L.A. mayor's race signals new ethnic alliances

As 300 local homeowners chomp celery and hummus at a posh country club in the San Fernando Valley, mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa stands in place at a linen-covered dinner table.

"We need a leader who is not only competent, but can also inspire," says the Mexican-American politician to his predominantly white audience, surrounded by tinkling fountains. "A leader who will earn - and keep - the people's trust."

For weeks, Mr. Villaraigosa has been taking the same message to diverse venues all over town - from black inner-city high schools to Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Hispanic neighborhoods to civic roundtables in Jewish and Asian communities.

Four years after he lost narrowly to current mayor James Hahn, polls show Mr. Villaraigosa poised to unseat Mr. Hahn and become the first Hispanic mayor of Los Angeles in 133 years. The reason, say analysts, is Villaraigosa's appeal to a broad array of races in America's most diverse city, aided in part by his opponent's failure to maintain the coalition that has swept mayors into office here for more than four decades. Villaraigosa's ascension and Hahn's demise may presage a social, demographic, and cultural shift that is significant for big-city politics nationwide.

"The old white, Jewish, and black coalitions of Los Angeles politics are being broken up as Hispanics and blacks are figuring out ways to share power," says Franklin Gilliam, a political scientist at UCLA. "Increasingly this is going to be the story of urban American from Miami to Atlanta to Washington, D.C., to Chicago and beyond. The old configurations appear to be shifting and Los Angeles is the latest signal."

Entering the final week of campaigning, Villaraigosa is leading in surveys by at least 11 points. The former state Assembly speaker and current Los Angeles city councilman is ahead of the mayor among whites, blacks, Latinos, moderates, liberals, Democrats, Jewish voters, and union members. He holds a double-digit lead among likely voters in every region of the city.

On key issues, most agree there is not a major difference between the two Democratic candidates. Both Hahn and Villaraigosa emphasize being more involved in local schools, reducing traffic and crime, and working to bring more jobs to the city.

Consequently, many analysts believe the election will turn more on personality, leadership, and the changing demographics of America's most polyglot city. Los Angeles's growing Hispanic population (now making up more than 47 percent of the city's 3.7 million people) and Mr. Villaraigosa's Mexican-American heritage have pushed the issues of voter identity and ethnic symbolism to the forefront.

"The Villaraigosa race is being watched closely all across the country and in several foreign countries as well for what it says about how America sees itself...," says Christine Sierra, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico.

Yet to many analysts, Villaraigosa's rise is as much a repudiation of Hahn as it is an embracing of Villaraigosa. The mayor is under investigation by federal and local authorities for campaign fundraising and allegations of corruption at City Hall. On the stump, Villaraigosa likes to say the current administration is the "most investigated in history." Yet Villaraigosa himself is the subject of a local probe for a questionable political donation, though the councilman has returned the money.

The two men share starkly different biographies. Hahn is the scion of one of the city's most prominent political families. Villaraigosa has been playing up his threadbare roots.

The son of a Mexican immigrant, Villaraigosa was raised by his mother after his father, a Mexican immigrant, left the home when Villaraigosa was 5. He grew up in a two-room East Los Angeles apartment and dropped out of high school, later earning a law degree. He became a union organizer, county transportation official, then state representative, then speaker of the California Assembly.

"Among Villaraigosa's many strong points are that he has political ambition, strategic savvy and the charm to captivate audiences of all kinds," says Elizabeth Garrett, political scientist at USC. In six years in the California Assembly, he won a reputation as a skilled negotiator who was able to put together bipartisan compromises on heated issues from parks to bans on assault weapons.

Trying to remain speaker while running for mayor in 1999, Villaraigosa lost reelection amid concern about the timing of his mayoral candidacy and what it would do to leadership transition in the legislature.

Although he led in polls just before the mayoral election of 2001, Villaraigosa lost by seven points after a last-minute ad campaign by Hahn painted him as a nefarious character who had written to the White House on behalf of a convicted drug dealer. Some say the come-from-behind, 11th-hour loss focused Villaraigosa on overcoming his campaign weaknesses, while galvanizing him to seek broader horizons and a bigger résumé. Since that time he won a City Council seat, and became national co-chairman for Sen. John Kerry's presidential bid.

"It seems clear that Villaraigosa has his sights on bigger things than mayor," says Garrett. "If he wins the Los Angeles mayor's race he will instantly become one of the leading Latino politicians in the US and be a major player in Latino politics nationally."

Some analysts see Villaraigosa's drive and effusive charm as evidence merely that he wants to rise higher in the national political spotlight - which has drawn criticsm from some onetime supporters.

"I think it's critically important that Villaraigosa demonstrate a commitment to governing Los Angeles and not just be seen as using the office to jump to the next level," says Louis DeSipio, who teaches ethnic politics at UC Irvine.

He also has to convince them to come to the polls. A low turnout could aid opponent Hahn - and the primary brought only 26 percent of city voters. At the same time that he must bring out the Hispanic vote he must convince other voters he will be mayor for all of Los Angeles.

"One of the tests that more and more Latino politicians are facing and passing," says Marcelo Gaete, senior director of programs for the National Alliance of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), "is that they come from Hispanic heritage but will be responding to the needs of multiple layers of races and ethnic communities."

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