In L.A., a Latino who could be mayor

Antonio Villaraigosa is being chased around the dance floor of a local senior home by a gaggle of elderly women eager to dance cheek to cheek.

After about 30 minutes of two-stepping, hugs, and photo ops, the man who hopes to be the next mayor of Los Angeles - and at the same time the first Latino to lead this city in 129 years - grabs for a microphone and a breath of air.

"Many of us came from Mexico, El Salvador, and Central America to enjoy the American dream," he says in Spanish to elder residents of this East Los Angeles neighborhood where he grew up. "If you help me win this election, I promise to honor your sacrifices."

Whether Mr. Villaraigosa wins on June 5 depends in part on his ability to galvanize the Hispanic component of America's second largest - and most diverse - city.

Though Los Angeles today is 46 percent Hispanic, Latinos historically do not turn out to the polls in proportion to their strength in numbers. Still, the Hispanic empowerment movement, buttressed by new US census data showing Hispanics to be America's largest minority group, is growing, and Los Angeles - and this mayor's race - is ground zero for testing its resolve.

Both Villaraigosa and his opponent, the equally liberal and equally diversity-minded James Hahn, understand the need to assemble a coalition of racial and ethnic voting blocs.

But some analysts are now giving Villaraigosa the edge, saying the city seems ready for a switch after a decade of ethnic strife and eight years under Mayor Richard Riordan, a white Republican. In this analysis, the Villaraigosa- Hahn runoff represents a choice, if not between political views, then between styles.

"Antonio is seen here as the symbol of the young, change, risk, and forward thinking for a new kind of immigrant city," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. "Hahn is bit cool, more the white, cautious male that represents the old Los Angeles."

If Villaraigosa wins, he will immediately become one of the highest-profile Latinos in government - by virtue of L.A.'s size (4.2 million people), its diversity (144 languages spoken), and its link to the national economy. Although a dozen cities of more than 100,000 have elected Latino mayors, Los Angeles is the one that's increasingly cited as a microcosm of the future US metropolis.

In his bid to win, Villaraigosa has for months crisscrossed the city, putting in appearances at Mexican fiestas, African-American gospel sings, Japanese karaoke competitions, and Jewish horas. The pace would fell Secretariat, but Villaraigosa knows he can't win unless he makes a diverse array of Angelenos - white, Asian, black, Hispanic, young, old - comfortable not only with his liberal brand of politics, but also with his Hispanic background.

"While you might think his Mexican heritage would be a plus in a city that is half Latino, it represents a real handicap for him because no one can be elected by Latinos alone," says Luis Sarias, a commentator for NALEO. Referring to a multicultural coalition that kept former Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American, in office for 20 years, Mr. Sarias says, "[Villaraigosa] needs to put together a coalition in which the majority is not Latino."

To try to make that happen, the candidate traversed the city on a recent weekend. It begins at 9:30 a.m. on the City Hall plaza, where he's getting an endorsement from city controller Rick Tuttle. Mr. Tuttle reminds a gaggle of reporters of Villaraigosa's two-year tenure as Speaker of the California Assembly, saying L.A. would benefit from his experience with "the state corridors of money and power."

Evoking Martin Luther King

Next stop: the University of Southern California, where Villaraigosa is keynote speaker at commencement.

During the introduction, USC's dean of students recounts Villaraigosa's upbringing: son of Mexican immigrants, raised by a single mother, a product of Spanish East L.A. Young "Tony" sported a "Born to raise hell" tattoo and got kicked out of parochial school, but eventually spent three decades in political, civic, and labor activism. In 1994 he became state assemblyman, then Speaker in 1998.

Taking the podium, Villaraigosa stresses themes he will repeat in other locations and in other languages: responsive government, public safety, empowering neighborhoods, support for affirmative action.

"L.A. is the great experiment of the world," he says. "But we have become a city that speaks so many languages we often don't speak with a common vision."

He tried to change that, he said, by appointing blacks and Asian-Americans to key posts while in Sacramento. "If I become mayor, I will open up City Hall so its leadership looks like this city."

At this and every stop, he praises Hahn as a "good and decent man" who has given "years of dedicated public service." (Hahn is the son of Kenneth Hahn, who served on the L.A. County Board of Supervisers for more than two decades, winning broad support from the black and Latino district he represented.) Villaraigosa says the difference is passion, energy, and commitment to "make the dream of Martin Luther King not just an elusive memory, but a dream that we can fulfill...."

Such comments are reminiscent of former Mayor Bradley's approach to politics. "A lot of people ... have strong emotional ties to the kind of mission Bradley was attempting," says Jim Rainey, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Villaraigosa is "trying to pull people to him in the same way from across the political and racial spectrum."

The charm offensive

Doffing cap and gown, Villaraigosa hops again into his black Ford Explorer, complete with driver and two cell phones, and races to a ceremony for slain police officers. Both Villaraigosa and Hahn are courting police - and have accused each other of developing plans that would jeopardize public safety. What to do with the L.A. Police Department, which has been rocked by scandal, will be one of the biggest tasks facing the next mayor.

Several minutes later, and several blocks away, Villaraigosa assumes yet another persona, tapping into what many feel are his strongest assets - his Mexican heritage, personal charm, and open heart.

"I have much affection and love for all of you here in East Los Angeles, in my birthplace," he says, again in Spanish, to a crowd of seniors at the International Institute of Los Angeles.

"Villaraigosa's charisma and style are among his best selling points, especially when compared with Hahn, who is more staid," says Rick Orlov, a Los Angeles Daily News columnist who is covering the campaign.

The next day finds Villaraigosa grooving and swaying with African-Americans at Victory Baptist church, and joining in Jewish folk dances at a private home in the San Fernando Valley, where a large, undecided, white vote resides.

"Hahn just came and said a few words before leaving, but Antonio will shake the hand of everyone here before he leaves," says city councillor Zev Yaroslavsky, sitting in the shade at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda.

With the two candidates running neck and neck, the race could come down to turnout of Asians - whose numbers are growing percentagewise even faster than Hispanics - and whites in the San Fernando Valley and West Side.

A reality check

At his final event this weekend, Villaraigosa runs into Hahn at the home of Alfred Foung, where members of an Asian-Pacific political action committee are gathered. He also hears from supporters who feel Hahn has greater backing among Asians.

"Jimmy Hahn has been working with Asian-Americans at all levels for many years, so we really feel he understands the Asian community a bit more [than Antonio]," says Mayor Lily Chen of Monterey Park, one of the largest concentrations of Asian-Americans in the US. "He really has a record of substance with us, whereas Antonio is appealing but only on the surface."

Hahn himself is fielding reporters' questions about whether this is a vote about ethnicity or ability. "I'm hoping that voters see that it's the qualifications of the person, not the race of the candidate, that is important," Hahn says in an interview.

"Antonio definitely has the halo of excitement around him of trying to be the first Latino mayor in over a century," he adds. "But I don't want people voting for me just because I'm Anglo. To me, that is the point of L.A., that you can come here and reach your dream no matter what your background, surname, or school. This runoff is partly about never losing that."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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