Race and US Politics: Hero of the Angelenos

Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa has become the first Hispanic mayor to be elected in Los Angeles for more than 100 years. But what will his convincing victory mean for America's second-largest city? By Andrew Gumbel
Click to follow
The Independent US

There are not many epiphanies in American politics any more: the campaigns are too dirty, the money too brash, and the stakes, for the most part, too stultifyingly low. But to the thousands of people dancing and celebrating on the sprawling lot of a Los Angeles film production studio in the early hours of yesterday morning, this certainly felt like the Big One.

There are not many epiphanies in American politics any more: the campaigns are too dirty, the money too brash, and the stakes, for the most part, too stultifyingly low. But to the thousands of people dancing and celebrating on the sprawling lot of a Los Angeles film production studio in the early hours of yesterday morning, this certainly felt like the Big One.

All evening, as a typically Angeleno fusion of mariachi bands, gospel choirs and klezmer ensembles succeeded each other on the makeshift stage, the numbers flashing up on giant video screens confirmed that history was indeed being made. The City of Angels had just elected its first Latino mayor of modern times, the affable and energetic Antonio Villaraigosa, and in the process created a potential political superstar with the clout and the visibility to lead a head-on challenge to the Bush administration and the Republican majority in Washington.

Mr Villaraigosa did not just inch past his rival, the colourless incumbent mayor, Jim Hahn. He trounced him decisively, by a margin of 17 points. He did not just talk about bringing together LA's clashing universes of rich and poor, white and black, Spanish and English, urban and suburban. During the campaign, at least, he really lived it, as he knitted together an unassailable coalition, spanning every major ethnic and racial group, every geographical part of the city, the business community and organised labour.

"It doesn't matter whether you grew up on the East Side or the West Side, whether you're from South Los Angeles or Sylmar," he said in his all-embracing victory speech on the dot of midnight. "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."

Mr Villaraigosa is already a well-known figure in California: he served as Speaker of the state assembly in the late 1990s, and came close to capturing the LA mayor's office four years ago in an exuberantly populist campaign derailed largely by nakedly racial, last-minute stereotyping by the Hahn campaign. Now, as leader of the country's second largest city and a figurehead for America's ever more visible Latino community, he stands a real chance of becoming a personality of national stature.

The fact that he is a strikingly progressive politician, in a country where progressive politics has long been deemed out of fashion, has given particular hope to opponents of the Bush administration despairing of the Democratic Party's ability to deliver a viable alternative. The fact that he is a labour organiser by vocation and a longstanding champion of civil liberties - the sort of credentials that would once have knocked him out of serious contention in any high-profile political contest - also underlines how far Los Angeles has drifted from the American conservative mainstream.

His victory contains many parallels to the rise of Tom Bradley, Los Angeles' first black mayor who formed a similarly broad coalition of supporters to take City Hall in 1973 and went on to serve for 20 years. Mr Bradley also failed the first time he ran, again because of naked appeals to racial prejudice, but came to be seen as a pivotal figure in the city's evolution from a bastion of white supremacy, rampant land speculation and virulent anti-unionism into something more closely resembling a classic American melting-pot city.

It is too soon to assess the significance of Mr Villaraigosa's election, of course, but already he is a symbol of the further evolution of Los Angeles from the city of Rodney King and the race riots of 1992 into a more textured metropolis where Latinos have found their political voice and some of the most downtrodden service workers have organised and clamoured for a more equitable slice of the economic pie.

"For at least the past 20 years, LA has run on Mexican sweat, now it will run on fresh, visionary Mexican American brains," said Joe Domanick, an author who has written extensively on Los Angeles and its often wayward police. "Tonight the epic story, the one for the history books, the one that screams the reality of a 21st-century Los Angeles and southern California, is that from now both will be politically dominated by Latinos."

But the campaign, and the election night party, were about a lot more than Latino power. Mr Villaraigosa - this time more than last - took care to make his Latino heritage no more than an incidental part of his biography. He promoted himself instead as a communicator and a deal-maker who knows how to earn the respect and co-operation of everyone, from right-wing Republicans to militant neighbourhood organisers in LA's most desperate pockets.

In South Los Angeles - the ravaged area previously known as South Central - he worked hard to overcome simmering black/ brown racial tensions and earned the endorsement of almost all the area's major black leaders. In the San Fernando Valley, once a byword for white suburban living which tried, and failed, to secede from the rest of Los Angeles three years ago, he promised safe neighbourhoods and vibrant economic development, and earned the endorsement of local leaders who might otherwise have felt highly uncomfortable with his left-wing views.

At the Los Angeles Centre Studios on Tuesday night, the crowd reflected the multi-faceted nature of the candidate - black, brown, white, Jewish, Catholic, rich, poor - and also the sense of personal connection with the man everyone refers to simply as "Antonio". With plentiful free food, itself spanning the culinary globe, from Mexico to Italy and the Indian subcontinent, and non-stop live-music, seasoned observers of LA's city scene called it as the biggest political celebration they could remember.

