LOS ANGELES — Tuesday’s mayoral election is more than just a choice between two popular Democrats in a city that has long been friendly to the politics of both.
Former state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, an immigrant’s son and former labor organizer, is trying to become the first Hispanic mayor since 1872 in a city that is rapidly moving toward a Hispanic majority.
But he faces strong opposition from City Attorney James Hahn, whose voting bloc is anchored by another powerful, although diminishing, racial group, the city’s black voters.
Los Angeles voters also will elect a new city attorney, five City Council members and a successor to the late 32nd Congressional District Rep. Julian Dixon. One of the City Council candidates is 1960s radical and former state legislator Tom Hayden, who is running against former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Weiss for a seat representing the city’s west side.
Political observers have cast the mayor’s race as a contest pitting Los Angeles’ wave of the future against its status quo.
“I categorize it as Jim Hahn’s experience versus Antonio Villaraigosa’s passion,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior scholar at the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development. “It is Jim Hahn who represents the civic establishment of Los Angeles, versus Antonio Villaraigosa, who represents the face of the future of Los Angeles.”
Villaraigosa, 48, is the son of an immigrant father. A self-described street kid who flirted briefly with gang influences on the city’s tough east side, he once got into a brawl in a restaurant over an insult directed at his mother. He would turn his life around, however, returning to school and eventually earning a law degree.
Elected to the state Assembly in 1994, he rose quickly through the ranks to become speaker, long considered the state’s second most powerful position behind governor. There, he built a reputation as a likable political negotiator who quickly built coalitions of varying political persuasions to get things done.
His Assembly career was limited by California’s relatively recent term-limits law that restricted him to six years in office.
Hahn, a four-term city attorney, also was forced to give up that job by Los Angeles’ new term-limits law.
Like Villaraigosa, he jumped into the race to succeed Mayor Richard Riordan, a popular Republican moderate who is leaving office after eight years, also because of term limits.
His late father, Kenneth Hahn, became a political legend as the white man who earned the love of Los Angeles County’s black community during the 40 years he represented it on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
It was said that no pothole went unpaved or public telephone unrepaired in Kenneth Hahn’s district, and the affection that record brought him has translated into rock-solid support for his son in the city’s black neighborhoods.
Both candidates, meanwhile, are liberal Democrats, although Villaraigosa is seen as somewhat to the left of Hahn.
Hahn has sought to use that to his advantage in the candidates’ battle for the moderate to conservative voters that the election is expected to turn on.
He has accused Villaraigosa of being soft on crime during his years in the state Legislature and attacked him in political ads for writing a letter of support, as several other prominent Los Angeles officials did, in support of a convicted cocaine trafficker seeking a presidential pardon.
That has given Hahn, among some observers, status as the candidate of the white status quo. That group, although no longer a majority in Los Angeles, still makes up a substantial portion of its voters.
If Villaraigosa loses, “I think that the broader perception will be that Los Angeles is not yet ready for a Latino mayor,” Jeffe said.
However Tuesday’s race plays out, with Los Angeles’ Hispanic population approaching 50 percent, it could be only a matter of time before the city elects its first Hispanic mayor since Cristobal Aguilar lost his bid for a fourth term in 1872 in what was then becoming a more Anglo-dominated city.
“The old Los Angeles can only hope that when political change comes, it will come in the form of an inclusive and flexible candidate like Villaraigosa,” Los Angeles Times Associate Editor Frank del Olmo said in a commentary in Sunday’s paper. “The alternatives to him are a lot more nationalist about their Latino identity and will be a whole lot tougher to deal with when the time comes.”
Associated Press Writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.