When Los Angeles mayoral rivals Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti started scrambling last month to line up key supporters for the May runoff, Maxine Waters was near the top of the list for both — well worth any wining, dining or flattery that might be required.
On Monday, Greuel reveled in her success in winning over the Democratic congresswoman from South Los Angeles at a joint appearance outside City Hall. It was the latest testament to the power of the black vote in the race to replace Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
The growth of the city's Latino and Asian populations since Tom Bradley left office in 1993 after 20 years as the city's first black mayor has left African Americans facing an inevitable decline in political power. In the May 21 election, an African American could lose a South Los Angeles council seat for the first time in 50 years.
But in this mayoral contest, at least, South Los Angeles remains a major battleground, and — if the candidates' attention to the community is a fair gauge — black voters could hold the key to selecting the city's next chief executive.
Their political power may be on the wane, said political scientist Jaime Regalado of Cal State L.A., but "they're counted on heavily to make a difference with their feet, at the polls, in this mayoral election."
"In some ways, it seems like a contradiction," he said.
African Americans were pivotal in choosing the city's last two mayors. In 2001, they were a pillar of support for James K. Hahn, the son of South Los Angeles political icon Kenneth Hahn, a Los Angeles County supervisor for 40 years.
But by 2005, black voters were instrumental in bouncing Hahn from office, switching loyalties to Villaraigosa after Hahn pushed for the ouster of a black police chief, Bernard C. Parks.
Blacks made up 17% of the mayoral vote in 2001 and 15% in 2005. Much of that vote could be up for grabs in the Greuel-Garcetti contest because African Americans make up a large share of the electorate in South Los Angeles, an area that went heavily for defeated candidate Jan Perry in the March primary.
Greuel, who lives in Studio City, won most of the San Fernando Valley, while Garcetti swept the Eastside and central Los Angeles.
Now that Waters has taken sides, Greuel, the city controller, and Garcetti, a Hollywood-area councilman, have largely completed their contest of one-upmanship in rolling out endorsements by African Americans. Garcetti landed all three African American council members: Parks; Perry, who represents much of South Los Angeles; and Council President Herb Wesson.
On Monday, just before Waters and Greuel stepped before news cameras at City Hall, Garcetti announced that he had captured the support of a younger-generation black congresswoman from South Los Angeles: Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).
But Greuel won the bigger political names for African American voters: former President Bill Clinton and basketball superstar Magic Johnson, along with such black religious luminaries as Bishop Charles E. Blake of West Angeles Church of God in Christ and Cecil "Chip" Murray, former pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Bill Carrick, Garcetti's senior strategist, argued that the mayoral rivals had essentially reached a draw, reflecting a more contested battle over African Americans than Hahn or Villaraigosa faced.
"This is a competitive situation, where you have popular African Americans supporting both candidates," he said. "That's something very different than what we've had in the past."
As a practical matter, one of Greuel's most important black supporters is Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, presuming he brings the full weight of his campaign operation to the race.
Waters doesn't command the political machine she once did. But after more than 22 years in Congress, she remains a popular figure in South Los Angeles. Her endorsements are coveted by most Democrats, and some others, in part because they can pay to appear on slate mailers promoting candidates Waters is backing.
"I look forward to working wherever they want me to work," Waters told reporters outside City Hall. "I will be happy to walk precincts, to make telephone calls, to do planning, to raise money."
Waters recalled — as Greuel invariably does when speaking to black audiences — that Greuel started her career as an aide to Bradley in the mayor's office. But her emphasis was on what she described as the importance of electing a woman as mayor of Los Angeles for the first time.
On the City Hall steps behind Waters and Greuel, several dozen supporters chanted lyrics from Helen Reddy's 1970s hit, "I Am Woman": "I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore."
Times staff writer Ben Welsh contributed to this report.