Coalition Politics in Los Angeles Takes on a Mix-and-Match Style

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton and a fellow of the Haynes Foundation, was the Times Poll election-day political consultant

On the surface, the election on Tuesday was an affirmation of the enduring power of the old Los Angeles over the rising new Los Angeles. City Atty. James K. Hahn's winning coalition was built around older voters, white and African American, while Antonio Villaraigosa's losing coalition combined new voters, young voters, Latinos, liberal whites--including many Jews--and younger African Americans. The battle could be seen, on the surface, as the past against the future, with the past holding the edge.

While there is much to this view, and while there are echoes of the Yorty-Bradley battles of another day, both the winning and losing coalitions represent elements of a new Los Angeles politics, one whose terrain has moved decisively away from the political patterns of the last 30 years.

From the middle 1960s until the mid-1990s, Los Angeles politics were dominated by a cleavage between whites and blacks and between liberals and conservatives. During and after the titanic mayoral battles between Sam Yorty and Tom Bradley, we knew who the liberals and the conservatives were. The liberals favored Bradley and police reform, tended to be African American, Jewish and Latino. The conservatives favored Yorty and his allies, were backed by the police leadership and were led by white conservatives and moderates.

The rise of Latinos from peripheral participants in these battles into central characters in the city's political drama has smashed these clear and simple lines into pieces. Demographically, the outflow of non-Jewish whites has made the city more Democratic and more liberal, as Latinos move into the gap. From 8% of the voters in the 1993 mayoral primary to 22% in the Tuesday election, Latinos have moved to center stage. Jewish voters now constitute one-third of all white voters, compared to one-fourth only eight years ago.

Latinos have bolstered the ranks of liberals, making the 2001 election a high water mark for Los Angeles liberal representation in the electorate. Two Democratic liberals made it into the mayoral finals. But the more liberal candidates were defeated in the two citywide elections. How can such an increasingly Democratic and liberal city be so conservative?

First, the very success of Democratic and liberal candidates strengthened the hands of conservative voters. Had Steve Soboroff, a Republican, made it into the runoff, he would have been crushed by either Hahn or Villaraigosa.

Instead, the two Democrats had to compete for the vast uncommitted ranks of white voters. Hahn had the good sense to treat the city's voters as moderate, rather than liberal. His campaign was locally focused and lacked both the enthusiasm and the state and national focus of the Villaraigosa campaign. His extremely harsh campaign commercials, and even rougher mailings from independent groups, controlled the battleground of the campaign.

Hahn had fewer endorsers that Villaraigosa, but he used them to make his case on the crime issue. Once Hahn sealed up conservative and moderate white voters, reflected in his huge edge in absentee ballots, Villaraigosa could only hope for a massive mobilization effort on election day.

Given the obstacles his candidacy faced, Villaraigosa'a campaign was a remarkable success and broke historic ground in Los Angeles coalitions. Nevertheless, there will be much second-guessing about how he responded to Hahn's charges. The deeper question is why he was on the defensive for the entire general election campaign. Villaraigosa did not offer a credible case for why he should be mayor and Hahn should not. Comparative campaigning is not negative campaigning. The avenue for doing so was to characterize Hahn as a pillar of the status quo political establishment. Instead, endorsers were listed, rather than effectively utilized, and faith was placed in a grass-roots mobilization, whose fruits would not be felt until after the bulk of absentee ballots were cast for Hahn. Hahn was never really on the defensive, except for his attacks on Villaraigosa, which also kept those attacks in the news.

In the aftermath of the election, the new terrain of Los Angeles politics is made up of various constituencies that can be mixed and matched to form temporary coalitions. Latinos, Jews, Valley conservatives and African Americans are still pillars of the city's politics, but all are in play.

African Americans joined Hahn in a sort of conservative coalition for mayor, but they are just as likely to join Latinos in a liberal coalition at another time. Latinos were pillars of Villaraigosa's liberal mayoral campaign but also provided massive support for Rocky Delgadillo's conservative campaign for city attorney. While liberals seem to dominate the electorate, it has never been more unclear what is the definition of L.A. liberalism.

As the city heads into a critical year, when secession may be on the ballot, keeping the city together will depend ultimately on the ability of leaders to take the untethered pieces of local politics and shape them into forms that can command majority support and respond to the local imperatives of a uniquely Los Angeles politics.

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