It was a heartening end to an otherwise bruising campaign, in which the rhetoric flying between Mr Villaraigosa and Mayor Hahn started off tense and turned downright nasty. Mr Villaraigosa lambasted his opponent as a do-nothing mayor who had squandered the opportunity to promote his city and presided over widespread corruption in the allocation of city contracts (the feds are investigating). The Hahn campaign, in return, sent out one despicable piece of campaign literature after another, trying to link Mr Villaraigosa to street gangs, anti-Semitism, Mexican separatism and the radical left.

It is a symptom of how complicated a place Los Angeles has become that Mayor Hahn is himself regarded as at least a moderate left-winger. He is the son of the politician who, during the 1960s and 1970s, symbolised the effort to heal the racial divides of the city and bring whites and blacks together in a common cause, a piece of family history that has sustained his entire career. During Mr Hahn's tenure as mayor, he was so solicitous of the union movement that the County Federation of Labour ended up endorsing him for re-election, even though both its members and its leadership have a long personal history with Mr Villaraigosa.

Equally, the Hahn campaign's failed attempt to appeal to the lowest instincts of the electorate was also a telling sign of LA's evolution. Four years ago, a last-minute television advert interposed a picture of Mr Villaraigosa's face with a crack pipe and accused him of consorting with drug-dealers. It worked, demolishing a slight lead Mr Villaraigosa had enjoyed in the polls and giving Mr Hahn a seven-point edge.

This time, Mr Villaraigosa's supporters remained nervous right up to the last minute about the possibility of a similar racial backlash. "Race is in the psyche of the voters. That remains the biggest question mark," said Larry Frank, a social scientist at the University of California in Los Angeles and director of UCLA's Labour Centre, which has had close dealings with Mr Villaraigosa for many years.

In the end, the campaign's most telling symbolic moment came last Thursday, at the funeral of Miguel Contreras, the vastly influential president of the County Federation of Labour, one of the kingmakers of the campaign when he collapsed from a heart attack at the age of 52. Officially, the County Fed was backing Mayor Hahn, but in the funeral procession it was Mr Villaraigosa who was treated as family, Mr Villaraigosa who walked right by the coffin and Mr Villaraigosa whose campaign was boosted by hundreds of union workers wearing T-shirts that said "Don't Mourn, Organise".

Mayor Hahn looked forlorn and alone throughout the ceremony at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles, and slunk quietly out of a side door at the end.

Perhaps Mr Hahn's greatest failing has been his inability to use the mayor's office as a bully pulpit to put Los Angeles and southern California on the political map. Unlike the leaders of Chicago or New York, LA mayors are highly restricted in what they can do. They do not control the city council or the local schools. They run an artificially truncated city, surrounded in LA County alone by 87 other mini-cities over which they have no jurisdiction. The sprawling metropolis spills over into four or five other counties, depending how you calculate it, which are far out of the mayor's reach.

Unlike Tom Bradley, Mr Hahn had few discernible people skills - he himself referred to his "charisma-deficit disorder" - and often seemed positively squeamish in the company of others. Mr Villaraigosa, by contrast, is a natural meeter and greeter, a politician very much at home over the negotiating table, if not a first-rate public speaker.

Southern California tends to turn to the LA mayor as a leader on issues such as airport development, or the environment, or budget negotiations with the state and the federal government. Mr Hahn was frequently criticised for being absent from those duties. But Mr Villaraigosa has already worked hard on proposals for a regional solution to LA's congested air and road traffic problems.

Mr Villaraigosa is not without his own detractors, of course. During the campaign, he was roasted for accepting highly dubious political donations from a Florida company with a commercial interest in the expansion of LAX airport. He returned the money, but not before his staff made the gaffe of trying to pretend Florida voters were selflessly concerned about the direction the Hahn administration was taking in a city 3,000 miles away. Many observers also wonder whether he has not promised too much in a city riven by budgetary problems, a 50 per cent high-school dropout rate, a crisis in public health provision, a crisis of well-paying job availability, a crisis in housing, and any number of other nightmarish difficulties. Mr Villaraigosa promised it all: more and better policing, a revival of the struggling middle classes, even a light-rail line from downtown to the airport and the beach, which would be highly desirable but also monstrously expensive.

His best hope is the army of enthusiastic supporters he has built up over the years, who talk about applying the principles of union organising to the functioning of City Hall. Mr Villaraigosa goes into the job with a tremendous amount of goodwill on the streets of Los Angeles, not least because he was himself a high-school dropout from a tough East Los Angeles neighbourhood who turned his life around then vowed to dedicate his energies to helping others achieve a similar feat.

As Professor Frank said: "Who better to be the role model in schools than the kid who dropped out of Roosevelt High?" The expectations are clearly there, and they are sky-high. Now for the hard part for mayor-elect Villaraigosa: achieving results.

Comments