In a blow to Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn’s reelection effort, the county Democratic Party threw its support behind his rival Antonio Villaraigosa on Tuesday night, offering a major boost to the city councilman’s campaign.
The party’s endorsement in the officially nonpartisan race amounted to an extraordinary vote of no confidence in a Democratic incumbent who runs the nation’s second-largest city. The move could produce a windfall of party money to help the challenger unseat Hahn. It also carries symbolic value for Villaraigosa in a city in which roughly two out of three voters are Democrats.
“This was a vote for hope and the kind of leadership that we need to get Los Angeles moving again,” said Villaraigosa, who won by a 116-72 margin.
Hahn said that his endorsement by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor would offset the Democratic Party nod to his opponent.
“Mr. Villaraigosa has built up some strong relationships” in the Democratic Party, Hahn said.
The party’s move capped a day of campaigning by Hahn and Villaraigosa in the San Fernando Valley, a crucial battleground in the May 17 mayoral runoff.
In their continuing contest over which candidate can line up the most prominent Valley supporters, Villaraigosa scored endorsements Tuesday from former mayoral candidate Richard Alarcon of Sun Valley and Sherman Oaks congressman Brad Sherman, both Democrats. He also had lunch with the third-place finisher in the March 8 mayoral election, Sherman Oaks attorney Bob Hertzberg. For his part, Hahn appeared at a Valley car dealership to pick up the support of former City Councilman Hal Bernson of Granada Hills.
But the main campaign development Tuesday was the vote by the Los Angeles County Democratic Central Committee at a teachers union hall in the mid-Wilshire district.
Hahn and Villaraigosa each made personal appearances in the union hall to plead for support. Both portrayed themselves as champions of working people of every race and ethnicity.
In a feisty speech, the normally mild-mannered Hahn shouted, “I’ve been there for working families!” Repeatedly interrupted by union supporters clapping and chanting “Four more years!”
Hahn added: “I am about the diversity of this party, the diversity of this city.”
Villaraigosa, whose backers yelled “Si se puede” -- “Yes we can” -- described himself as the best candidate for “black Los Angeles, brown Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, and white and yellow Los Angeles.”
“We want a city where all of us can say, ‘Judge me by the content of my character, not the color of my skin or my accent.’ ”
In a subtle dig at Hahn, he concluded: “I ask you to dream -- not just to think about fixing potholes, but to dream big about what Los Angeles could be.”
In the end, Villaraigosa won 3 votes more than the 60% needed to secure the endorsement.
The committee vote followed days of behind-the-scenes personal lobbying by Hahn, Villaraigosa and their respective supporters.
Eric Bauman, the county party chairman, said about 100 committee members received personal phone calls from Hahn or Villaraigosa soliciting their support after the March 8 election, which sparked the runoff campaign because none of the candidates won more than 50% of the vote.
“It has really been intense the last five days or so,” Bauman said.
The lobbying was a replay of the competition between Hahn and Villaraigosa for the party’s support before March 8, but for that election Villaraigosa could not muster the votes.
For the runoff, however, Villaraigosa started with a new advantage: the party’s candidate interview committee recommended Saturday that it endorse him.
The vote by the county committee is virtually certain to mean support by the California Democratic Party, a major supporter of Villaraigosa in the 2001 mayoral campaign that he lost to Hahn. In that race, the party put about $1 million behind efforts to elect Villaraigosa, according to Parke Skelton, one of his top strategists.
It is unclear whether the party could marshal that level of support again for Villaraigosa. This time, he is running against an incumbent mayor, which could make some donors reluctant to give the party money to spend on efforts to oust Hahn.
The party is also preparing to spend millions of dollars battling statewide initiatives sponsored by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a possible special election in November, and that too could divert resources from Villaraigosa.
Earlier, Hahn sought to build support in the Valley with a campaign stop at the Galpin Ford dealership in North Hills. With shiny new trucks and SUVs as his backdrop, Hahn cast himself as being sensitive to complaints that the Valley has long been shortchanged on city services.
“I recognize people out here have been fed up with the status quo,” said Hahn, who spoke over the roar of traffic from the nearby San Diego Freeway.
Hahn, who led the 2002 campaign against Valley secession from Los Angeles, took credit for renovated police and fire stations and a new 911 dispatch center in the Valley. He said he had “listened loud and clear” to the message sent by Valley residents who voted to secede from Los Angeles.
At his side were a cadre of Valley supporters, including Galpin Ford owner Bert Boeckmann and former Rep. Bobbi Fiedler, along with Bernson.
“When it comes down to a runoff, you have to look at the two candidates,” Bernson said, “and you have to say, ‘Which one represents me? Which one represents the San Fernando Valley? Which one represents the things that I stand for?’ ”
Bernson also confronted another Hahn liability in the campaign: the criminal investigation of his political fundraising and city contracting practices. “A lot of mud gets cast in campaigns,” Bernson said. “But I will tell you that in my years in office -- 24 with Jim -- I’ve never known anybody that had more integrity, more honesty than Jim.”
Hours later in Studio City, Villaraigosa campaigned at Art’s Deli on Ventura Boulevard, where he met Hertzberg over lunch in a corner booth in the back. Hertzberg’s endorsement is coveted by Villaraigosa and Hahn; on Monday, Hahn also courted Hertzberg over lunch at Art’s Deli, a favorite Hertzberg dining spot. Hertzberg finished with 22% of the votes in the March 8 election, just behind Hahn, who captured 24%. Villaraigosa finished first with 33%.
At Art’s Deli, Hertzberg and Villaraigosa -- former state Assembly speakers and onetime roommates who turned bitter rivals in a Sacramento power struggle -- concluded the lunch with three handshakes and a joint tour of the kitchen. They greeted waitresses and cooks who were preparing stuffed cabbage -- “Jewish burritos,” Hertzberg called them -- and each sampled some pickles.
In remarks to reporters, Villaraigosa echoed themes of Hertzberg’s mayoral campaign, vowing to ease traffic, improve public schools and make the city safer.
From Studio City, Villaraigosa dashed to Encino, where he picked up Sherman’s endorsement at the Balboa Sports Center in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area. Sherman said Villaraigosa would bring energy, integrity and leadership to City Hall.
“He has the charisma,” Sherman said.
The events came a day after Villaraigosa’s evening gathering in Sherman Oaks to meet with neighborhood leaders at the home of Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. Villaraigosa told them he would cut down on jet engine noise at Van Nuys Airport and fight for local control of development. He said it was vital that the middle class stay in Los Angeles, and that he would fight “middle-class flight.”
He also criticized Hahn as failing to take responsibility for potential ethical lapses.
“When there is a problem in my administration, you’re going to see a guy who’s going to take responsibility for it,” Villaraigosa said.
Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.