Antonio Villaraigosa is charismatic and intelligent. He’s won a series of critical endorsements. And recent polls suggest that he’s running several points ahead of the wounded incumbent in the race for mayor of Los Angeles.
But if he wins, it won’t be due to charisma or intelligence alone, or even to the quality of his campaign. The reality is that the stars have lined up this year -- not just in L.A. but across the country -- for Latino office-seekers.
After generations of virtual invisibility in electoral politics, Latinos are serving as mayors in Miami-Dade County, Fla., San Antonio and San Jose, to name just a few places. Latinos were also recent general election candidates in New York, Houston, Denver and San Francisco (as well as in Los Angeles, where Villaraigosa ran against James K. Hahn for the first time in 2001).
Polls in New York suggest that former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer is likely to be selected as the Democratic candidate to challenge Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2006 (although his chief competition at the moment is an African American woman); polls suggest that Ferrer, if selected, has a good shot at winning.
A giant demographic shift -- the much discussed “browning” of America -- has often been cited to explain the emergence of these Latino candidates. Latinos now outnumber blacks in the United States and constitute the largest minority group in the nation; in each of the 10 largest U.S. cities, Latinos make up more than a fifth of the population, and in some cases close to half, which helps account for the new political realities.
But the idea that cities are becoming more and more Latino, so therefore Latino voters will be able to elect Latino mayors, is a little simplistic. In none of the cities mentioned above do Latinos make up the majority of voters. So if candidates such as Villaraigosa are to win, they must build coalitions. After that, (and this is often much harder) they must maintain those coalitions if they are to govern effectively.
Over a quarter of a century ago, the nation saw a similar wave of political change when numerous big cities elected African American mayors for the first time. At that time, demographics and coalition-building also played significant roles. There is no better example of coalition-building than the election in 1973 of Tom Bradley as mayor of Los Angeles; he won with the support not just of the black community but with substantial white votes as well (especially from the Jewish community). African Americans went on to win the mayoralty in Detroit; Cleveland; Newark, N.J.; Atlanta; New York; Chicago and other cities.
But what happened to that first wave of African American mayors is instructive to Latinos. Although African Americans were able to hold the mayor’s office in cities that became majority African American, such as Detroit, Atlanta and Washington, they soon lost representation in cities where they constituted a minority and coalitions were required.
Only one African American mayor served in Los Angeles (Bradley), New York (David Dinkins), Chicago (Harold Washington) or San Francisco (Willie Brown). Each was succeeded by a white mayor.
In Los Angeles, Latinos make up nearly 50% of the population and already hold numerous public offices. The chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the president of the City Council and the president of the school board are all Latino, as is the speaker of the state Assembly. But none of these positions, as powerful as they are, have the visibility of the mayor’s office.
In the end, Villaraigosa’s success -- and his ability to win reelection to a second term -- will be determined not just by what he does for Latinos but what he does for Los Angeles.
It is tough to govern in urban America, and Los Angeles is no exception. The next mayor faces an era of constrained public authority due to diminished tax revenues, narrow term limits and mandates placed on the city by local initiatives, the state and the federal government. But despite that, the mayor’s job is critical. The mayor alone has the potential to bring the disparate possessors of authority to act in concert.
Villaraigosa -- if he is elected -- has the ability to coalesce other decision makers to build a powerful office out of a weak institution. It is the city in general, not just Latinos in particular, that will benefit from a mayor with broad support and experience in bringing people together.