICS > Politics

L.A. Story: Los Angeles Mayor’s Race

June 1, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY KAYE: The winner of Tuesday’s mayoral election in Los Angeles will lead one of the most diverse cities on the planet, a metropolis of contrasts and extremes, where some of America’s wealthiest and most comfortable citizens coexist with the desperate and poor. The two candidates, James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa are both Democrats. They share similar platforms, promising safer streets, a stronger economy, better schools, and this being LA, less traffic. They also share the challenge of campaigning in a city where a changing population is altering the rules of urban politics. Hahn, who has been LA’s city attorney for 16 years, is heir to a family name that is legendary in local politics.

JAMES HAHN: My priorities as mayor are going to be our public safety. I think that’s job one of government.

JEFFREY KAYE: Villaraigosa, is an up-from-the-streets union organizer and civil rights activist who used his charisma and deal-making skills to rise to the leadership of the California state assembly, a position he held until last year.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: Somebody gave me a second chance, and as mayor of this city, I want to give our kids a second chance, too.

JEFFREY KAYE: Should he win, Villaraigosa would be the city’s first Latino mayor since 1872. But this election cannot be cast in stark racial terms as a contest between a Latino and a white. Instead, both men in this nonpartisan race are pursuing a campaign strategy that says as much about LA as it does about the candidates. Each claims he can better build coalitions across frontiers of class and race.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: You have to be able to talk about what we have in common in a city where we could pull apart. I’ve been talking about building those coalitions from the very beginning of this campaign. I think that’s why most have focused on my candidacy as a coalition candidacy.

JAMES HAHN: The person who is putting together the ethnic coalition in this campaign is Jim Hahn, because people recognize me as someone who has always been inclusive, who has always brought people to the table. That’s been my experience. That is who I am.

JEFFREY KAYE: In a city as diverse as Los Angeles, no one racial group is in the majority. So talk of forging alliances is a matter of political necessity. More than three and a half million people live in the city of LA, according to the 2000 census. And if you picked 100 representative Angelinos, 46 would be Latino, 31 white, 12 Asian, and 11 black. Historian Philip Ethington, who studies the census data, says LA’s shifting ethnic landscape is also reshaping politics in America’s second largest city.

PHILIP ETHINGTON: We have moved beyond what was a classic model of American ethnic politics, where each group is expected to produce a leader of its own ethnic origin and that, that would be how the ethnic groups got along, through that one to one representation. We are now in a world where race still matters a great deal, but politicians don’t have that luxury of saying, this is my constituency because I belong to that ethnic group.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Latino population is the group most responsible for the changing face of politics and society in LA Ethington’s computer-generated maps provide dramatic decade-by- decade snapshots, starting in 1940, of the region’s exploding Latino population. By 1980, Latinos made up 28% of LA County. By 2000, nearly one out of two county residents was Latino. Spanish is the language on LA’s most listened to radio station. The city is home to the largest concentration of Latino-owned businesses in the country. Villaraigosa grew up on the east side in the heart of Latino LA, But his message is one of ethnic unity.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: If my candidacy is about anything, it’s about bringing everybody in. It’s about saying to us, that we can’t just talk about that unity, we have to reach out and work hard, make our knuckles bleed if we have to.

JEFFREY KAYE: Although he doesn’t play up his race, Villaraigosa, who at 16 had an arm tattooed “born to raise hell,” does make the most of his up-by-the bootstraps personal saga.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: My story is the story of redemption. It is uniquely an American story: That you can start off growing up in a home with domestic violence and alcoholism, a high school dropout– kicked out of high school before that– and turn your life around. I believe that is what America has always been about; it is about second chances.

JEFFREY KAYE: Villaraigosa’s political rise is in part a reflection, not only of the increase in the number of Latinos, but in their level of activism. During the ’90s, many Latinos angered by anti-immigrant fervor become involved in politics, and registered to vote in large numbers. At the same time, union organizing among low wage, mainly Latino workers, created a new generation of labor activists, many of whom have rallied around Villaraigosa. (Applause) Villaraigosa has also received support from some of LA’s richest people, and a few notable Republicans including outgoing Mayor Richard Riordan. For his part, Hahn, according to the polls, gets more support than Villaraigosa from whites, moderates, conservatives, and from the black community. Hahn is particularly popular among older black voters who fondly remember the candidate’s late father.

