Black Affection for Hahn a Hurdle Villaraigosa Couldn't Vault

Antonio Villaraigosa could never solve the one piece of the puzzle needed to be elected mayor. How could the most liberal candidate in the contest win if he was shunned by the most liberal voting bloc--blacks?

He couldn't, as it turned out.

"We couldn't figure out how to win this race without substantial black votes," says Parke Skelton, Villaraigosa's chief strategist. "Antonio was the progressive, the labor candidate, the movement candidate. We needed to be able to put together a coalition with African Americans."

Blacks voted 80% for James K. Hahn, according to The Times' exit poll. Many--probably most--didn't actually vote for Hahn. They voted for his late father, the legendary county supervisor, Kenneth Hahn, a white hero to blacks. They also voted against a Latino mayor, perceiving a threat to their waning political power, which got recharged Tuesday.

Consequently blacks are still very relevant politically, despite being crowded by Latinos.

The anti-Latino anxiety won't show up on any exit poll. But it does in candid conversations.

"I got heat from blacks," says one African American legislator who endorsed Villaraigosa. "They asked, 'Why do you support him? He'll throw us all out.' Ironically, Antonio's the one guy who wouldn't.

"Whenever there's any population shift, there's always a fear that the new people are going to throw out the old. Throw them out of jobs, off boards. There was a comfort level with Hahn."

So Hahn formed an anomaly: a coalition of blacks and San Fernando Valley whites. These Valley Anglos voted 66% for Hahn. Together, the two groups represented 43% of Tuesday's vote.

Villaraigosa's main coalition consisted of Latinos and Westside Jews. It wasn't big enough, representing just 27% of the electorate. Latinos cast 22% of the votes and 82% backed Villaraigosa. Westside Jews voted 54% for the liberal Latino.

That sleeping giant--the exploding Latino population--still isn't quite awake politically. But it's stirring. In the 1993 mayoral election, Latinos represented just 10% of the electorate; whites 72%. On Tuesday, whites were down to 52%, voting 59% for Hahn.

Latinos make up 41% of the city's adult population, but their share of Tuesday's vote was roughly half that number. Conversely, whites are 34% and blacks 11%, but their percentages of the vote were about 50% higher than their population share.

It's the immigrant Latinos who are voting the most--people who have taken the time to become citizens. The U.S.-born Latinos are harder to coax to the polls, notes Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. That's a factor of low income, poor education and young age, he says.

So this raises the question: Should Villaraigosa have worked Latino communities harder, cheerleading potential voters into excitement for his historic candidacy? It's reminiscent of 1982, when then-Mayor Tom Bradley took black voters for granted in his gubernatorial race. Their turnout was subpar and he lost by only 1.2%.

The conventional wisdom is that if a citywide--or statewide--candidate revs up his own ethnic base, this not only takes time and money away from reaching out to other groups, it might scare them. Villaraigosa was running as a candidate of all the people.

But as the Bradley and Villaraigosa losses have shown, a candidate's first priority should be to maximize his own base and take no voters for granted.

Republicans also did in Villaraigosa, a price he paid for being backed by labor and the Democratic Party. The GOP was only 20% of the electorate, but voted 79% for Hahn, despite Mayor Richard Riordan's essentially irrelevant endorsement of Villaraigosa.

"The Republican view was that if Villaraigosa got elected, he would build a Democratic machine on the left and become a big Latino star," says GOP analyst Tony Quinn. "They didn't want a popular left-wing Latino machine."

Villaraigosa had other problems too, not the least of which was a nagging polyp on a vocal cord that left his voice annoyingly hoarse and raspy. It will require surgery.

And as the Hahn camp takes spinning, post-election bows, it simultaneously will be slinking out of the mud. Hahn's cocaine pipe TV ad ranks among the all-time sleaziest, right down there with Pete Wilson's "they keep coming" spot that aroused Latinos into citizenship.

"It's the old equation of Latino equals drug dealer equals criminal class," says Pachon. "That's what Latinos saw."

Villaraigosa says he's proud of his positive campaign. But Hahn went negative and won.

Conventional wisdom says a Latino or black can't win high office if he goes on the attack, because that frightens whites. Time to discard that playbook.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World