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New diversity meets first big political test

Tomorrow's election in L.A. could show new clout of ethnic coalitions. It could also make race a nonissue.

By Daniel B. Wood Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 9, 2001



LOS ANGELES

Fresh on the heels of new revelations about the scope of diversity in the Golden State - among others, that whites are now officially a minority here - the first big political test of that diversity is at hand.

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Tomorrow, Los Angeles will hold a primary election in its mayoral race, to narrow a field of candidates that includes two Hispanics, a white man who is supported by the black community, a gay man, two Jewish men, and a woman.

With such a polyglot field, the election could be a key test of the shifting clout of certain coalitions - particularly the Hispanic vote, which, given its current rate of growth, is poised to become a formidable political force.

Yet some observers argue that the real effect of all the diversity in the election - as in the city - is to lessen the impact of race as an issue. Since no single group is likely to propel a candidate to victory, the winner must rely on having a broader appeal, either through issues or personality - which has blurred, rather than sharpened, ethnic dividing lines.

"The census is revealing the changing nature of America, and Los Angeles is on the cutting edge of that," says US Rep. Xavier Becerra (D), one of two Hispanics in the race. But, he adds, "this city has become so diverse that it's going to obliterate the old-style coalitions of blacks and whites - or really any categories based on the color of your skin. It's going to become passe to talk about race, politics, education, and social issues in those terms."

Riordan's legacy

The eventual winner, to be elected in a runoff June 5, will inherit a mantle of revamped mayoral power - courtesy of a new city charter - from Republican Richard Riordan. Mayor Riordan was one of a handful of US mayors who won office in the early 1990s on a platform of reinventing government and turning financially strapped cities around. His unfinished legacy includes an amalgam of still-thorny issues, from police and education reform to a controversial airport expansion plan.

But in many ways, whoever wins will be inheriting a very different city from the Los Angeles Riordan took over in 1993 - in no small part because of all the ethnic changes. Census figures released last week in California show Hispanic residents now make up nearly one-third of the state's 33.9 million residents. There has also been a 43 percent increase in Asians across the state. California's white population is now about 46.8 percent, down from 57.2 percent a decade ago.

"The winner of this will be mayor of a different city - reaching across different ideological, ethnic, and geographical boundaries - than any previous mayor," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Although the city's Hispanic population has had the most dramatic growth, analysts are unsure as to whether this will translate into real clout at the ballot box. Hispanics traditionally have far lower voter turnout than either whites or blacks - indeed, no candidate of Hispanic origin has been elected mayor here since the late 1800s - making the upcoming election a key indicator.

"Los Angeles is on the national radar for those watching to see how Latinos come together, or don't," says Joe Cerrell, a Democratic consultant and analyst.

Since there are two Hispanic candidates in the running, they may split the Latino vote, causing both men to lose.

But the Hispanic vote could split even further. The current frontrunner in the race, City Attorney James Hahn, who is white, is registering strong support among Hispanics. Mr. Hahn is the son of longtime city councilman and political legend Kenneth Hahn, and he has huge support in black neighborhoods as well.

Running right behind him in the polls is former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, a Hispanic. Steve Soboroff, a white Republican businessman, is polling a close third. The other candidates are Congressman Becerra, state Controller Kathleen Connell, and City Councilman Joel Wachs, a 30-year veteran of city politics.

"The candidates' agendas are similar - they are all talking about safe issues like police, crime, and education," says Ms. Jeffe. "This is going to be about which person brings what kind of personality and leadership to the election and how they manage to build their base and then play to it."

Impact of endorsements

Democratic Gov. Gray Davis recently announced his support for Mr. Villaraigosa, who is also endorsed by the state Democratic Party. Mayor Riordan, a multimillionaire with close business ties across the city, is stumping heavily for Mr. Soboroff, a real estate broker.

Political analysts are watching to see how these endorsements play out, both for the candidates and for the politicians backing them - Governor Davis is up for reelection in 2002, and Riordan's name has been floated as a possible challenger.

"Riordan's fortunes as a possible candidate for governor might rest partly with how well Soboroff does with his endorsement," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor