LAâ¿™s safe pair of hands grasps control and leaves â¿¿symbol of cityâ¿™s futureâ¿™ in shadows

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The Independent US

Los Angeles stepped back from electing its first Hispanic mayor in 129 years on Tuesday, opting instead to give power to a long-serving city official portrayed as a safe, but unexciting, pair of hands.

It was a bitter disappointment for Antonio Villaraigosa, 48, who rose from a harsh area of East Los Angeles to become Speaker of the California Assembly before launching his mayoral campaign almost two years ago. His quest had become a symbol of the fast-changing face of a city that is now almost half Hispanic.

An outdoor victory party in a downtown Los Angeles street that had drawn about 5,000 Villaraigosa supporters became a wake in the early hours yesterday, when the candidate, still wearing his electric smile, conceded defeat to his rival, James Hahn, the City Advocate and son of Kenneth Hahn, a fixture in city politics for 40 years.

Mr Hahn, 50, won 56 per cent of the vote over 44 per cent for Mr Villaraigosa. While the personal styles of the two candidates could hardly have been more different ­ Mr Hahn is as mild-mannered and bland as Mr Villaraigosa is charismatic ­ their political outlooks were strikingly similar. Both stand well on the left of the Democratic Party.

Indeed, the vote on Thursday saw several other liberal-leaning Democrats elected into important city positions, ensuring that politics in America's second largest city will take a decided turn to the left over the next four years. Mr Hahn, who takes office on 1 July, replaces Richard Riordan, a Republican, who held the office from 1993.

The exuberance of the Villaraigosa campaign was fully on display at the election night rally that featured appearances by Latino musicians as well as speeches from two figures who had endorsed the candidate, Mayor Riordan and the Governor of California, Gray Davis. As the returns began to trickle in, a still-hopeful crowd repeatedly chanted, "Si se puede", ("We can do it").

Mr Hahn had prevailed in part because of solid backing from African Americans, who feel an historic affection for his father, who represented a largely black district on the City Council and served for a record 40 years on the county Board of Supervisors.

Mr Hahn built on that black base with support from Republicans and other middle-class whites who may have seen cause for alarm in the rising Hispanic tide in the city. Los Angeles lost 15 percent of its black population over the past decade while its Hispanic population rose by 24 percent. With nearly 4 million residents, it is now 11.2 percent black and 46.5 percent Hispanic. Whites count for 30 per cent, Asians 10 per cent.

Mr Villaraigosa never recovered, meanwhile, from a Hahn television advertisement that superimposed an image of his face over a crack cocaine pipe. The advert attacked Mr Villaraigosa for asking President Bill Clinton to pardon a convicted drugs trafficker.

When victory seemed possible for Mr Villaraigosa, many were tipping him as the fastest-rising Hispanic star in American politics. He is unlikely simply to vanish now.

"Antonio Villaraigosa has lit a spark that will not extinguished," declared Governor Davis. "Antonio Villaraigosa is the future of Los Angeles."

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