LOS ANGELES — City Attorney James Hahn led Antonio Villaraigosa, a former state legislator hoping to become the city’s first Hispanic mayor in 129 years, in early returns in the race for mayor Tuesday.
With 3 percent of precincts reporting, Hahn had 65,497 votes, or 62 percent. Villaraigosa had 39,387 votes, or 38 percent.
The early returns were heavily weighted toward absentee votes. Hahn got more absentee votes than Villaraigosa in the primary, but Villaraigosa went on to emerge in first place, with 30 percent of the vote compared with 25 percent for Hahn.
Absentee voters accounted for 7.6 percent of the total vote in the April primary.
Hahn, city attorney since 1985, has won citywide office five times and enjoyed broad support from the city’s black community, which revered his late father, a four-decade Los Angeles County supervisor.
Villaraigosa, an immigrant’s son and onetime high school dropout who rose to speaker of the state Assembly, would be the city’s first Hispanic mayor since 1872.
The winner will replace Republican Richard Riordan, forced from office after eight years by term limits.
Although both candidates are liberal Democrats, Hahn positioned himself as more moderate during the runoff. Some analysts cast the race as a contest between the city’s future and the status quo.
“This is a city that is in transition. This election is a gut check,” said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, based in San Antonio, Texas. “Is L.A. ready to let new leadership assert itself, that happens to be Latino, that happens to represent the majority of the population?”
Turnout among the city’s 1.5 million registered voters stood at 29.2 percent by 7 p.m., the city clerk’s office said. The pace of voting was slightly ahead of the same timeframe in the April 10 primary and the city’s last mayoral runoff in 1993.
The final turnout in the primary was 33.5 percent. Hispanic turnout in the primary was a record 21.7 percent and experts said that would have to increase for Villaraigosa to win the runoff.
In other high-profile races, former state senator and 1960s radical Tom Hayden trailed former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Weiss in the battle for the 5th District City Council seat, while Hahn’s sister, Janice Hahn, led in early returns for the 15th District council seat.
State Sen. Diane Watson, a popular black Democrat, had a commanding lead in her bid to succeed the late Rep. Julian Dixon in the 32nd Congressional District race. Dixon, a Democrat, died in December. The battle between Hahn and Villaraigosa was the most fiercely contested mayoral race in decades.
Villaraigosa’s campaign was considered a longshot when he entered the race, but the charismatic former legislator surged to a surprising first place in the primary on the strength of a broad coalition of Hispanics, labor, liberals and others.
Hernane Ortiz, 27, of Boyle Heights joked that he was voting for Villaraigosa “because he’s Latino and I’m Latino so I gotta vote for him, right?” But he added that Villaraigosa more closely represented his views.
“I just think he’s more in touch with me and with the things that are important to me,” he said.
After the primary, the more reserved Hahn sought to portray Villaraigosa as soft on crime and overly liberal, keeping him mostly on the defensive.
The last major poll before the election showed Hahn seven points ahead.
Hahn, 50, frequently invoked the name of his popular late father, county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who represented the largely black neighborhoods of South Los Angeles that now constitute his son’s base. Hahn also was successful in attracting conservatives who had backed other candidates in the primary.
Villaraigosa, 48, referred frequently to his personal history of rising from a broken home on the city’s rough east side to the highest post in the Assembly. He rejected the Hispanic candidate label, but his candidacy generated excitement among Hispanics, who now comprise 46.5 percent of the city’s population.
The candidates sought to distinguish themselves from each other but ultimately resorted to attack ads as they burned through a combined $13 million in campaign funds.
A Hahn ad used images of a smoking crack pipe and a razor blade cutting cocaine to slam Villaraigosa for writing a letter on behalf of a convicted cocaine dealer whose sentence was later commuted by former President Clinton.
Villaraigosa, who was endorsed by Riordan, accused Hahn of running a “campaign of fear and smear” and sought to link him to out-of-town Indian gambling interests.
The ads bothered some voters. Others dismissed them as typical of politics.
“If it’s negative, it’s negative,” said Tom Capplen, 49, who was voting for Hahn because of his anti-crime stance. “What are you going to do? It’s always that way in this country at the elections.”