Race Is His Magic Shield

Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor of The Times, is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

In the absence of major policy differences between the candidates in this year’s mayoral race, character has moved to center stage. The campaigns of Mayor James K. Hahn and his rival, Antonio Villaraigosa, are both out to prove who is more corrupt. But Villaraigosa has an advantage. His ethnicity has shielded him from tough questions about his character.

Four years ago, the councilman ran a high-minded mayoral campaign that eschewed a boogeyman to get his Latino voters to the polls. He never invoked the name of former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, whose embrace of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal-immigrant initiative of 1994, helped win him reelection but sent the fast-growing Latino electorate into Democrats’ waiting arms. Instead, Villaraigosa appealed to Latinos’ ethnic aspirations and hopes. And he lost.

This year, however, Villaraigosa has relied on the ghost of another polarizing Anglo icon -- the late Mayor Sam Yorty. In doing so, he doesn’t intend to scare his core supporters to the polls. Rather, Villaraigosa uses Yorty to shield himself against attacks such as Hahn’s last-minute crack-pipe TV ad in the 2001 campaign. The tactic has made any critic think twice before taking on the councilman for fear of being labeled a racist.


The television ad slammed Villaraigosa for writing a letter to President Clinton urging him to pardon a convicted cocaine dealer, Carlos Vignali, whose father had given money to Villaraigosa’s campaign. While the ad’s message -- “Los Angeles can’t trust Antonio Villaraigosa” -- was tough, it was the accompanying images of a crack cocaine pipe and a grainy picture of Villaraigosa that proved politically devastating.

In response, Villaraigosa accused Hahn of doing to him what Yorty had done to Tom Bradley in the 1969 mayoral race -- playing the racist card. There is little doubt that the crack-pipe ad tapped the anxieties of Anglos who feared a Mexican American as mayor. But the ad was a far cry from Yorty’s racist tactics

Yorty characterized Bradley supporters as “radical Democrats and the bloc Negro vote.” His campaign paid black activists to drive around the Valley in convertibles with fists raised and bumper stickers reading “Bradley for Mayor” and “Black is Beautiful.” It placed ads in Valley newspapers that featured photos of Bradley with the caption, “Will Your City Be Safe With This Man?”

All these attacks traded exclusively on Bradley’s race. In contrast, Hahn’s ad, though it peddled fear, targeted a political act that Villaraigosa subsequently admitted was a mistake.

Still, Villaraigosa’s characterization of the ad as a racist attack became the conventional wisdom. Less than a year after the spot aired, one writer called the ad “a cynical appeal to white prejudices about the presumed instinctive criminality of Latinos.” Villaraigosa’s letter requesting a pardon for a convicted cocaine dealer was evidently less morally reprehensible than the ad that exploited it.

Villaraigosa continues to accuse Hahn of channeling Yorty. In a debate at the California African American Museum, the councilman likened himself to Bradley and accused Hahn of imitating Yorty’s racist tactics. The charge has put campaign watchers on racism alert. Even though polls show Villaraigosa leading in nearly every demographic group, some news articles have focused on the “racist vote.” Last week, reporters asked political pundits if they thought California’s swelling anti-immigrant sentiment would hurt Villaraigosa.

In March, Joe Scott, Bradley’s press secretary in 1969, blogged that Hahn’s use of Villaraigosa’s first name was comparable to Yorty’s tactic of referring to Bradley as “Tom.” He apparently never had visited Villaraigosa’s website,, which routinely refers to the candidate by his first name. Last Sunday, the Daily News published an Op-Ed piece by Gray Davis’ former political hatchet man, Garry South. Noting that there are worse things in life than losing elections, South admonished Hahn not to launch “a racially tinged advertising campaign to besmirch Villaraigosa and raise doubts about his character.”

During this campaign, many political writers seemed to have taken South’s appeal one step further and avoided any questions related to Villaraigosa’s character. Is it racist to mention that Villaraigosa flunked the bar exam four times? Is it racist to look into his personal life for character clues? And what about this campaign’s version of the Vignali spot -- last week’s TV ad on Villaraigosa’s lone “no” vote in the state Assembly on a bill that upped the penalty for fatally beating a child under 8? Does that play into fears of Latino criminals? Or does it reveal something significant about the candidate’s character?

It’s ironic that a Mexican American politician who would have been slammed for his skin color in yesterday’s campaigns is today protected by it. Let’s hope that if Villaraigosa becomes the city’s first Mexican American mayor since the 1870s, we can collectively let Sam Yorty’s ghost rest in peace.