L.A. Takes a Turn to the Left With Democrat in Charge


A strikingly liberal electorate powered Los Angeles' decisive turn to the left Tuesday, backing out of the city's short-lived embrace of a Republican City Hall and ushering in an era that will be defined by a new social agenda.

A new slate of officials--including Democrat James K. Hahn, who won the mayor's office; Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo, another Democrat, who won in a close city attorney's race; and a number of left-leaning City Council candidates--stand poised to inherit a strong mandate. Self-described liberal voters formed a majority of Tuesday's electorate.

As a result, analysts say, Los Angeles is likely to invest more heavily in affordable housing and measures to address homelessness, increase the number of "living-wage" jobs, concentrate more closely on the environment and press harder for reform at the Los Angeles Police Department.

And, many note, free of the tension that defined Republican Mayor Richard Riordan's relationship with the mostly Democratic City Council, the new mayor and council members are more likely to cooperate on governing.

In addition to its implications on a host of local matters, Los Angeles' swing to the left could be a harbinger of urban political shifts elsewhere. New York, for instance, joined with Los Angeles in electing Republican mayors during the early 1990s, a time marked by a wobbly national economy and a high crime rate.

The more powerful political voice of ethnic groups and healthier economic times means America's big cities are reverting back to Democratic leadership, said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., who has written about big-city mayors.

"It's back to normal for the politics in these cities," he said.

Many political analysts say the biggest difference between the new City Hall and the administration of the last decade is that more attention will be paid to the city's underclass.

Riordan came into office in 1993 promising to beef up the police force, and then took on education as one of his top issues. It was only late in his second term that he turned his full attention to addressing poverty. In recent months, the mayor has taken to describing his mission as mainly one of helping the poor.

That issue, experts agree, will be high on the agenda for the next four years--both in the mayor's office and in the City Council.

"You're going to hear a lot more about equity issues, haves and have-nots and what city government can do for the less fortunate," said UC San Diego professor Steve Erie, who studies Los Angeles politics.

Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a former councilwoman and one of its liberal standard-bearers, said the council will be "slightly more progressive," a subtle change that--combined with a Democratic mayor--could further action on narrowing the city's economic divide.

"Lots of times, I was considered a lone voice," Goldberg said. "Now, someone taking my role won't be considered so out there."

On the issue of affordable housing, for instance, advocates say they hope the new administration will put money and attention into creating housing and rehabilitating the current stock.

"It's a crucial need right now, given that the city is facing the most severe housing shortage in the country," said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival.

That was one of a number of issues on which Hahn and Villaraigosa were in substantial agreement, promising to boost the city's housing trust fund from $5 million to $100 million.

"Whoever wins the race," said UCLA professor Gary Blasi, an expert on housing issues, "it's going to be on the agenda."

And agencies that serve the homeless, some of whom have complained that their issue has been ignored during the Riordan years, will probably gain a greater share of the spotlight.

The prospects for labor are somewhat more mixed. Although the powerful County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, backed Villaraigosa, the labor movement was sharply divided, and some union locals supported the city attorney.

Still, Hahn has long enjoyed strong labor support and has backed a number of its highest-profile initiatives.

Riordan also has had some union support, but he initially opposed creation of a living wage ordinance--something his predecessor is likely to enthusiastically implement.

"Workers' issues will get a full play because whoever gets in will be a much more union-friendly mayor," said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. "The union movement will definitely be at the front door."

That could boost the movement's ability to lobby for union jobs in big developments, and to gain the new mayor's help during labor disputes.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, hope that a new administration will focus more on preserving the city's open space and creating parks. Though many environmental groups backed Villaraigosa and insist that he would far surpass Hahn on those issues, they say that even Hahn will probably emphasize the environment more than Riordan has.

Riordan often has been dismissive of environmental concerns, arguing that they should give way to the more pressing need of job creation--which he argues is more important to the health of the city, particularly the poor.

"There hasn't been, in general, a welcoming voice in City Hall," said Alan Aronson, political director of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. "It wasn't on anybody's list."

One of the biggest changes is likely to be a palpable warming in the relationship between the mayor and the City Council, who have viewed each other with suspicion and, at times, hostility, over the last eight years.

During the Riordan administration, liberal members of the council often sparred with the mayor. Although friendly with some council members, Riordan tended to see the group as a body as parochial and shortsighted, and council members often viewed him as imperial or out of touch.

"I think that the largest difference is going to be having a mayor who is more likely to have a similar agenda and a better working relationship with the council," said USC professor Erwin Chemerinsky.

"It could hardly be worse," added Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. "Remember, we are coming off eight years of a mayor who started his career saying anyone who has been in public service is the problem. . . . I have been counting the days until we get a new mayor for a long time. We need to rebuild those bridges that Riordan burned the day he got into office."

Galanter said she hopes the new leadership will turn away from Riordan's focus on expanding Los Angeles International Airport and instead lean more heavily on developing other regional airports.

Galanter, whose district includes LAX, said she approached Riordan with that idea eight years ago and he told her to "go away." In contrast to the mayor's enthusiastic support for LAX expansion, Hahn raised concerns about the plan.

Council members said other issues topping their agenda for the next term include developing more affordable housing and making sure that police reforms are finally put in place. Riordan reluctantly agreed to a federal consent decree to implement reforms in the Police Department, but he never embraced the notion with much enthusiasm.

Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas said a more solidly liberal City Hall will take the lead on a number of issues, as the city did in the past on rent control and sanctions against South Africa, among other things.

As the newly ensconced liberal leaders push their agenda, however, they will not have easy entree to one source of power: the White House. Riordan enjoyed a friendly and mutually beneficial relationship with President Bill Clinton, who helped steer federal programs to Los Angeles--paying for the buildup of the LAPD, for instance, and for the city's rebuilding after the Northridge earthquake.

But the Democratic city leaders are not likely to get such a warm reception from Republican George W. Bush, in part because of pure partisanship but, more important, because California and Los Angeles in particular appear solidly in the Democratic column. Los Angeles, for instance, voted for Al Gore last year by a margin of nearly 2 to 1--a significantly higher return than he received statewide.

"These are now the ABC years, the 'Anywhere but California' years," Siegel said. "That's going to be a shock to whoever's mayor."


Ideological Trends

Voters' stated preferences in the last three mayoral races:


1993: 30%

1997: 27%

2001: 51%


1993: 43%

1997: 47%

2001: 28%


1993: 27%

1997: 26%

2001: 21%

Note: Figures for 1993 and 2001 are for runoffs. There was no runoff in 1997. Figures for 2001 are based on preliminary exit poll results.

Source: L.A. Times exit polls

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