Los Angeles set to narrow field of mayoral candidates

City's size and diversity prompt wider outreach

April 10, 2001|By BOSTON GLOBE

LOS ANGELES - To his chagrin, the label stuck.

Early in his campaign, before he had declared his intentions, Antonio Villaraigosa was being labeled the Hispanic candidate for mayor. The adjective accompanied his name almost as often as his accomplishments.

Despite Los Angeles' swelling Hispanic population and despite his pride in his Mexican-American heritage, Villaraigosa feared identity politics could cost him the race.

"In the L.A. of the 21st century, where there are no majorities, you need to be as comfortable in [upscale] Brentwood as you are in [working-class] Boyle Heights," Villaraigosa said at the end of another day crisscrossing the city. "Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying it's not relevant, but it's just not the dominant characteristic of my campaign."

Heading into today's nonpartisan primary, the city's six mayoral hopefuls have been fanning out across Los Angeles, struggling to pick up a handful of Republican votes here, Democratic votes there, racial and ethnic votes everywhere. Even a solid base of support in one group, as political analysts put it, no longer assures a spot in the June runoff, much less victory in November. These days, the idea of a black-white coalition controlling entry to City Hall, or any California office, is almost quaint.

Elections, whether local or national, have always depended on building blocs voter by voter. Los Angeles is no different. But in a far-flung city where scores of languages are spoken, the need is more pronounced.

One result, according to political observers, is a tendency toward blandness rather than bluntness, especially in a tight, six-way race. Until last week's final debate, the candidates' politeness made them seem all but politically interchangeable. Only in recent days, the candidates have begun to pummel one another over campaign finances and other issues.

"You have to clearly reach out and be inclusive without alienating anybody else," said Fernando Guerra, who occasionally has worked for the mayor and is director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "You try to gain without losing. What this means is that you can't say anything that offends. Ultimately, that means you can't say anything at all."

Even candidates conceded that their differences are stylistic rather than structural, experiential rather than political. Joking that he was "the tall one," City Attorney James K. Hahn, whose core support is among African-Americans, said his experience rather than an emphasis on any one issue sets him apart. Villaraigosa, a one-time state Assembly speaker who has the backing of unions as well as Gov. Gray Davis, said much the same, but he also stressed progressive issues he pushed in Sacramento.

Even their bases of support are splintered.

Los Angeles, which has not elected a Hispanic mayor in more than a century, has two Hispanic candidates in a single race: Villaraigosa and U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra. Their battle within a battle could blunt the impact of Hispanic voters. Villaraigosa's support is stronger among Jewish voters.

Local polls indicate that the other candidates might win a smaller share of the Hispanic vote. Steve Soboroff, a real-estate broker who is running as a moderate Republican and whose backing is overwhelmingly white, could siphon off moderate voters across the board. The field is rounded out by state Controller Kathleen Connell and City Councilman Joel Wachs, considered long shot candidates along with Becerra.

"You can't just build a simple base anymore," said Hahn, whom many expect to make the runoff. "It's much more complex today in Los Angeles. You've got 135 neighborhoods with their own identities, this tremendously diverse ethnic mix. And if you ignore these smaller communities thinking they're too small to matter, you're making a mistake."

Los Angeles has a population of 3.7 million. But with voter turnout expected to be no higher than 30 percent, just 120,000 or so votes are likely to be needed for a candidate to remain viable.

That means 2,000 votes garnered from the farthest reaches of the city might spell the difference between first and second place, or even first and third, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior scholar at University of Southern California's School of Policy, Planning and Development.

"The lesson of this race will be that ethnicity will be a factor in building a base, but it cannot be a factor in building the kind of coalition that is necessary to win in this city," Jeffe said.

Nearly every ethnic and racial group is in the mix. As statistics emerging from the 2000 Census show, Los Angeles is more diverse than ever: about 46 percent Latino, 32 percent white, 12 percent black, 11 percent Asian. And these days, people of all backgrounds can be found throughout greater Los Angeles - from Venice to the San Fernando Valley, from Brentwood to South Central.

More than half of the electorate in Los Angeles is from a European background, but an unusually high Hispanic turnout could swing the election. The Southwest Voter Registration Project in Los Angeles, which has registered 10,000 residents in the past six months, estimated that 21.5 percent of the city's voters are of Hispanic descent.

Included in that group are voters from Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean, groups that do not always agree politically but are nearly unanimous in their pride at watching two Hispanics run for mayor. Even if Villaraigosa's recent surge fizzles and neither candidate makes the runoff, the symbolism has been struck. Hispanics are political contenders.

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