Twice Upon a Time
The adoring crowd, a beaming Antonio Villaraigosa, a message of inclusiveness and leadership — the image could have been from four years ago, when Villaraigosa’s campaign for mayor energized much of Los Angeles.
But this time, Villaraigosa also got the more votes than the other guy, and then some, scoring an astounding 59 percent, to make incumbent James K. Hahn a one-term mayor.
Under a clear night sky, framed against a canopy of downtown skyscrapers, Villaraigosa projected energy and hope amid cheers that drowned out question marks and rumblings of unease in his very different, second-time run for mayor.
Across town in Hollywood, incumbent Mayor James Hahn got his first taste of political defeat, without ever admitting defeat. His campaign was the quixotic victim of perceived insufficiencies: a candidate with not quite enough money, too little charm and, to critics, a shortage of achievement, purposefulness and ethical fiber.
Polls had suggested a Villaraigosa win, but the 19-point spread stunned politicos. Villaraigosa led among Jews and Latinos; Valley residents, Eastsiders and Westsiders — pretty much the entire city (and 48 percent of African Americans) chose Villaraigosa. Jews accounted for 17 percent of the total vote and 55 percent of them chose Villaraigosa. For Valley Jews it was 54 percent; 58 percent on the Westside, according to L.A. Times exit polling.
Straightaway, Villaraigosa sought rhetorically to knit together a disparate metropolis that is frequently disengaged and clannish.
“We are all Angelenos tonight,” he said at midnight. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. It doesn’t matter whether you grew up on the Eastside or the Westside, whether you’re from South Los Angeles or Sylmar. It doesn’t matter whether you go to work in a fancy car or on a bus. Or whether you worship in a cathedral or a synagogue or a mosque. We are all Angelenos and we all have a difference to make.”
This was vintage Villaraigosa, the hard charger of four years ago, who inspired excitement and loyalty even while losing to Hahn. The 2005 Villaraigosa campaign, however, differed tellingly from that of 2001; it was more bruising to Hahn and exceedingly cautious in staking out what Villaraigosa intends to do.
By Election Night, no one needed polls or returns to deduce the winner. The Villaraigosa event had the air of a multicultural coronation, with table after table of free tamales, Korean noodles, sushi and barbecue. Two blocks of Boylston Street were cordoned off. The press had its own filing patio; VIPs had a private indoor shindig. The stage setup resembled a presidential campaign rally, with a huge American flag as backdrop and an arch of red, white and blue balloons.
By 9:30 p.m., the streetscape swelled and bobbed with celebrants even as a line of well-wishers stretched around the block, waiting to get through four security screening stations.
At Hahn headquarters, at Element in Hollywood, no metal detectors were needed; this, in contrast, was a party searching not for weapons, but a pulse, looking more like a decently attended art-gallery opening than a political rally. The TV screens steadfastly refused to show anything but the Hahn-for-Mayor logo. There was no press filing area; reporters took interview subjects to a smoggy outdoor smoking patio on the side. Straight back from there, in a private area, anyone could catch glimpses of a calm and genial Hahn standing under a pepper tree, waiting it out with family members and his closest supporters. The party room itself could have seated the audience for a small dance recital, but the bar was long enough, sporting at least five shelves of spirits.
Bobbi Fiedler, the Republican former school board member and former member of Congress, looked like she needed a trip to the bar. She refused to call Hahn’s defeat, but her face foretold enough. She called Hahn “a man who has been working hard getting the job done as opposed to tooting his own horn.”
Hahn backers also included Evelyn Fierro, a San Pedro public affairs specialist and self-described liberal Latino, who had supported Villaraigosa in 2001. She lauded Hahn’s decision to fire black Police Chief Bernard Parks, a move that angered many black Hahn supporters in South Los Angeles.
Hahn had “the guts to stand up to people and bring in the best police chief [Bill Bratton, who is Anglo] in this country,” Fierro said, “knowing it was questionable politically. But he did what was best for the city. And this is how they’re rewarding him.”
Over and over again, Hahn was portrayed by the faithful as underappreciated, especially, they said, when compared to the more photogenic Villaraigosa.
“Our television society is taken by a flashy smile and charismatic personality, and can’t quite accept somebody who is low-key, smart and hardworking,” Fierro said. “Mayor Hahn deserves a second chance and the only reason he won’t make it is that he’s a low-key personality. What does that say about the citizenry of Los Angeles? How shallow can you be?”
