Saving Graces in the Loss

Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

Pundits like to be proved right. But there is no joy in my pointing out that two years ago, when former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa began his campaign for mayor of Los Angeles, I predicted he would lose.

He did, of course. Last Tuesday City Atty. James K. Hahn outpolled Villaraigosa with 54% voter support to 46%. But as they say in sports, the game was a lot closer than the final score. So let me acknowledge that I was also dead wrong about several things in the recently concluded campaign.

Start with the fact that I underestimated Villaraigosa as a candidate. From the April primary, when he surprised everyone by coming in as the top vote-getter, to an unexpectedly strong get-out-the-vote drive by his organized labor supporters on election day, it was Villaraigosa who brought excitement to the 2001 city election.

At 48, he showed the energy and eagerness of a teenager. And he showed an ability to convey that youthful enthusiasm to people around him, whether delivering a stump speech to a crowd or talking with a small group in a hushed boardroom.

Villaraigosa also built an admirably broad coalition of supporters, especially among two groups that are normally discounted in local elections: Latinos and the young.

Despite the fact many rival Latino pols endorsed Hahn, and that one even tried to sabotage his campaign, Villaraigosa got more than 80% of the Latino vote. That should put to rest the canard that Latinos won't rally around a single candidate. In fact, Villaraigosa's presence on the ballot helped stimulate a record 22% turnout of Latino voters, and that undoubtedly helped underdog Rocky Delgadillo win his race to become city attorney.

Even among African Americans, who were Hahn's most solid base of support, Villaraigosa won over one-quarter of the voters under the age of 45. That should be a hopeful sign to pessimists who fear ethnic tensions as the city's emerging Latino majority jockeys for power with a black population that is proportionately declining.

So even as Villaraigosa failed to make history by becoming the city's first Latino mayor since 1872, much good came out of his campaign. He's earned the right to remain a key player in local and national politics for the foreseeable future. The question is, how does he do that? He might take a lesson from his role model, Tom Bradley.

Every time I heard someone compare Villaraigosa's candidacy to Bradley's, I winced a little. Not because the comparison wasn't valid but because it wasn't complete. It overlooked the most important thing about Bradley's first campaign in 1969: He lost.

But defeat was a useful, if painful, reality check for a fast-rising star like Bradley, and it can serve that same purpose for Villaraigosa. He must now do what Bradley did, and launch a perpetual campaign designed to enhance his stature as the loyal opposition while biding his time for a second chance.

Bradley had a big advantage that Villaraigosa does not. As a member of the City Council, Bradley remained highly visible in City Hall and around town. Likewise, the former speaker must find another public position, and soon.

One intriguing possibility would be for Villaraigosa, a former teachers' union organizer who is married to a public school teacher, to get a top job with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

LAUSD is already a disaster area, so Villaraigosa couldn't be blamed for making it any worse. L.A. School Supt. Roy Romer badly needs someone like Villaraigosa to strengthen his lines of communication to his district's biggest constituency, Latino parents. Villaraigosa might even be able to short-circuit a nascent campaign by Latino activists to break up the school district.

Which reminds me of the best thing to emerge from the city election results: far-flung and often neglected parts of Los Angeles are now less likely to secede.

With a resident of San Pedro like Hahn as mayor, the Harbor area probably won't bolt. And without support in the Harbor, it's unlikely that the San Fernando Valley can muster the votes needed to break away.

Of course, this son of Pacoima has been saying for years that the Valley won't ever really secede. There's no way at the moment to know if I'm right about that, too. But my track record has been pretty good lately.

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