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Democrats Won’t Back Candidate for Mayor

Times Staff Writer

A fierce political struggle between Mayor James K. Hahn and his challengers in the March 8 election ended in a draw Tuesday night as the county Democratic Party declined to back any candidate for mayor of Los Angeles.

The Democrats’ decision to stay out of the race came after months of intense jockeying by Hahn and one of his top rivals, City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa. A party endorsement could have provided organizational muscle and financial support to either candidate.

Though humbling to the incumbent Democrat who failed to rally his own party behind his reelection, the decision also was a major setback for Villaraigosa.

The party backed him for mayor in 2001, and many Democratic leaders saw the Eastside councilman as the favorite for capturing its support in the current race.

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Villaraigosa won a majority of the Los Angeles County Democratic Central Committee’s 193 votes, but fell short of the 60% needed to gain the endorsement. On the last of two ballots, Villaraigosa won 97 votes and Hahn 81, with 15 members voting not to endorse.

“I’m proud that I received a majority,” said Villaraigosa, who called the results “a vote of no-confidence” in Hahn.

The mayor disputed that characterization.

“This was his. Locked up. And we stopped it -- and he knows it,” Hahn said.

The mayor said he had faced “an uphill battle” to earn the party’s nod.

“You’ve got five Democrats running. Not picking one candidate is probably a good thing,” he said.

The vote to forgo an endorsement came after all five of the top mayoral contenders made personal appeals to members who filled a teachers union auditorium in the Mid-Wilshire district.

After touting his record as mayor, Hahn confronted his most distinct liability in the race: the grand jury investigations of his campaign fundraising and city contracting practices.

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“People ask me what are my ethical standards,” said Hahn, who went on to invoke the popularity of his late father, county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. “I’m living up to the highest ethical standard I know of. I’m trying to live up to my dad’s memory.”

Villaraigosa, who lamented a “pay to play” problem at City Hall, sought to tarnish the mayor’s Democratic credentials.

He reminded committee members that Hahn mailed Republicans a flier in 2001 that branded Villaraigosa a “liberal Democrat” backed by the likes of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

“I’m Antonio Villaraigosa, a proud, progressive Democrat,” he said.

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Despite the vote, the party still might endorse a candidate in the mayoral runoff election in May if one occurs, said Eric Bauman, county Democratic chairman.

“That certainly will be an issue that we will be taking up,” he said.

Villaraigosa’s failure to win the Democrats’ backing means he must run without his two most important bases of support from the 2001 campaign: the party and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

Hahn has effectively used the power of incumbency to win the labor organization’s endorsement. Many unions have a stake in business at City Hall. For the most part, Hahn has taken their side during his tenure as mayor, leading the federation to abandon Villaraigosa, a former union organizer who championed labor in the Legislature.

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In the fight for party backing, Hahn succeeded in undercutting Villaraigosa’s wide network of support among the liberal activists who dominate the county’s Democratic committee. Villaraigosa, a former Assembly speaker, has spent years cultivating them.

“It’s just more evidence that he’s having trouble recreating the coalition he had last time,” said Hahn strategist Bill Carrick.

Still, the most recent campaign finance reports show that Villaraigosa was second to Hahn in cash on hand at the end of the year. And even Hahn’s other rivals took comfort in the mayor’s failure to win his own party’s endorsement.

“He claims victory when someone else is not endorsed by his own party,” said John Shallman, a strategist for mayoral hopeful and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg of Sherman Oaks.

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Also seeking the party’s support Tuesday were City Councilman Bernard C. Parks and state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley).

The value of the party’s backing stems largely from Democrats’ dominance of the Los Angeles electorate. In the April 2001 mayoral contest, two out of three voters were Democrats.

In a sign of the party’s potential to influence the race, Hahn and Villaraigosa had personally lobbied Democratic committee members for months, sending them letters and making scores of phone calls.

Last week, Hahn and Villaraigosa both arrived late to a mayoral debate because they each had stopped first at a Democratic Party awards dinner in Hollywood to mingle with committee members whose votes they hoped to sway.

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In 2001, the California Democratic Party, which typically backs candidates endorsed by its county committees, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars promoting Villaraigosa. In 2003, the party’s support was a major asset for Gavin Newsom, who won the San Francisco mayoral race.

This year, however, the federal McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law has cast uncertainty over how deeply involved the state party can get in the Los Angeles election.

State Democratic Chairman Art Torres said party lawyers still needed to figure out which restrictions might apply.


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