But you didn’t have to love Hahn to fault the Villaraigosa of 2005, said David Hamlin, a public-relations consultant with ties to L.A.’s progressive community.
“I think you’d have to conclude that the guy everyone was excited about has decided it’s more important to win than to lead,” he said.
City Controller Laura Chick, in contrast, gave city voters, including Jewish ones, credit for deducing the better choice. She’d endorsed Villaraigosa in 2001, but backed Hahn for reelection early on, when Hahn looked unbeatable and before others entered the race.
“I thought Jim Hahn would be elected to a second term,” said Chick in an interview during the Villaraigosa bash, “and I wanted to show him that he could have confidence that I would be at his side.”
Instead, she lost confidence in Hahn, accusing him of resisting changes to city contracting practices, which had come under fire amid allegations that private firms made political donations to improve chances of winning city business. Recent voter-approved changes to the city charter, Chick added, “made the mayor of Los Angeles the No. 1 person on the firing line of accountability. What Jim has done is try to distance himself from that accountability…. The mayor’s staff, the mayor’s commissioners, the mayor’s general managers were opposing [reforms], and the mayor did nothing to change that.”
As for Villaraigosa, Chick gives an edge to the 2005 vintage over the Villaraigosa of 2001.
“He is a man who has been tempered and mellowed and humbled by the taste of defeat,” Chick said. “He’s also had hands-on city experience for two years as council member and understands much better the dynamics of city politics and the problems facing us.”
Villaraigosa’s success among Jewish voters in polls leading up to Election Day was no surprise to Chick.
“The Jewish community has always been interested in progressive reform and Antonio is a leader in those kinds of politics,” said Chick, who is Jewish. “And the Jewish community has tasted firsthand being the underdog. It identifies with Antonio as a member of a minority ethnicity with shared experiences.”
“But maybe, most importantly,” she added, “the Jewish community is very involved in civic life in Los Angeles, involved in giving back. I think they have identified in Antonio an elected official who can maybe correct some inequities that stand in the way of our city being truly great.”
Jews also need to be pragmatic about building coalitions in a city with a declining Jewish presence, noted Attorney Andrew Friedman, at the Villaraigosa rally.
“Twelve years ago, there were seven Jewish city council members,” Friedman said. “Today there’s only three. If we want our agenda to be accomplished, we must build bridges to all the other minorities.”
For some left-of-center progressives, Villaraigosa’s inclusiveness strayed too far right for comfort. Villaraigosa’s backers included property owners who oppose unionizing security guards, a top priority on labor’s agenda. Some property owners, in fact, made a point to side with Villaraigosa over Hahn. In the end, Villaraigosa’s fundraising swamped Hahn’s, though the mayor had his millions, too, as well as the backing of the County Federation of Labor.
All told, it was topsy-turvy and melancholy season for the powerful political apparatus of the County Federation of Labor. On Tuesday, most of the rank and file ignored their leadership’s directive and voted for Villaraigosa, who, after all, made his name as a labor stalwart. The result was a bizarre mirror image of 2001, when much of the labor leadership had enthusiastically backed Villaraigosa, but a plurality of union members voted for Hahn. Notably missing from the Hahn party was County Fed leader Miguel Contreras, an architect of labor’s rise in Los Angeles, who died this month at 52 of a heart attack. Contreras was a close friend of Villaraigosa’s, but had backed Hahn because Hahn delivered on his commitments to organized labor.
Villaraigosa’s “just win” strategy sounds defensible enough to Democrats who ponder the Al Gore or John Kerry administrations that might have been. But the alternative in Los Angeles was not George W. Bush, but an ideologically compatible fellow Democrat, who was enough of a coalition builder to earn the simultaneous support of labor and the Chamber of Commerce.
Hahn never did persuade enough people that Villaraigosa was too risky to elect. But Villaraigosa’s flirtation with the moneyed establishment put a scare into some longtime leftwing supporters who probably voted for him anyway. Members of the moneyed establishment, for their part, probably still regard Villaraigosa as slightly scary, but at least they went to bed Tuesday night knowing they had backed the winner. Hope and opportunity can work in mysterious ways.
Villaraigosa still has his true believers, of course, including Jewish attorney Julie Gutman, who felt devastated by the 2001 loss to Hahn.
“Antonio is a consensus-builder,” she said, “a unifier. He brings people together. He has the energy, leadership and vision to make Los Angeles the best city in this country.”
David Finnigan contributed to this article.