Villaraigosa Was Ill-Prepared for Letter Bomb

Almost exactly five years after Antonio Villaraigosa wrote to the White House on behalf of a convicted drug dealer, a man by the name of Howard Cherry walked into the booth in Valley Village and gave his vote to Jim Hahn for mayor of Los Angeles.

"It made my decision easier," said Cherry, a 70-year-old Democrat who used to own Hotdog Show on Ventura Boulevard. "Especially since he denied writing the letter at first, until they put it in front of him."

Almost exactly five years after Villaraigosa wrote that letter on behalf of a wealthy campaign contributor's no-good son, attorney David Morin walked into the same polling place at the Chandler Convalescent Hospital and gave himself to Hahn.

"The letter showed to me that Mr. Villaraigosa didn't pay attention to details," said Morin, a 40-year-old Democrat who liked Hahn and knew from the letter that he couldn't trust Villaraigosa.

Someone will write the story that says Los Angeles wasn't ready to embrace a Mexican American mayor.

What might be closer to the truth is that it wasn't ready to embrace a flawed Mexican American candidate--a man who wasn't up to the challenge when Hahn turned Villaraigosa's 1996 clemency plea into a letter bomb and dropped it in his lap.

Villaraigosa wasn't the only public official greased by Carlos Vignali's old man. A line of local hacks gladly stood there with Christmas smiles as Horacio Vignali opened his wallet and told the sad story of his son getting railroaded.

Vignali conveniently held back the info on the four prior arrests and the recorded conversations that nailed junior to the wall, and none of those public servants took two minutes to check it out.

Villaraigosa, for his part, got a mere $2,795, which should have been our first clue he might not be mayoral material. Hugh Rodham, brother-in-law of the president who shamelessly threw open the barn door for Vignali and a host of other deadbeats, pushers and thieves on his way out of office, at least had the self-respect to soak Vignali for more than $200,000. If you're selling out, why settle for coffee and a doughnut?

But the point is that when Hahn came after Villaraigosa, airing that TV ad in the eleventh hour and following it up with a mailer that hit like a dagger, Villaraigosa made the second deadliest mistake of his political career.

He did nothing.

You do not come into a mayoral race with swagger and brag, asking a city to buy into your up-from-the-streets story, and then shrink away when someone knocks your hat off.

You do not watch your opponent run an ad that practically puts a crack pipe into your mouth and turns you into some kind of bandito, and respond with a simpering "I made a mistake" or with a plea to stop the fear-mongering.

You come with your fastball and you throw at the head.

You ask Hahn if he enjoyed the nap he took while the Rampart scandal stewed and festered under his nose while he was city attorney.

You ask Hahn why Daryl Gates survived as long as he did, and Willie Williams, too, running the most brutal police force outside of Iraq.

You hang everything but the chokehold on Hahn, and then you ask the black community when it's going to wake up and realize it's backing a guy who looked the other way.

David Ayon, a political analyst from Loyola Marymount, says it's clear Villaraigosa decided to take the high road. He might have feared he'd get the worst of it in a brawl, given his Clintonesque appetites, and that he'd be too wobbly to pull off Plan B--running for Richard Polanco's state Senate seat.

I've seen where the high road takes you in politics. I was in South Carolina when Sen. John McCain, who wanted to do something about people buying access the way Horacio Vignali did, was pushed over a cliff by George W. Bush.

Did Hahn ever give us an artist's dream of what L.A. can be? Not quite.

Did he subtly exploit racial divisions? Of course he did.

But he ran a smarter campaign, too, against a man who sat down five years ago in Sacramento and wrote the letter that would become his own obituary.

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