Mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa picked up one of the most sought-after endorsements in Los Angeles on Monday: Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who credited the city councilman with having the energy “to make things happen.”
Johnson, who helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to five championships and then became a successful businessman, said he believed Villaraigosa would have more success than Mayor James K. Hahn in bringing good jobs to Los Angeles.
“The city was not moving forward,” said Johnson, who endorsed Hahn four years ago. “Where are the jobs?”
Johnson, joined by former Mayor Richard Riordan, announced his endorsement at a 24 Hour Fitness gym that he owns in Sherman Oaks in an event that seemed designed to appeal to the city’s business community.
The basketball legend’s celebrity and popularity could also help Villaraigosa, a city councilman, among black voters.
Johnson is the latest high-profile African American to back Villaraigosa since he captured the most votes in the first round of the mayoral election last month.
As they head toward the May 17 runoff, Villaraigosa and Hahn are courting black voters, who made up about 16% of the electorate in March and may be pivotal in deciding who wins.
On Monday, Hahn announced an initiative to involve City Hall in the battle over Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, the troubled county hospital that serves many residents of South Los Angeles.
Flanked by several of his most prominent black supporters, Hahn pledged to ensure that the hospital remains a full-service facility.
“The city of Los Angeles is not going to sit on the sidelines anymore,” he said.
The Villaraigosa campaign said that Johnson would be “an active” participant in the race, but declined to elaborate.
Four years ago, Johnson stumped for Hahn, once telling a crowd that he had “the power of Shaq, and he’s beautiful like Kobe.” But less than a year later, Johnson publicly criticized the mayor for his role in ousting Bernard C. Parks from his post as the city’s second African American police chief. He also chided Hahn for not appointing enough African Americans to city commissions.
Several other black leaders have backed Villaraigosa in recent weeks, including Rep. Maxine Waters and Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. Both sided with Hahn in 2001, but have parted ways with him over Parks.
Johnson said Hahn’s move against Parks, now a city councilman, was not a factor in his decision, calling it “a small thing” compared with his disappointment at Hahn’s leadership.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Johnson said. “Mayor Hahn is a good guy. He just doesn’t have the energy for the job.”
Hahn downplayed the significance of Johnson’s endorsement, saying: “I think at the end of the day, people are more interested in what somebody does than what somebody says or what somebody else says about him.”
But political analysts said the nod from Johnson adds to the sense that Villaraigosa has the momentum as he strives to appeal to black voters.
“Just because Magic says vote for so-and-so doesn’t mean anyone is going to do it,” said political strategist Darry Sragow, who is unaligned in the campaign. But he said Johnson is “respected and widely known ... and the sum total of all this is that rank-and-file African American voters, who are a critical target for both campaigns, are in essence being told that it is OK to vote for Antonio Villaraigosa.”
Four years ago, Hahn captured more than 80% of the black vote, capitalizing on the loyalty many felt to his father, the late county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who represented South Los Angeles for decades. But support for the mayor plunged after his decision not to support Parks.
In last month’s election, a Times exit poll showed that 54% of black voters backed Parks. Hahn got 23% and Villaraigosa 15%.
A crackly voiced and beaming Villaraigosa, who had to crane his neck to look at his latest endorser, pronounced himself honored that Johnson “has put his trust in me” and called the former basketball star “a symbol of what L.A. is all about.”
After announcing in 1991 that he was HIV-positive and retiring from basketball, Johnson began investing in movie theaters, restaurants and other real estate ventures in underserved urban areas around the country.
Johnson said he does not believe that Hahn has the connections to lure companies to invest in Los Angeles, and he pledged to be a partner in a Villaraigosa administration to sell the city to business leaders around the world.
George Kieffer, past president of the Los Angeles County Chamber of Commerce and a Hahn ally, said the mayor “has done the right kinds of things that a mayor ought to be doing to create a better business climate.”
“Mayors do not create jobs,” Kieffer said. “They create environments for jobs.”
Hahn, joined on the lawn of King/Drew by former Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden and community activist “Sweet” Alice Harris, proposed to create a task force to broaden community involvement in the hospital’s future.
“We are going to get involved in this issue in a whole new way,” he said. He was also joined by union leaders, community activists and his sister, Councilwoman Janice Hahn.
The mayor said he would ask labor leaders and education leaders at USC and UCLA to get involved in efforts to help King/Drew.
He also offered city help to lobby state and federal authorities for money for the hospital. And he said he would create a chief medical officer’s position in City Hall to focus on public health issues involving the city, including King/Drew.
Several healthcare officials and county leaders questioned the motive of Hahn’s announcement, coming just five weeks before the election and on the same day his rival picked up a major endorsement in the African American community.
Aside from attending rallies against closure of King/Drew’s trauma center, Hahn has not played a central role in finding ways to improve care for the largely black and Latino patients served by King/Drew.
“It seems like just a lot of noise and pandering,” said county Supervisor Gloria Molina, dismissing Hahn’s offer of help as coming more than a year too late. “I’ve never seen him pick up the phone and call and say, ‘What can I do?’ ”
Molina has endorsed Villaraigosa.
Hahn acknowledged that he had not spoken with the supervisors about his latest proposal.
Officials at the county health department, USC Keck School of Medicine and UCLA health system said they also had not been contacted by the mayor’s office recently about King/Drew.
A mayoral spokeswoman said that Hahn deputies had talked to officials Monday morning in the president’s office at USC and the chancellor’s office at UCLA.
When asked about the timing of his announcement, Hahn said, “I can’t help that there is an election scheduled.”
Hahn was joined at King/Drew not by medical experts but political allies, including Service Employees International Union Local 343B President Tyrone Freeman, whose union has spent more than $95,000 to support Hahn’s reelection campaign.
Also consulting with Hahn’s supporters and staff at the news conference was one of the mayor’s senior campaign consultants, Kam Kuwata.