Ready to Rumble

Los Angeles
May, 2005

Here we go again. It’s James K. Hahn versus Antonio Villaraigosa in a televised street brawl to see who gets to be mayor of the city that doesn’t much care who keeps the buses running and the schools open. Oh, wait, those aren’t actually on the mayor’s list of powers. Traffic snarls on the freeways? Nope. The guy with the master key to City Hall can’t even shut down the subway, forgive your parking ticket, or give the county sheriff an order. Let’s be honest. If the chief of the LAPD decides to call him silly names, there’s not a whole lot the mayor can do about it.

Still, just as they did four years ago, Hahn and Villaraigosa are spending millions of dollars to get your vote in the May 17 runoff. Hahn, of course, knows the job’s upside. As the incumbent, he’s been able to cut ribbons, sign ordinances into law, appoint a few hundred commissioners, hire a big staff, and serve as the face of Los Angeles in the media and on junkets around the globe. All this looks pretty good from where Villaraigosa sits, doing drudge work on the city council. Should a mayor choose to, he also can live in a quasi-mansion in Windsor Square. If everything works out, or even if it doesn’t, he might get an airport terminal or a library named after him.

Coming in, Villaraigosa appears to have the edge. He finished nine points up on Hahn in the March 8 primary, and the mayor’s first term has failed to impress. Hahn was down in 2001, too, but roared back. So if you’re handicapping, here are some signs to help you decide whom to put your money on.

1 Warrior Mode

Hahn can be reserved to the point of being mellow—until his future is on the line. Then he gets in touch with an Inner Jim who is sharper, more animated, and even snarly. His advisers love it when the mayor’s lip starts curling in the presence of the enemy. It signals that he’s ready to duke it out, blow by body blow. In 2001, he got so aggressive he left even longtime Hahn watchers asking, “Who was that guy?” The mayor sounds angrier with each week, but there’s such a thing as going too far. On primary Election Day, Hahn phoned KFI’s combative talk jocks John and Ken and lost his composure during a six-minute shout joust. It wasn’t pretty, or smart. A middleweight like Hahn has to pick his spots.

2 Going Negative

In 2001, the turning point came when Hahn ran TV ads linking his opponent to imprisoned drug dealer Carlos Vignali, the son of a campaign donor. On one level it was true. Before he became Assembly speaker, Villaraigosa had written a letter urging President Clinton to grant clemency. What people remembered, though, was the crack pipe juxtaposed with a grainy photo of Villaraigosa, and the question, Can we trust him? Villaraigosa didn’t have a ready comeback. This time he promises to give as tough as he gets. He blames Hahn for the ethics cloud hanging over city government and says he treats his job like a part-time gig. On the morning after the primary, Villaraigosa’s campaign manager, Ace Smith, stood outside Hahn’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters pushing flyers on reporters. With this new game plan, expect attacks from both sides (and from their surrogates via so-called independent expenditures) that could leave lasting scars on the local political culture.

3 Revenge of the Valley

Moment of truth here: The San Fernando Valley decides who gets to be mayor. It’s never someone from the Valley—Travelin’ Sam Yorty of Studio City was the first and only. But Hahn, and before him Richard Riordan, won by appealing to the seething mass beyond Mulholland Drive. A million and a half people live in Lesser L.A., and they’re more inclined to vote—and to vote more conservatively—than Angelenos whose street addresses actually say Los Angeles. If Bob Hertzberg had squeaked past Hahn into the runoff, he might have gone all the way with the suburbs behind him. Valley-ites have three options. They can (1) forgive Hahn for fighting secession and for a lackluster four years in office, (2) take a chance on a liberal Latino, or (3) stay home. What they will do is an open question. Riordan and Hertzberg could have some influence, as could state senator Richard Alarcón’s endorsement of Villaraigosa.

4 Thin Blue Line

Sure, firing Bernard Parks estranged Hahn from black voters, his most dependable supporters. Yet bringing in William Bratton to shape up the police department was the best move of his political life (other than starting his career as James Kenneth Hahn). The mayor doesn’t care that Bratton schmoozes at Elaine’s and gets more attention in the New York gossip columns than he ever will. The chief is popular with the force and the voters, and if he can steer a course through the storm kicked up by the shooting death of 13-year-old Devin Brown, whoever is mayor should be thankful. Now if Hahn would just let Bratton do his job, instead of constantly summoning him for photo ops.

5 Does Charisma Count?

Lately Hahn has taken to denying that he puts people to sleep. Okay, Jim. The real question is whether it matters. Some people want the mayor of Los Angeles to be an A-list celebrity who gets an invitation to Vanity Fair’s Oscar party or at least a guest shot on Saturday Night Live. For them, only a blend of Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger (minus all that woman trouble), and Bill Clinton (ditto) would do. Those mostly are just the ex–New Yorkers talking. Voters here have never chosen a mayor who commands national stardom. If Hahn loses, being dull and unhip won’t be the main reasons. Likewise, Villaraigosa can mesmerize a room, and he dresses better than 95 percent of the men in L.A. However, he can’t win on charm alone.

