Blocs Play Key Role in Villaraigosa’s Win


With his election as mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa now has the chance to deliver on the coalition approach he offered to the voters in the recent campaign. If he succeeds, Los Angeles government may start to find solutions to problems that have previously seemed intractable. If he fails, he will leave a city more balkanized than before, and one that will have a harder time than ever solving its problems.

Villaraigosa won, in part, because Mayor James K. Hahn’s coalition of African Americans and white Republicans and moderates evaporated. It partially re-formed for the mayor on Election Day, but not enough to carry him to victory.

Political fortunes aside, Hahn’s coalition also complicated his governance as mayor. It was difficult for Hahn to turn an alliance of African Americans, strong supporters of the public sector, and white Republicans, skeptical of government, into a problem-solving coalition. Firing Police Chief Bernard Parks pleased the Valley, but enraged South Los Angeles. Fighting secession pleased South L.A., but enraged Valley activists.

In each case, those who favored Hahn’s approach were much less grateful than those who were outraged by it. Hahn’s experience shows that just getting votes from two different groups is not the same as enjoying a trusting, enduring coalition. The less trusting the coalition blocs, the more they demand from the leader, and the easier it is to disillusion them.

This is all background to asking: What is Villaraigosa’s coalition? It is actually at least two coalitions, one tucked inside another like Russian nesting dolls. The first coalition represents those who voted for Villaraigosa in 2001; the second ring consists of those who shifted from Hahn to Villaraigosa, principally because of policy decisions made by the mayor. The first coalition is between Latinos and liberal whites, particularly Westside Jews. Even in his 2001 defeat, Villaraigosa drew a majority of Westside Jews, while Hahn took Valley Jews and the overall Jewish vote. But this time, Villaraigosa got out front with Jews on both sides of the hill, won the endorsement of former mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg and coasted.

In fact, this Latino-liberal-Jewish base has appeared before in opposition to Proposition 187 in 1994. Latino and Jewish leaders have been quietly cultivating each other for the past 10 years, as the black-Jewish Tom Bradley coalition eroded. So this coalition has some legs and some history.

The second coalition is a lot newer, and more tentative, but also critically important to the city: the one between Latinos and African Americans. African Americans have seen the rise of Latinos and have worried about it.

In 2001, African Americans voted overwhelmingly for Hahn over Villaraigosa; only younger black voters went with the Latino candidate. Villaraigosa won in 2005 in large part because many black voters abandoned Hahn after he fired Chief Parks, and also because many African American leaders endorsed Villaraigosa.

We know that African Americans were unhappy with Hahn; it remains to be seen whether that alienation can turn into a long-term alliance with Latinos. Meanwhile, some black and Latino high school students have had fights in the schools, an expression of ongoing black-Latino mutual discomfort. It will be a critical task to ease tensions between the city’s two largest and most mobilized minority groups.

Villaraigosa has at least a three-sided coalition to deal with, not to mention the other groups that will expect some attention and civic improvement (such as Valley residents angry about Hahn’s assertive anti-secession stance or airport neighbors furious about Hahn’s LAX expansion plan). Ironically, those who switched from Hahn may have more specific demands (namely, different policies than those pursued by Hahn) than those who supported Villaraigosa in 2001.

Nonetheless, Jewish voters will hope for a great deal from Villaraigosa. A coalition approach should appeal to those in the Jewish community who fondly remember Bradley. Jewish voters, especially on the Westside, are the city’s main reform constituency.

They will be watching closely to see if the new mayor takes action to clean up contracting at City Hall. Traffic, growth and planning issues (including the selection of a new city planning director) will be carefully watched among Jewish voters both on the Westside and in the Valley.

Fortunately for Villaraigosa, his disparate coalition is not as ideologically divided as Hahn’s black-white conservative alliance. While Jews and African Americans, for example, do not have much mutual involvement these days, they are also not ideological opponents. At the end of the day, keeping Jews and African Americans happy will take exactly the same qualities that it will take to keep everybody else happy.

Underlying the excitement of the first modern Latino mayor of Los Angeles is a city of Jews, blacks, Latinos and others who look with hope for a mayor who governs decisively and fairly for all.

Professor Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton, was the Election Day political consultant to the Los Angeles Times Poll in 2005.