In the final round of a back-room political struggle that has raged for months, county Democratic leaders will decide tonight whether to back a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, a move that would bestow one of the campaign’s most coveted prizes.
Antonio Villaraigosa, a longtime favorite of the party’s liberal activists, is widely seen as holding an edge over his rivals. But Mayor James K. Hahn has fought hard to block the Eastside councilman from capturing the endorsement -- and possibly even to win it himself.
In a city where Democrats cast two out of three votes in the last mayoral election, the party’s backing is a valuable asset to any candidate. More important, the party spends a substantial sum of money on the candidates it supports.
As a result, Villaraigosa and Hahn have spent hours personally courting scores of county Democratic Central Committee members who will make the final decision tonight at a teachers union hall in the Mid-Wilshire district.
“It really surprised me that the mayor of L.A. would speak to me for 15 minutes,” said retired beautician Roberta Gillis of Santa Clarita, a committee member who has fielded calls from Hahn, Villaraigosa and former state Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg.
“You know how it is with candidates when they run for something -- everyone knows you, everyone’s your friend and everyone basically tries to trash each other, which doesn’t work with me.”
All five of the top mayoral contenders are Democrats. But Democratic leaders say Hertzberg, state Sen. Richard Alarcon and City Councilman Bernard C. Parks have little, if any, chance of winning the party’s support. Each has a distinct political base, but none has a strong citywide network of Democratic loyalists.
In 2001, the party backed Villaraigosa for mayor. A former Assembly speaker and union organizer, Villaraigosa has devoted years to building ties with the Democratic rank-and-file.
For Hahn, the vote tonight carries symbolic weight. Already burdened with a criminal investigation of city contracting and campaign fundraising, the incumbent risks further embarrassment if his own party backs one of his challengers.
Conversely, an unexpected party endorsement of Hahn could help him eclipse his rivals, who were emboldened last week when the first indictment in the case threw the mayor on the defensive just hours before a candidates’ debate.
For Villaraigosa, a victory tonight could help restore some of the luster of his maiden run for mayor four years ago, which he has had trouble replicating in this campaign.
If Villaraigosa fails to win the party’s support -- especially after the all-out effort he has waged to get it -- that would mark the second major setback for his campaign. The first was the endorsement of Hahn last month by the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
In 2001, the labor federation and the Democratic Party helped propel Villaraigosa into first place in the April election, but Hahn won the mayoralty in the June runoff.
This time, the party might choose to back no candidate. It takes 60% of the roughly 200 committee members expected at tonight’s meeting to win the endorsement, a high hurdle for any of the five contenders.
For months, top aides to Villaraigosa and Hahn have scoured the committee roster in preparation for the vote. They have called virtually every committee member to determine who could be counted on for support, who was not worth the bother and who needed to be wooed most aggressively by the candidates.
“We’re talking to as many people as we possibly can,” said Parke Skelton, a senior Villaraigosa campaign advisor. “We’re going to need about 120 votes. It’s just a question of trying to assemble them, one by one.” By tonight, he said, Villaraigosa will have called more than 100 committee members.
Many of the members live outside the city of Los Angeles but are still allowed to vote. Retired teacher Helen Doherty of San Dimas, known for swaying the votes of fellow committee members from the San Gabriel Valley, has found personal appeals on her home answering machine from Hahn, Villaraigosa and Hertzberg.
“We’re accustomed to being courted when a big race like this comes,” said Doherty, who has not committed to a candidate. “Whoever emerges as mayor of Los Angeles is going to be a key player for the Democratic Party, so I’m looking for someone who’s not afraid to be a Democrat and stand up for our issues.”
Beyond ideology, the more practical matter of political patronage is a consideration for some. Many committee members hold public jobs or board appointments, and they know their choice can influence their future employment or political clout.
“There’s a whole list of reasons why it’s good to have people in powerful positions who are your friends,” said committee Chairman Eric Bauman, a Hahn supporter who works for state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi. “Part of what activists do is help people win their elections, and when the election’s over, the candidates know who helped them.”
Several of the Democrats trying to line up committee votes for Hahn are city officials. Armen Ross, the city director of homeless services and an alternate committee member, said he had made about 30 calls backing the mayor’s bid.
Also working on Hahn’s behalf are Yolanda Chavez, executive director for housing in the mayor’s office, and Yolanda Fuentes, a city Board of Public Works commissioner. “We’re speaking to a lot of the members,” Fuentes said.
Hahn campaign consultant Kam Kuwata said the mayor’s first goal is to stop Villaraigosa from gaining a financial advantage. By spending money on Villaraigosa’s behalf in 2001, Kuwata said, the party enabled him to circumvent the city’s tight restrictions on campaign spending and contributions.
“Millions of dollars were laundered through the party,” Kuwata said. “We’re trying to stop that.”
The state Democratic Party reported spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on Villaraigosa and other candidates in the 2001 Los Angeles elections, but it is not possible to determine how much went to help Villaraigosa.
Bauman, the county committee chairman, said the party operated “in full compliance with state law” in 2001 and would do so again this year. “I wouldn’t use the term ‘laundered,’ ” he said.
Knowing the prestige and money that are at stake for the candidates, many committee members are torn. Terrence M. Montgomery, a Los Angeles Department of Public Works technician who is vice chairman of the committee, said he received letters from three candidates and phone calls from Hahn and Villaraigosa.
“For me, it’s kind of difficult,” said Montgomery, who wouldn’t say which candidate he would support. “No. 1, they’re all Democrats. No. 2, they’re all good Democrats.”