6 The Ghost of Cristobal Aguilar

There’s a reason nobody remembers the last Mexican American mayor of Los Angeles: He left office in 1872. To be next on a very short list, Villaraigosa has to excite his Latino base and take white and black voters away from Hahn. Like it or not, ethnicity and race always matter. The question is whether Los Angeles, where even liberals quietly resent the impact of illegals on traffic and social services, is ready to elect a Latino mayor. Endorsements from congressmen Henry Waxman and Howard Berman are helping Villaraigosa among Jews. In the African American community we might be hearing the first notes in a black-Latino “Kumbaya” moment. After a career in the Hahn family corner, county supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke has jumped to Villaraigosa, as has Congresswoman Maxine Waters. State senator Kevin Murray, former speaker Herb Wesson, Assemblywoman Karen Bass, and Los Angeles Urban League president John Mack have joined her. Parks, who got a majority of the black vote in the primary, is the prize. Meanwhile, Villaraigosa’s camp is muscling up for ethnicity-based attacks. Anti-immigration Web sites have begun throwing slurs and attacking Villaraigosa’s leadership of MEChA, the Chicano student group, while attending UCLA three decades ago.

7 The Chick Factor

The city controller is Hahn’s bad dream. Laura Chick’s audits are not the sole reason that federal and county grand juries have subpoenaed the mayor’s e-mail and a quorum’s worth of his former deputies and commissioners. However, any indictments handed up before May 17 would send TV crews rushing to her office to catch her gloating. If it weren’t for Chick’s public critiques, private notes to the D.A. and the U.S. Attorney, and quiet encouragement of the press corps, Hahn would not be answering questions every day about pay-to-play and other ethics scandals. His frustrated “What scandals?” retort—nobody in his administration has been charged—isn’t persuading the public. Polls say people think something smells fishy, and they believe the mayor less than they trust Chick. Two days after the primary, she endorsed Villaraigosa.

8 It Takes a Village

There are more than 90 neighborhood councils that dispense hyper-local politics from Chatsworth to Wilmington. No demographic niche is more likely to vote on May 17, unless perhaps it’s “employees of the mayor’s office.” Council members sponsored the primary’s two biggest televised debates, at which they asked more pointed questions than the media anchors. They can’t endorse, but neither candidate would dare ignore a summons from the officially sanctioned bully pulpits in the neighborhoods. Hahn so far has worked them the hardest and isn’t above pandering: On the day of the first debate, he surprised each panel with $100,000 it can use to make street repairs.

9 Labor Pains

Last time this show came through town, Villaraigosa was the unions’ chosen one. He had worked as an organizer, and he palled around with County Federation of Labor chief Miguel Contreras. Op-ed pieces pronounced him the bridge builder to a new progressive era. Contreras spent big to elect Villaraigosa in 2001 and again in 2003 when he ran for the city council. This year, though, the County Fed’s dues are buying ads, phone banks, and rallies for Hahn. The mayor has also been endorsed by the Police Protective League and the firefighters. None of this is coincidence. After Hahn won, some city workers received raises, the cops switched to a three-day workweek (granted, the days are long), and Contreras got a coveted seat on the airport commission. Whether labor ultimately will come through for Hahn is impossible to predict. In the primary more union households voted for Villaraigosa. Contreras told Rick Orlov in the Daily News, “After all those years of telling people to vote for Antonio, it’s hard to tell them to vote for someone else.”

10 Buying in to the Blogorama

For the first time, the mayoral fray has gone online. Both candidates keep in touch with the media by e-mail and talk directly to voters on the Web. With turnout at the polls so pathetic, engaged surfers might be a valuable bloc to tap. Also, bloggers have become part of the news cycle. Campaign staffers spin these amateur pundits with tips, reporters repeat their arguments, and Villaraigosa and Hertzberg sent advertising dollars their way in the primary. Blogs fill a need for politics junkies who can never get enough inside dirt or bloviating debate. My own L.A. Observed has been called “flat-toned” in the Times, but there’s probably a writer out there for you whether your taste runs to anti-incumbent invective, ideological rants, or thoughtful dissection of tactics. For informed takes on the race I most often check, Marc Cooper, BoiFromTroy, the Body Politic, and Schädelmann.


Oh yeah, there are also some issues that voters are sorting through. Hahn is pushing the $11 billion modernization of LAX, which will include moving the check-in function to a central facility outside the airport (or as cynics refer to it, ground zero in some future terrorist attack). Villaraigosa voted against the plan, even though it is labor’s pet project. Villaraigosa opposed hiking the sales tax to hire more police; Hahn advocates letting the people decide. They differ on ethics rules for city commissioners and how to make Los Angeles more business friendly. This being local politics, however, after $10 million and a year of campaigning, it could all come down to a well-timed TV spot or who turns out the most left-handed cat lovers. So go out and vote—and our condolences to the winner.

©Kevin Roderick 2005