Will Los Angeles make history Tuesday? Or simply delay it a while longer?
Will the city's voters elect former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa as the city's first Mexican American mayor in 130 years? Or will they elect City Atty. James K. Hahn, whose biggest asset is a surname associated with city politics for the last 45 years?
When all is said and done, after a campaign that lasted more than a year and saw a dozen other major and minor candidates come and go, the choice has come down to one that any student of L.A. politics could have foreseen back in the 1970s.
That's when Southern California's population began the tectonic population shift we now take for granted. That's when older, mostly Anglo residents started moving out while younger, mostly Latino residents were moving in.
So it's as certain as L.A. smog that in the near future the politics honorably represented by a man like Hahn's late father, Kenneth, a former city councilman and county supervisor, will be overtaken by the politics of someone like Villaraigosa, who represents the aspirations of thousands of young men and women raised in immigrant enclaves who are now striving for success in the broader community.
One is tempted to write that Los Angeles can't lose on this one, but that would be wrong.
For Hahn has opted, at the very end, to run a campaign that does his father's memory a great disservice. His last-minute television ads reminding voters of Villaraigosa's tenuous links to a convicted cocaine dealer are desperate measures calculated to win a close election. While the ads may work, Hahn may not be able to come out from under their shadow as he tries to deal with the city as it is now populated.
And even if Villaraigosa loses and, more unlikely, fades away, there will be many Latino candidates to replace him in 2005 and for elections in the foreseeable future. And they are not always going to run campaigns as upbeat or honorable as Villaraigosa has.
Consider some of the veteran politicos now supporting Villaraigosa who may opt to run for mayor themselves in 2005.
Does anyone think County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who has often been accused of governing by temper tantrum, would be as easy on Hahn as Villaraigosa?
And don't count out U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), one of the failed 2001 mayoral candidates. His campaign staff was willing to play dirty even against another Latino when it paid for fake phone calls attacking Villaraigosa. Imagine the stunts they'd try against Hahn in a future race.
Hahn also would be well-advised to keep an eye on his own Latino supporters.
Retiring State Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) plays hardball with the best of them, and nobody thinks he's leaving public life for good. City Councilmen Nick Pacheco and Alex Padilla are both patently ambitious. Padilla, who represents the San Fernando Valley, is especially well-positioned to use that bastion of suburban voters to run for mayor one day.
So even if Hahn wins Tuesday, it will be the last hurrah of L.A.'s old politics. The best Hahn and his supporters could do is fight a rear-guard action to hold off the inevitable.
Which is why Hahn's many supporters in the African American community may rue the day they did not rally to the Villaraigosa campaign as so many Latino voters rallied to the late Tom Bradley's mayoral campaigns in the 1970s.
Back then, Bradley was an unknown quantity to many Latino activists, just as Villaraigosa is to the black community today. But Latinos figured the new politics he represented had to be an improvement on the old politics of a small-minded rube like then-Mayor Sam Yorty.
Jim Hahn is no Sam Yorty, to be sure, but the Los Angeles of 2001 is not the L.A. of the 1960s and 1970s, either. For better or worse, the city has changed and is going to keep changing, no matter how much older residents may rail--or vote--against it.
In fact--even allowing for Hahn's cocaine-dealer TV ad--the biggest bum rap Villaraigosa has had to overcome is the suspicion that he is a stalking horse for a Latino takeover of City Hall. That's a paranoid crock.
If anything, Villaraigosa is being privately criticized by many Latino activists for ignoring his Eastside political base to reach out to other parts of town and other constituencies in the city's body politic.
The old Los Angeles can only hope that when political change comes, it will come in the form of an inclusive and flexible candidate like Villaraigosa. The alternatives to him are a lot more nationalistic about their Latino identity and will be a whole lot tougher to deal with when the time comes.
As it will.