Dirty, but Not Soiled

David R. Ayon is a political analyst and research associate at The Center for the Study of Los Angeles of Loyola Marymount University

City Atty. James K. Hahn won ugly last week. But the next mayor should be able to put his tactics behind him for the same reasons his campaign team felt its strategy would work in the first place, a strategy that would have backfired on virtually any other white candidate. His Latino supporters may face more difficult prospects.

Richard Riordan ran a harsh, negative race against then-City Councilman Michael Woo in 1993, and last year, a suddenly politically vulnerable George W. Bush viciously attacked Arizona Sen. John McCain in the South Carolina primary. But neither candidate has been tainted by their negative campaigning in the way that Sam Yorty and Pete Wilson are associated with race-baiting tactics.

So it will be with Hahn. The city attorney will reach out to Latinos and to the leaders and organizations that backed his opponent, Antonio Villaraigosa, and they will accept his hand. Some Latinos will continue to resent his TV ads, but Hahn is unlikely to join Wilson in their gallery of enduring opprobrium.

One reason is that Hahn's friendly mien, just this side of Mister Rogers, allowed him to push a mean-spirited message in his television advertising and direct-mail campaign. Hahn sounded the first such message the night of the April 10 primary, when he asked Villaraigosa to explain why he didn't support tough laws against gang violence. This was the message at the heart of Hahn's first television commercial. It featured Hahn in warm living color, Villaraigosa in grainy black-and-white images. The spot also used a graffiti-festooned wall--read: gang-infested neighborhood--as a backdrop. Although this ad was tame in comparison with the Vignali-pardon-letter-crack-pipe commercial to come, its message was clear: Hahn the tough prosecutor was throwing the book at his school-of-hard-knocks Eastside opponent.

Villaraigosa didn't respond to Hahn's assault because he thought his supporters, the media and moral authorities of the city would cry foul for him. There were some protests, but there were also two factors keeping Villaraigosa's natural allies from fighting back.

The Hahn name and his extraordinary support in the African American community became practically indistinguishable in the media's coverage of the mayoral race. But there is another side to that support, one that Hahn's campaign exploited to great effect: It, along with the Hahn name, served as a shield when the time came to unsheathe a sword.

The Hahn family legacy alone does not explain the size of the black vote for him in the primary. After all, the son is not necessarily the father. There was another aspect of Hahn's black support that helped his campaign: anti-Latino attitudes. The fight for the endorsement of the city workers' union, for example, was blatantly racial, with some Hahn union backers claiming that a "Mexican mayor" would be a calamity for blacks. In the runoff, Hahn's campaign successfully used the anti-Latino factor to attract conservative and moderate white voters in the San Fernando Valley.

High-profile and aggressive black support, embodied by Rep. Maxine Waters, further shielded Hahn from public criticism when he moved to tag Villaraigosa with drugs. For example, if conservative Republican Steve Soboroff had run Hahn's crack-pipe TV commercial, he would have been skewered for appealing to ethnic stereotypes and prejudice.

Hahn faced no such attack because his family legacy and his black support both shielded him from the ire of the city's resident moral authorities. A number of minority and human relations organizations, which previously had joined together to lambaste Wilson's Proposition 187 campaign, tried to unite to denounce Hahn's smear tactics, but the effort wobbled and collapsed. Feelers put out to elicit statements from the city's religious leaders produced expressions of private concern, but no public action. A similar drive by local leaders in higher education proved fruitless. As a result, Hahn got away with his negative campaign.

Hahn's Latino supporters face a different future. Since state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) and Councilman Nick Pacheco have already been tainted by their own alleged scandals, Hahn's mayoral victory is unlikely to reverse their misfortune. Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Mission Hills), who wants to be California secretary of state, will be hard put to avoid opposition from labor and important Latino leaders next year. His ties to Indian gaming interests, which paid for the anti-Villaraigosa direct-mail campaigns and radio spots, will be a lingering political liability.

Of all Hahn's Latino supporters, Councilman Alex Padilla may come out the best. Unlike the others, he served diligently at Hahn's side as the campaign's spokesman to the Spanish-language media. He even defended the crack-pipe commercial. Padilla's gutsy performance may have earned him some grudging respect from the Latino community, which went overwhelmingly for Villaraigosa. But some Latinos may long resent Padilla's loyalty to Hahn. He has certainly alienated his former labor supporters.

Hahn's personal and political assets will enable him to survive his campaign. But will Hahn's strategy of using prejudice and bigotry to win become a model in other multiethnic cities where Latino political clout is rising?

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