A Latino mayor in L.A.?

April 06, 2001|By Jules Witcover

LOS ANGELES -- With this city's Hispanic ethnic population rapidly approaching a majority, it would seem time for a Latino as mayor -- for the first time since 1872, when a man named Cristobal Aguilar held the job in what then was a sleepy town of only 13,000 souls.

But if former California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa or U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra survives Tuesday's primary in a field of six, it likely will be only because he has rallied an old-fashioned coalition that goes well beyond any one ethnic base, so varied has the political complexion of today's Los Angeles of 3 million become.

Indeed, no candidate is expected to come close to the 50 percent plus one vote required to avoid a runoff on June 6. Mr. Becerra after high expectations appears to have fallen well behind in a prospective three-man contest among Mr. Villaraigosa, City Attorney James Hahn and Steve Soboroff, endorsed by retiring Republican Mayor Richard Riordan.

The latest Los Angeles Times poll has Mr. Hahn holding steady at 24 percent, with Mr. Villaraigosa moving up from 12 percent a month ago to 20 percent, and Mr. Soboroff up from 12 percent to 18 percent. In that same month, Mr. Becerra has dropped from 10 percent to 6 percent, while basically splitting the Latino vote with Mr. Villaraigosa. City Councilman Joel Wachs is at 11 percent and state Comptroller Kathleen Connell is at 6 percent.

The race is another example of the fallout of term limits. Mr. Riordan is retiring after completing his allotted two terms, and Mr. Villaraigosa was obliged to seek another job after being term-limited out of the House speakership. Mr. Connell, too, has been forced to play the political version of musical chairs.

The Latino split and the great ethnic diversity in the city have required Mr. Villaraigosa to cast a much wider net to encompass more than his own ethnic community, which now accounts for about 47 percent of the population. According to Parke Skelton, his political consultant, only about 22 percent of Latino voters are likely to go to the polls. While "primaries are largely about motivating your base," he says, Mr. Villaraigosa must also enlarge that base.

Mr. Hahn has heavy support in the black community, a carryover from the immense popularity there of his late father, Kenneth Hahn, who represented South Los Angeles on the county board of supervisors for 40 years. His name is the best-known in the city of all the candidates and he also has considerable moderate Democratic and labor support.

In the nonpartisan primary, Mr. Soboroff is the lone Republican hoping to replicate Mr. Riordan's first of two victories in 1993 in this heavily Democratic stronghold. But Mr. Soboroff, a wealthy real-estate developer, does not have going for him one key element of Mr. Riordan's victory -- a racial outbreak that fueled his campaign of promising police reform and a crackdown on crime.

Los Angeles today is in a comparatively placid state, with polls indicating that education has replaced public safety as the main voter concern. With little to choose among the candidates, all pledging better schools, the primary race has turned on organization and radio-television advertising, with Mr. Soboroff leading the spending with nearly $700,000 of his own money.

Mr. Skelton and David Doak, Mr. Villaraigosa's media consultant, attribute his climb in the last month to a coalition of white and Jewish liberals along with labor and state party backing. He has been endorsed by the California Democratic Party and Gov. Gray Davis -- a credential that may be a mixed blessing, considering a drop in Mr. Davis' popularity in the wake of the state's severe electricity crisis.

That issue has not been a major concern in Los Angeles, which has its own power-generation plants and was exempted from the deregulation that has produced shortages elsewhere. Mr. Villaraigosa has been attacked for having voted in the Assembly for deregulation, but he argues his vote helped exempt the city from it.

Mr. Villaraigosa's late climb has raised expectations that he will be one of the two survivors of the primary. But Kam Kawata, Mr. Hahn's campaign manager, says Mr. Hahn is well-positioned as the centrist candidate, with Mr. Villaraigosa on the left and Republican Soboroff on the right, "which is the best way to run in a runoff -- if we get in the runoff."

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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