Rivals Go to Church to Court Voters
Mixing pleas with prayer, James K. Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa sped from one house of worship to another Sunday, courting the African American vote each considers vital in Tuesday’s Los Angeles mayoral election.
For incumbent Hahn, it was repair work, an attempt to rebuild the strong support he once enjoyed in the South Los Angeles community where he grew up and his late father, Kenneth, forged a political legend.
“We are going in the right direction and I want to keep going in that direction,” Hahn said at Ward AME Church, standing before a clutch of choir singers garbed in fire-engine red.
For Councilman Villaraigosa, it was an attempt to build something new in the city, a black-brown coalition surmounting the long-standing political and economic tension between African Americans and Latinos.
It was also, for one of the few times in the campaign, an opportunity for Villaraigosa to underscore the historic potential of Tuesday’s vote, which could make him the city’s first Latino mayor in more than a century. The councilman invoked the 1973 election of the city’s first black mayor, Tom Bradley -- noting that Bradley lost his first bid for mayor, much as Villaraigosa lost the 2001 contest against Hahn.
“There were some who questioned whether or not he could represent the entire city,” Villaraigosa said of Bradley. “They said, ‘I know you can represent them, but can you represent all of us?’ In that first election, he wasn’t quite able to convince all of the people of this city.
“Four years later, he was back. He was back and with him a broader coalition for a new Los Angeles. Nobody today, no one, would question whether or not Tom Bradley was a mayor for all of us. We know he was.”
With the election just two days off, the trajectory of the runoff could be seen as the two campaigns traversed South Los Angeles and, later, the San Fernando Valley -- the hardest-fought turf of the race.
Villaraigosa visited several of the biggest churches dotting South Los Angeles, speaking to thousands from Watts to the Crenshaw district, and traveling with an extensive entourage that included many of the community’s most prominent African American leaders. Joining him were Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, former Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) and John Mack, former president of the Los Angeles Urban League.
“These are the people who can help you lead Los Angeles,” Villaraigosa said.
Hahn, who has struggled against Villaraigosa’s fundraising advantage and his series of splashy endorsements, was accompanied by his 12-year-old son, Jackson; his sister, Councilwoman Janice Hahn; and Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) as they made the rounds of mostly smaller churches.
Urging voters to ignore the “noises” surrounding the election, Dymally told congregants at the Second Baptist Church, “We need to look at the record, not at the emotion” in picking the city’s next mayor.
While minding his best manners inside each church he visited, Hahn continued to assail Villaraigosa as soon as he stepped outside. He again accused his rival of going soft on criminals and having a history of saying one thing -- promising, for instance, to serve a full term on the City Council without running for mayor -- while doing another.
“This is a choice,” Hahn told reporters before stepping onto the blue Teamsters bus that shuttled him between church stops. “And when you’re making a choice, you have to point out the differences.”
Although black voters cast fewer than one in five ballots in the March 8 election, they are considered a crucial constituency, particularly for Hahn.
The mayor beat Villaraigosa in 2001 with overwhelming support among the city’s African American voters, many of whom fondly recalled his father’s decades of service as a county supervisor.
Hahn’s standing has plummeted in the four years since then, however, in good part because of the ouster of former Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, an African American who has since joined the City Council and endorsed Villaraigosa.
On Sunday, Parks campaigned at the challenger’s side. Apart from that symbolic reminder, however, Villaraigosa largely ignored his opponent.
Villaraigosa cast his campaign as an achievement of the civil rights movement and vowed, like Bradley, to be a mayor for all. “Right now, we need a bridge. We need dialogue,” he told worshipers at the First AME Church, where Villaraigosa vowed to be “a mayor for African Americans, Latinos, whites and Asians.”
At every church stop, Villaraigosa closed with an appeal to worshipers: “I ask you for your prayers. I don’t ask for prayers for victory. I’m calling God directly on that one. I do ask for your prayers to lead because ... this is a city with many, many challenges.”
After visiting seven churches and rallying volunteers at his South Los Angeles headquarters, Villaraigosa climbed aboard a black luxury bus and headed for the Israeli Independence Festival in Van Nuys, then rushed back to the Crenshaw district.
Hahn spent most of his day hopscotching across South Los Angeles, dropping by morning services at about half a dozen churches.
Briefly addressing worshippers after joining in their prayers, the mayor extolled his record creating jobs, reducing crime, expanding homeless services and, especially, reaching out to the city’s African American community.
He noted that three of the city’s seven deputy mayors are black -- bringing them along Sunday -- and cited his appointment of 10 black department heads and 63 African Americans to city boards and commissions.
“No mayor has ever had a more diverse administration,” he told reporters outside Ward AME Church in the city’s West Adams neighborhood.
Throughout the day, the reception for Hahn was polite though restrained.
In Inglewood, where he detoured to address several thousand congregants of the Faithful Central Bible Church, the mayor received the endorsement of Bishop Kenneth C. Ulmer, who urged the crowd inside the Great Western Forum to show a bit more enthusiasm in their welcoming applause. “You can do better than that,” he exhorted.
From the south part of the city, Hahn traveled to the Israeli Independence Festival in Van Nuys and an afternoon appearance at Woodbridge Park in Studio City. Standing on a small hillside at the park, Hahn defended the ouster of Parks, saying it was one of the “unpopular choices” he made as mayor that was right for Los Angeles.
At a news conference, Hahn was asked to square his attacks on Villaraigosa as soft on crime with a promise he made earlier in the day to set aside a portion of jobs at an improved Los Angeles International Airport for people with criminal records.
At Grant AME Church in Watts, Hahn had touted his plans for the airport and said it was only fair the community, which has suffered from years of noise and aircraft pollution, benefit from the expanded job opportunities. Hahn said a certain number of positions would be reserved for people who would not be hired by anyone else, such as “somebody who’s had a criminal record, because we don’t want them to go back to prison. We want them to get a good job.”
Asked in Studio City to explain, Hahn said, “Once someone has served their sentence, we need to make sure they don’t go back to a life of crime and go back to prison.... It’s part of a holistic approach to this. You’re going to have to have prevention; you’re going to have to have intervention. But you’ve got to have strong law enforcement.”