LOS ANGELES—In 2003, less than a year after re-electing Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, California voters fired him. In 2005, Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn may meet a similar fate—minus the recall election. The Democratic Hahn could become the first Los Angeles mayor since 1933 to lose re-election after only one term. Hahn's trouble is much the same as Davis's was: He fails to connect with voters.
The mayoral runoff on May 17 could produce a new Democratic star. If the nation's second-largest city elects Antonio Villaraigosa, he will instantly be vaulted into the national spotlight as a new voice for Latinos—and for liberals: a Hispanic Barack Obama.
Los Angeles is actually doing OK. The city's economy is pretty good. Violent crime is down. So why is Hahn struggling to survive? In a campaign ad, he tells voters, "As your mayor, I've made some tough decisions. I fought hard to keep L.A. together. And I brought in a new police chief."
Those decisions were widely popular, but politically costly. In 2002, Hahn led the fight to keep the San Fernando Valley from seceding from Los Angeles. Voters citywide rejected secession by 2-to-1. But more than half of Valley voters wanted to secede. In 2001, the Valley vote—40 percent of the total—was crucial to Hahn's election. This time, a lot of Valley-speaking voters may say, "No way are we voting for that dude."
Hahn also had strong African-American backing in the past. He inherited that support from his late father, Kenneth Hahn, a civil-rights champion who represented South Los Angeles as a county supervisor for decades. The payoff came in the 2001 runoff, when blacks voted for Ken Hahn's son by 4-to-1. But many African-American voters felt betrayed in 2002 when the mayor maneuvered to get rid of the city's black police chief. The new chief, William Bratton, is popular citywide (scoring a 75 percent job-approval rating among likely voters in a February Los Angeles Times poll). But Hahn's support among black voters dropped from 71 percent in the 2001 primary to 23 percent in last week's primary, according to the Times exit poll.
This year's runoff for mayor is a rematch. Four years ago, Hahn beat Villaraigosa with an odd coalition of blacks (80 percent for Hahn) and Valley voters (55 percent). Those constituencies were his base. Now, he's in trouble with both.
Hahn is also tainted by the whiff of scandal, including criminal investigations of city contracting and of campaign contributions. No charges have been filed against the mayor, but 43 percent of the voters in the exit poll said that the investigations influenced their vote.
Then there's the personality factor. Hahn hasn't made a strong connection with voters—unlike, say, GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who may have defined a new standard. That's why Hahn's primary opponents touted their personal qualities. One ad said, "Antonio Villaraigosa: hands-on leadership, straight from the heart."
Bob Hertzberg, the third-place candidate who nearly knocked Hahn out of the runoff (getting 22 percent to Hahn's 24), grabbed voters' attention with his "Bobzilla" ads, which pictured Hertzberg as a giant towering over the city. Hertzberg's message: "I think you deserve a mayor who thinks 'big' for a change." The implication: Hahn is small-minded and lackluster.
As it turned out, Hahn and Villaraigosa pretty much repeated their primary performances from four years ago. This year, Villaraigosa came in first with 33 percent. In 2001, he came in first with 30 percent. In 2001, Hahn came in second with 25 percent. This year, he was second with 24.
Why shouldn't Hahn be able to beat Villaraigosa in the second round, as he did last time? Well, this time, Hahn is an incumbent. And an incumbent who gets just 24 percent of the vote can hardly be described as strong.
In its exit poll, the Times asked voters to name their second choice for mayor. Supporters of other candidates all favored Villaraigosa over Hahn by large margins. Asked to assess Hahn's performance as mayor, Hertzberg voters gave him an 83 percent negative rating. Among those who supported the fourth-place finisher, Hahn's job rating was 70 percent negative. Even Villaraigosa voters didn't rate Hahn that low (64 percent negative). The voters who are now up for grabs appear to be intensely critical of Hahn.
Hahn won in 2001 with a tough, negative campaign against Villaraigosa, a campaign that was criticized for drawing on anti-Latino stereotypes involving crime and drugs. Hahn may have no choice but to try to make Villaraigosa the issue again. But it will be harder this time. Hahn is the incumbent; he's the issue. Moreover, Villaraigosa is running a subdued campaign, presenting himself as the candidate of "unity."
The outcome is likely to depend on whether Anglos and African-Americans will be so reluctant to vote for a Latino that they will cast their ballots for a mayor they don't like.
When California voters fired Gov. Davis, the state was in a much bigger mess than the city of Los Angeles is in now. Policy failures play a smaller role in Hahn's struggle than they did in Davis's. Hahn's problems are mainly political and personal, but that doesn't make them any less real.