Hispanic candidate in Los Angeles mayor's race reaches out

Sunday, April 10, 2005

LOS ANGELES -- Antonio Villaraigosa's story would be compelling in any language.

The son of a Mexican immigrant, raised by a single mother, Villaraigosa dropped out of high school yet rose to become speaker of the California Assembly, an adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign and, now, the front-running candidate for mayor of Los Angeles.

A Villaraigosa victory would mark another milestone for Hispanics, whose political influence has been expanding from California to the White House. But to unseat Mayor James Hahn, a fellow Democrat, Villaraigosa must capture a significant number of black votes in the nation's second-largest city.

A string of marquee black endorsements for Villaraigosa coupled with the mayor's lukewarm black support in the March 8 primary suggest a new playing field.

For black voters, the issue is not skin color or family legacy but "what are you doing for the community?" said Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies racial politics.

Despite Los Angeles' large and growing Hispanic population -- 46.5 percent, according to the 2000 census -- the city hasn't had a Hispanic mayor since 1872.

The mayoralty "is part of the jewels of the crown as far as political integration into California," said Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California.

In Los Angeles, Hispanics have gradually filled many of hotel jobs that once went to blacks. In addition, Hispanics have been moving into historically black areas of South Los Angeles.

In interviews, black voters acknowledged some friction -- but said that's changing.

"We can't run L.A. without the Hispanics," said 63-year-old real estate salesman Alex Greene. "I don't have the fear of the Hispanic takeover."

Still, in a diverse city, Villaraigosa's ethnicity demands a political balancing act. He does not want to turn his back on his Hispanic roots nor be defined by them -- a candidate who happens to be Hispanic, not the Hispanic candidate. On the campaign trail, he moves easily between English and Spanish.

Some analysts say Villaraigosa's ethnicity became a fatal flaw in 2001, when Hahn's campaign pummeled him for seeking the pardon of a convicted drug trafficker, a move that linked drugs and race.

While the city's Hispanic population has been growing, the black population has dipped to about 11 percent. Still, blacks made up 16 percent of the turnout in the March primary, with Hispanics at 22 percent, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll.

Hahn, 54, has been highlighting the city's lower crime rate and job growth while depicting Villaraigosa as a vacillating leader. Other election factors could include the Hispanic turnout and an ongoing corruption probe at City Hall.

And, of course, blacks dissatisfied with Hahn could simply stay home on election day.

"There's enough residual stuff there that it's not a slam dunk (for Villaraigosa)," Gilliam said.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: