In the end, Los Angelenos opted to play it safe, choosing the familiar over the potentially historic, the classic white liberal over the charismatic Latino progressive.
The victory of James Hahn certainly marks a return to this city's liberal roots, after eight years with Republican Richard Riordan in charge at City Hall. But it also signals that America's most diverse metropolis remains politically balkanized along racial lines - with blacks and moderate whites for Mr. Hahn joining forces to defeat challenger Antonio Villaraigosa's Hispanic-led coalition.
After much speculation that Mr. Villaraigosa's candidacy would at last inaugurate the "era of Hispanics" in California politics - and, more gradually, in the US - the race here indicates that their hour has not quite arrived. In balloting Tuesday, about 1 in 5 voters was Latino (75 percent of them went for Villaraigosa). Their turnout was roughly three times bigger than it was in the mayor's race in 1993, the last time no incumbent ran, but still not enough to tip the election to Villaraigosa.
"This vote showed that the mayoral outcome is still in the hands of white voters," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. "After all the talk of who could rebuild a winning coalition like [that of former L.A. Mayor] Tom Bradley, it was Hahn, as a white man from a well-established political family, who could sell himself to the white middle classes better than Antonio."
When he assumes office, Hahn faces a long list of challenges - only one of which is to bring together the dizzying array of ethnic and racial groups that make up the nation's second-largest city. Among them are efforts by several sections of the city to secede, problems in the public schools, reform in the city's scandal-tainted police department, and growing transportation problems.
Hahn is a familiar name in Los Angeles politics. The mayor-elect's father, Kenneth Hahn, was a county superviser who represented a majority-black district for 25 years and spent four decades fighting for civil rights. Hahn himself has served for two decades in city government.
Villaraigosa, by contrast, spent his time in politics in the state capital, becoming speaker of the Assembly in 1998. "Los Angeles voters chose caution, status-quo politics, and known quantity over the risk of a new kind of immigrant city," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.
In a race between two liberal Democrats, who differed mostly on how to achieve similar ends, the vote was considered more a choice of style and voter comfort with personality than of issues. The city's Hispanic profile - now at 46 percent - was not a clear-cut advantage for Villaraigosa, because it wasn't enough to put him over the top without the help of a diverse coalition, including whites.
The outcome, some analysts say, may yield a higher level of discomfort between Hispanics and blacks, who make up 16 percent of the electorate. Some exit polls showed that 7 in 10 black voters went for Hahn - a clear departure from the choice of most Latinos.
It will be a challenge for Hahn to build bridges between the three major voting blocs, because of long-simmering social, economic, and political tensions.
"There is competition between [blacks and Hispanics] in schools, public services, living space, access to public health, and jobs," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political commentator and author on the black image. "Some of it is misunderstanding and ignorance on the part of both sides, but there is no doubt blacks went with Hahn out of the distrust at the prospect that a Latino mayor might exacerbate those problems."
Similar tensions have emerged in cities such as Houston and New York, where Latino candidates have found it hard to draw blacks to their ranks - especially since 2000 US census figures show Latinos have surpassed African-Americans as the nation's largest minority group.
In New York, Hispanic mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer has butted heads with black activist Al Sharpton over attempts by each to draw support from the other's base. In Houston, African-American incumbent Mayor Lee Brown is being challenged by a Cuban-American City Council member.
Here in L.A., US Rep. Maxine Waters, an African-American, opposed Villaraigosa in high-profile campaign stops just as the vote neared, angering some Latinos.
"The percentage of blacks going for Hahn over Villaraigosa, despite all the common issues they share with Latinos, is a shame," says Harry Pachon, executive director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. "This is going to cause some long-term rancor among Latino activists, that blacks turned their backs on them."
Hahn - though tagged as a yeoman bureaucrat - is nonetheless expected to be more of an ethnic bridge-builder than Mayor Riordan has been. He will inherit stronger powers from a new city charter, a 15-member City Council with eight new members, and a new system of neighborhood councils designed to make city politics more responsive.
Although Latino activists see Villaraigosa's loss as a setback, they are heartened by the growing voter turnout. "Latino mobilization drives are growing in both size and number," says Matt Barreto of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. In 1997, only 46,000 Latinos voted for mayor, whereas Tuesday's total was between 125,000 and 140,000. "We still feel our power will grow despite this loss."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor