The politics of the great American cities are ever the politics of ethnic succession and recombination. As the focal points for the great waves of immigration, foreign and domestic, that continually reshape the nation, it's our cities where races historically collide, and coalesce.
Today, when we think of Fiorello La Guardia sweeping to power in New York in 1933, with his municipal version of the New Deal, we see an unalloyed progressive triumph. True enough, his victory was a backlash against the rule of Tammany Democrats. But only some voters rejected Tammany because it was a machine; more rejected it because it was a disproportionately Irish machine that failed to put many Italians and Jews on the city payroll. La Guardia was the good-government candidate par excellence, but, fluent in Italian and Yiddish, he forged a coalition of newer immigrants, its ethnic outs.
In the past 25 years, US cities have been remade by our third great wave of immigration - predominantly from Mexico and Central America. But not until Tuesday, when Antonio Villaraigosa ousted incumbent L.A. Mayor Jim Hahn, did a Latino politician put together a majority coalition in a megacity where Latinos are a sizable bloc - but nowhere near sizable enough to elect a mayor by themselves. In the 2000 Census, Latinos constituted 47 percent of L.A. residents, but so many were noncitizens or new citizens that as recently as the '90s, they were just 15 percent of the electorate.
By Tuesday, that figure had grown to 25 percent - a big increase, but hardly enough to elect any but a gifted coalition builder, which Mr. Villaraigosa, fluent in Spanish, with a smattering of Yiddish, assuredly is. For all his charisma and feel for urban complexity, however, he came up short four years ago in his first race against Mr. Hahn for mayor. He was unable to construct a left-to-center majority without support from the city's African-American community. One problem was that Hahn, who's white, was the surrogate black candidate because his legendary father, Kenny Hahn, was a civil rights pioneer for 40 years as a county supervisor. Villaraigosa's other problem was black-Latino racial tension.
Some of those tensions were grounded in economic conflicts. In the mid-'80s, for instance, L.A. had a heavily black unionized janitorial workforce, until high-rise owners replaced them with refugees from Central America's civil wars and Mexico's debt crisis, at a 60 percent cut in pay. Other tensions were more directly political, as districts with black majorities turned majority-Latino between the '80s and '90s. It should have come as no surprise then, when L.A.'s African-American voters narrowly supported Pete Wilson's Proposition 187 in 1994, which would have curtailed public services to undocumented immigrants had courts not struck it down. Nor that black voters backed Hahn over Villaraigosa in 2001 by an 80 percent to 20 percent margin.
Like La Guardia, Villaraigosa is a pol for a polyglot city - from his teens, when he helped form the Black Student Union at his Latino high school, to his years working the African-American community as a union staffer. The causes he championed while speaker of the California Assembly - massive school and parks bond measures, workers' rights - were rooted more in the calculus of class than race. So when Hahn stumbled in the black community - on his well-grounded refusal to renew the contract of Bernard Parks, the city's African-American police chief - Villaraigosa was there to pick up the pieces. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times exit poll found he won 48 percent of the black vote, 84 percent of the Latino vote, and 50 percent of the white. He carried every quadrant of this fractious city.
Villaraigosa's victory won't magically dispel L.A.'s racial rifts, the ethnic gang rivalries, the fights at local high schools. It won't narrow the vast economic inequality plaguing US cities, though Villaraigosa has supported linking development to living-wage jobs. But the coalition he's composed, the record he's established, and the charisma and energy he's so abundantly displayed now make Los Angeles ground zero for liberal innovation at a time of right-wing domination nearly everyplace else. It's a star turn that's new not just for Villaraigosa, but for the city he has now so adeptly reassembled as a showcase for urban progressivism.
• Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect and political editor of the L.A. Weekly. © The Washington Post.