A mano-a-mano confrontation between estranged, onetime roommates isn’t something we’d normally want to witness, but the people of Los Angeles would be well served by a runoff election between Bob Hertzberg and Antonio Villaraigosa. Odds are that no candidate will win the majority needed to declare outright victory in Los Angeles’ March 8 mayoral election. The two former state Assembly speakers, who once shared a Sacramento apartment, are credible candidates who offer compelling visions for the city’s future. The debate between them should go on until the May 17 runoff.
It’s not just that either would make a more dynamic leader than incumbent Mayor James K. Hahn. Hertzberg and Villaraigosa offer Los Angeles a clear choice in both style and substance. A face-off between the two would prod Los Angeles to really think about what it wants of its mayor -- and of itself.
We made our case against reelecting Hahn last Sunday. Angelenos would be ill served by his reaching the second round of balloting, although the power of incumbency makes that a strong possibility. Hahn’s two key achievements -- hiring police reformer William J. Bratton and defeating San Fernando Valley and Hollywood secession -- stand out because they were exceptions. His other, flawed appointments and lax oversight (that is the kindest explanation) fueled City Hall’s reputation as a place where contracts are based on favors, not fairness. Hahn’s distinct lack of ambition to use his mayoralty as a bully pulpit to advance the city’s interests has served to shrink the office. He is a technocrat who seems content to go home when the potholes have been counted.
L.A. deserves better. Hertzberg and Villaraigosa are energetic candidates who have shown an ability to energize others. Both are Democrats, as is Hahn, in this nonpartisan election. Both have led the state Assembly, a valuable experience in light of how heavily cities must rely on state funding. And both order a shot of wheat grass with their Jamba Juice. Their similarities end there.
The Idea Machine
In this first phase of the election, Hertzberg has been the most dynamic presence. A high-velocity wonk, he loves BIG ideas, and will flesh out every one of them for you if you give him the time.
If Hahn stays relentlessly on message (a nickel for every pledge to make Los Angeles the safest big city in America would have paid for twice the police officers he promised), Hertzberg all but explodes with plans. He wants to split up the Los Angeles Unified School District, hire 3,000 new police officers without raising taxes and bore a tunnel through the San Gabriel Mountains. (“With today’s technology, it’s pretty simple.”)
His ideas can sound far-fetched. We chided him in an earlier editorial for pandering to secessionist fervor by promising a school breakup, yet he is right that schools should be more under the mayor’s eye. Within each pie-in-the-sky scheme lies a doable one, like building schools that double as community centers. Or standing up to union salary demands and using the savings to add new police officers. And did we mention replacing concrete sidewalks with rubberized ones made from recycled tires?
Hertzberg believes that great cities are only as strong as their middle class. And he believes in nurturing and protecting that middle class by promoting private-sector job growth and business creation; we would want to hear concrete details of how he plans to attract more investment to the city. He is skeptical of attempts to legislate higher wages or affordable housing. He is a centrist who is clearly courting his more conservative Valley neighbors as well as the business community, but he has also caught the attention of Westside liberals. Think of him as the enlightened businessman’s candidate.
The Coalition Builder
Villaraigosa, the runner-up in the 2001 mayoral race and now a city councilman, is more familiar to voters.
He got his start as a teachers union organizer, but it would be a mistake to view him solely as the liberal, pro-union candidate. In the Assembly, he impressed many (and disappointed a few of his followers) with his skill at bringing two sides together. He is known best as a gifted coalition builder, as when he stepped in when Hahn didn’t to help halt the 2003 transit strike. It was for such skills that The Times endorsed Villaraigosa against Hahn in the last mayoral runoff.
If Hertzberg is analytical, quick to rattle off the names of five big-city mayors he admires or to hand out thick copies of the borough plan he drafted to head off secession, Villaraigosa is intuitive -- quick at reading situations and people. He is the anti-wonk who operates from the gut.
The ideal candidate would be one that combined the best traits of each. And in fact, Villaraigosa and Hertzberg made an ideal team in Sacramento, balancing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, until they had a falling-out during the transition between their speakerships.
Los Angeles can’t have both as mayor. The next best thing is to have the chance to decide between the two.