The morning after L.A.’s most hotly-contested mayoral election in more than three decades, my e-mail and voice-mail are full of messages from friends and colleagues and virtual people. They share one sentiment – “we” were robbed. We Latinos, that is.
I can’t say I was happy about the results, but neither can I say I agree with these voices. One said the whites weren’t ready to “trust a Mexican” in the mayor’s office. Another said the black political leadership sold out Latinos and sided with whites (implying that blacks, too, do not
“trust a Mexican”). Yet another prophesied racial division.
Official election results and exit polls show the election divided Los Angeles along ethnic and racial lines. African Americans voted overwhelmingly for mayor-elect Jim Hahn, as did moderate and conservative whites, especially in the San Fernando Valley. Latinos and progressives,
we are told, voted for Antonio Villaraigosa who, as the media reminded us for more than a year, would have been become the city’s first Latino mayor since 1872.
But for me the race wasn’t about race. It was about a candidate from a working-class background, with a long history of labor activism, attempting to forge a new multi-ethnic coalition the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the days of former mayor Tom Bradley, the city’s first African-American mayor.
Bradley was elected with backing from then mostly-black South Los Angeles and the largely liberal Jewish enclave of the West Side. That coalition went up in flames during the riots of 1992, paving the way for the election of Republican mayor Richard Riordan – a fuzzy, warm kind of conservative who nonetheless called for a vastly increased police force.
Villaraigosa’s coalition was a newer and more progressive version of Bradley’s. A native son of East L.A., he banked on support from Latinos, of course, but he never played the race card. A labor activist never places race over class inequity – that would set too many demons loose.
In labor struggles, the issues are wages and working conditions. The labor force may be all brown and the bosses all white or Asian, but that isn’t the point for labor – you never know when you’ll need the support of like-minded people from other racial or ethnic groups. It’s about
class, not race.
It is hard to remember that in L.A. these days. The language of race and ethnicity permeates discourse. In large part this reflects the 2000 Census, which shows Latinos nearing an absolute majority, whites dipping below 30, black population about the same and a surging Asian population. But by and large, L.A.’s new neighborhoods are mixed. What divides us
most is not language, or skin color. It is class.
L.A. has become a city of staggering wealth – and staggering poverty. The United Way documented this not long ago in a report titled “A Tale of Two Cities.” Only a handful of sectors in the local economy have grown over the last decade. Most jobs have not been in the film and music industries or in high-tech, but in the “service sector” – jobs which involve literally “serving” someone. Hotels and restaurants, landscaping and nannying – in these jobs, union representation is scarce, not to mention health benefits or even a “living wage.” To a great degree, L.A.’s up-and-coming majority, Latinos, fill these jobs. But there are many whites, blacks and Asians “serving” as well, and this is the L.A. Villaraigosa sought to represent.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Villaraigosa’s opponent Jim Hahn played the race card, using advertising imagery and rhetoric not much different from the infamous “Willy Horton” ads used by George Bush Sr. against Mike Dukakis.
The problem for Villaraigosa and for the city is not so much the ethnic demons that were set loose. It is the fact that those demons mask, as they always have, the true issue. We may live in a city of many colors and languages, foods and musics. But most of us live in one city or another: in the L.A. of the served or the L.A. of the server.
Those are the cities that Jim Hahn will face as the new mayor of Los Angeles.
PNS Associate Editor Ruben Martinez is a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University and author of the forthcoming “Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail” (Metropolitan/Holt Books, September 2001)