WOMAN: As you may know, Jim Hahn is the son of the late supervisor Kenneth Hahn.

JEFFREY KAYE: Kenneth Hahn, who spent 42 years in public office, was a champion of civil rights and a beloved figure in LA’s African American community. Many are backing James Hahn out of respect for the family name.

JEFFREY KAYE: Who are you supporting for mayor?

JANICE AVERY: Hahn.

JEFFREY KAYE: Reporter: Why?

JANICE AVERY: Because of his father. His father did a lot for this community.

JEFFREY KAYE: The black vote was once much more of a force to be reckoned with in LA Politics.

SPOKESMAN: He’s engaged in the same kind of smear tactics…

JEFFREY KAYE: In 1973, Tom Bradley was elected the first African American big city mayor, thanks to a potent coalition between blacks and white liberals. But times have changed. Since 1970, the black population has dropped by nearly 20%. The change is most visible in what was the heart of the black community, Central Avenue in south LA (Jazz music playing ) In the 1940s, Central Avenue was the epicenter of LA’s growing black community. Blacks flocked here during and after the Second World War as factory jobs became available. Central Avenue became home to its merchants, social organizations, and the hottest jazz scene on the west coast. (Ranchero music playing ) But today, there’s a new sound on Central Avenue. As Latinos supplant blacks, evidence of change is everywhere; from new restaurants, to the language of choice on playing fields. ( Speaking Spanish ) Latinos say they are putting down roots and buying property in the same neighborhoods and for the same reasons that African Americans did half a century ago. Moisos Tapia is a plumber who lives in the neighborhood.

MOISOS TAPIA: What a lot of people don’t understand is that people come over here for the same thing that folks were leaving the South. It’s like the underground railroad. They was going up North for a better life. That’s the same thing for us Mexicans.

JEFFREY KAYE: As a Latino demographic wave sweeps across Los Angeles, some African Americans are apprehensive about their diminishing grip on power.

MADISON SHOCKLEY: Well, I think clearly among many people there’s anxiety about losing what one has in terms of political influence and power.

JEFFREY KAYE: The Reverend Madison Shockley is a community activist.

MADISON SHOCKLEY: The black community has been historically not the largest factor, but a critical factor in the coalitions that were necessary to be elected to office, black or white. And now there is another community whose numbers now can play the same role of that critical swing community.

JEFFREY KAYE: Although Los Angeles is seen as a citadel of multiculturalism, white voters are still the dominant political force, even though their numbers have dropped dramatically. There are nearly half a million fewer whites in LA today than 40 years ago. The change is particularly apparent in the north of the city, across the Hollywood Hills in the San Fernando Valley.

BING CROSBY: (singing) I’m gonna settle down and never more roam and make the San Fernando Valley my home…

JEFFREY KAYE: The place that Bing Crosby rhapsodized about in the ’40s was the epitome of post-war white suburbia, as tract homes opened and factories moved into areas like Van Nuys. Van Nuys was 96% white in 1960, when the reigning Miss Van Nuys showed off the state’s population boom. Today in Van Nuys, six out of ten residents are Latino. Like other groups, affluent whites are also adapting to the new demographic realities. At the secluded estate of a construction mogul, a largely Republican crowd turned out recently to support a Latino candidate for LA City attorney. Corporate lawyer David Fleming says the old boys club that once ran LA is a thing of the past.

DAVID FLEMING, Lawyer: You could run a campaign before on the telephone. And all you needed was certain people to get certain checkbooks done and that was it. It was a closed shop. Today it is just simply wide open.

JEFFREY KAYE: Despite new players and alliances, some very traditional politics endure. The campaigns have raised millions in order to finance and air a barrage of TV commercials.

SPOKESMAN: Trying to do something about the gang problem…

JEFFREY KAYE: The struggle is to get noticed as much as to put a message across. Recently, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger joined Hahn at an inner-city youth club. The fact that the Republican superstar made no endorsement…

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: This is the wrong place to talk about political endorsements.

JEFFREY KAYE: …Didn’t seem to phase Hahn. What was important were the TV cameras, lured by celebrity. The candidates are running close in the polls, and doing what they can to get attention in a city with a notoriously apathetic electorate. Officials expect that only one in three eligible voters will cast a ballot on Tuesday.