Triumph of a Latino Unifier

As mayor of Los Angeles, James Hahn made the mistake of losing his base.

By William Schneider

LOS ANGELES—On May 17, Los Angeles voters fired their mayor. "We've really been in an anti-incumbency mood here in California for the past couple of years, as the governor can well attest," observed Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California.

Defeated Mayor James Hahn made the same mistake that Gray Davis made as governor of California before being recalled: He lost his base. Hahn got elected in 2001 with strong support from African-American voters. A year later, they felt betrayed when he engineered the departure of the city's black police chief. Result: Black voters turned against Hahn.

Hahn also had enjoyed strong support among San Fernando Valley voters in 2001. But when the valley tried to secede a year later, Hahn led the campaign to hold the city together, a campaign that many valley residents found disrespectful. Joel Kotkin, a fellow at the New American Foundation, said, "The way he took it on really annoyed people. The secessionists were never really going to win, but he had to pummel them and he didn't give them anything." Result: Valley voters turned against Hahn.

The irony is that Hahn had a pretty good record. As the mayor observed plaintively on Election Night, "47,000 new jobs here, $11 billion in new investment—that stuff didn't just magically happen." But when scandals involving city contracting began to emerge, Hahn had no base of support to sustain him.

Unlike Hahn and Davis, President Bush paid a lot of attention to his base. Also unlike Hahn and Davis, Bush kept his office.

If the California losers had something in common, so did the winners, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Antonio Villaraigosa—star quality. "I can't wait to call him 'Mr. Mayor,' " basketball great Magic Johnson said at Villaraigosa's victory rally. Johnson's endorsement boosted Villaraigosa with young black voters, who, according to the Los Angeles Times exit poll, went overwhelmingly for the Latino candidate while older black voters stayed with Hahn. In this city of celebrities, the reclusive Hahn was anything but a rock star, while Villaraigosa, the day after the election, said, "I'm going to be a mayor who doesn't hide under a rock."

Villaraigosa had a simple reason for not campaigning as the "Latino candidate": He couldn't win with just the Latino vote. Latinos were 25 percent of the voters, according to the Times exit poll, a record for a city election in Los Angeles. More than 80 percent of Latinos voted for Villaraigosa, about the same as four years ago when he and Hahn faced each other in the mayoral runoff. But this time, Villaraigosa built his coalition on broad dissatisfaction with the incumbent. His support among white voters jumped from 41 percent in 2001 to 57 percent in 2005, according to an exit poll by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. Blacks had voted 80 percent for Hahn in 2001. In 2005, they voted 58 percent for Villaraigosa.

Villaraigosa campaigned as a unifier. "We need a bridge builder. We need somebody that wants to unite all of our communities," he said on the campaign trail. And that's how he says he will govern. "I'm an American of Mexican descent, and I'm proud of that," he said the day after the election. "But I intend to be a mayor for all of Los Angeles."

At his victory rally, Villaraigosa said, "I stand on the shoulders of a great man, Mayor Tom Bradley." Bradley, the city's only African-American mayor, was first elected in 1973. He defeated an incumbent, Sam Yorty, who was running for a fourth term. Like Villaraigosa, Bradley won with a broad coalition of support held together by opposition to the incumbent.

Before Villaraigosa's triumph, Latinos had already broken into California's power structure. The speaker of the General Assembly, the chair of the state Democratic Party, the president of the Los Angeles City Council, and the city attorney are Latinos.

As Pachon observed, "There's not that feeling of a breakthrough, because the breakthrough has already occurred."

Ethnic and racial tensions stayed below the surface this year, unlike four years ago, when Hahn ran a controversial television ad that seemed to play on stereotypes about drugs, crime, and minorities. "The ethnic card was definitely played in 2001," Pachon said, "but it hasn't been played in 2005." Nobody wanted to push hot buttons this year. And that included Latinos, who remembered what happened four years ago. "Latinos are like the Irish," Pachon said. "They don't get mad. They get even."

The miracle is that no ethnic backlash surfaced this year.

As Kotkin observed, most of the voters who resent immigrants had already voted—with their feet. They have been fleeing the city for years, moving to distant suburbs and to places like Phoenix and Las Vegas. "The people who are here now in L.A. are people who understand that immigration is part of the essence of this city," Kotkin said. "If you are a bigot, this is a very stupid place to live."

The message of this election was not "Latinos are taking over." It was, "It's time." As Kotkin put it, "There's a sense of inevitability in L.A. that we were going to have a Latino mayor. Half the population of the city is Latino. We haven't had a Latino mayor since the 1870s. It's time."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/05/triumph-of-a-latino-unifier/304086/