Antonio Villaraigosa romped past incumbent James K. Hahn to make history Tuesday, winning election as the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles since the city’s pioneer days.
Riding a huge wave of voter discontent, the challenger avenged his 2001 loss to Hahn, who possessed an iconic family name but never connected strongly with voters during a rocky four-year term.
Villaraigosa’s landslide represented a crowning symbol of Latinos’ growing clout in California, after decades of population gains that failed to produce a commensurate rise in political power. L.A.'s last Latino mayor, Cristobal Aguilar, left office in 1872, when the now-sprawling metropolis was a frontier outpost of barely 6,000 people.
The runoff contest also produced a striking parallel with the city’s last breakthrough election in 1973, when Tom Bradley won a rematch against incumbent Sam Yorty to become the first black mayor of Los Angeles. That race also marked the last time a mayor was turned out of City Hall.
Shortly before midnight, a beaming Villaraigosa greeted chanting supporters to claim victory and restate his campaign’s theme of unity.
“It doesn’t matter whether you grew up on the Eastside or the Westside, whether you’re from South Los Angeles or Sylmar,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you go to work in a fancy car or on a bus, or whether you worship in a cathedral or a synagogue or a mosque. We are all Angelenos, and we all have a difference to make.”
Villaraigosa staged his victory party downtown in a grandiose setting befitting the historic occasion.
Thousands of supporters swarmed the street outside Los Angeles Center Studios -- the former Unocal headquarters -- with downtown skyscrapers as a backdrop and lavender jacaranda trees glowing under lights shining from the rooftop.
“Let’s declare our purpose here and now,” Villaraigosa said, to roars from the crowd. “Our purpose is to bring this great city together. Our purpose is to draw fully and equally on the rich diversity of all our communities and neighborhoods.”
A short time later, he said Hahn had called him and “conceded in a gracious manner.”
For his part, the defeated incumbent thanked his campaign volunteers and supporters at a Hollywood nightclub and mounted a rousing defense of his tenure.
“This city is so much better off,” he said, citing a drop in violent crime and a rise in new housing. “That stuff didn’t just magically happen.”
Even before the polls closed at 8 p.m., however, Hahn had voiced regrets about his campaign.
“I should have spent more time bragging about what I was doing,” said the incumbent, who became the first mayor denied a second term since the Great Depression. (In the era before term limits, Yorty was defeated while seeking a fourth term.)
Villaraigosa finished first in the March 8 mayoral election and, according to polls, never relinquished his lead. On Tuesday, he benefited from an electorate hungry for change.
More than 7 in 10 voters said they wanted the city to shift direction, including roughly a third of Hahn’s own supporters, according to preliminary results of a Los Angeles Times exit poll.
The incumbent also suffered from the erosion of his winning coalition of four years ago: whites in the San Fernando Valley and blacks in South Los Angeles. At the same time, Villaraigosa broadened the base of Latinos and white liberals that he established in 2001.
According to the city clerk, only about three in 10 voters cast ballots on Tuesday, consistent with the low turnout in the first round.
The election concluded an acrimonious campaign marked by an exchange of scathing TV ads, a replay of the nasty Hahn-Villaraigosa mayoral contest four years ago.
For the challenger, the campaign offered a second shot at a job he had coveted for years.
A Mexican American child of City Terrace, a largely immigrant community on Los Angeles’ Eastside, Villaraigosa was raised by his mother after his father abandoned the family. He grew up in poverty and has said he saw his father beating his mother.
After bouncing in and out of high school, he went on to graduate from UCLA and earn a law degree at People’s College of Law. Villaraigosa became a teachers union organizer, then won a state Assembly seat in 1994.
His outgoing personality and skill at raising money served him well in Sacramento; he won the powerful job of Assembly speaker in 1998, then spent much of the next two years preparing his first run for mayor of Los Angeles.
In the 2001 campaign, Villaraigosa became an overnight star in national politics by finishing first in a race with six major candidates -- only to lose the runoff to Hahn.
Scaling back his ambitions, Villaraigosa ran two years later for a City Council seat, which he won. His district, north and east of downtown, stretches from Eagle Rock to Boyle Heights and includes Mount Washington, where he lives.
Hahn’s career path has been more predictable. His election as mayor four years ago capped two decades in elected office, first as city controller, then as city attorney. The shy son of South L.A. political giant Kenneth Hahn, a longtime county supervisor, he won every elected office he sought despite a notable absence of the backslapping skills common to his trade.
As he campaigned this year at senior citizen centers and delicatessens, the mayor often appeared ill at ease, keeping his hands in his pockets while making small talk with voters. On Tuesday, he told reporters -- only partly in jest -- that he suffered from “charisma deficit disorder,” but had “done the job people elected me to do.”
During the campaign, opponents tried to exploit Hahn’s lack of pizazz, prompting the mayor to run television ads that showed him exuding pep as he walked briskly past the picket fences of suburban-style homes.
Yet Villaraigosa was relentless in casting Hahn as too low-key to lead a world-class city. To drive home the point, the sprightly councilman wrapped up his campaign with a 24-hour tour of L.A., with aides reminding the media that Hahn was asleep while Villaraigosa was darting among all-night food spots to greet voters.
“My voice is a little hoarse -- I haven’t slept,” the challenger told news crews as he squeezed honey into his tea during a crack-of-dawn visit Tuesday to former Mayor Richard Riordan’s downtown diner, the Original Pantry.
A few hours later in Studio City, Villaraigosa grabbed a bullhorn to whip up excitement among a crowd of supporters at Ventura and Laurel Canyon boulevards. “Don’t be complacent; this election is not over yet,” he bellowed.
Hahn called it a night about 10 Monday at a jazz festival in Hollywood. He resumed his activity Tuesday morning at 7:15, when he voted at a school near his home in San Pedro, before heading to breakfast with neighbors.
Later, he paid election day visits to voters and campaign volunteers around the city.
“Thank you, Frances, I need your vote,” the mayor told a voter from a phone bank downtown.
In 2001, Hahn swept into office by forging an unprecedented coalition of African Americans -- his family’s political base -- and Valley voters. They thrust him to a 7-point victory over Villaraigosa.
But within months, Hahn had alienated black residents by pushing to dump the African American police chief, Bernard C. Parks, and had angered many Valley residents by campaigning against the area’s proposed secession from L.A.
Hahn sought to turn those liabilities into assets, saying his “gutsy” decisions put the city’s interests ahead of his own.
That argument appealed to voters like clinical researcher Manny Cordero, 30, who cast his ballot Tuesday for Hahn at a Hollywood Boulevard church and lauded the mayor’s replacement of Parks with Police Chief William J. Bratton.
“That was a wonderful thing he did for the city,” Cordero said.
Still, Hahn was perpetually trying to regain ground he had once held. And a cascade of ethical troubles steadily worsened his political standing over the last two years.
Prosecutors opened criminal investigations into alleged trading of City Hall contracts for campaign money. A federal grand jury subpoenaed the mayor’s e-mail. Top officials resigned. Two Hahn supporters were charged with laundering money in scams to circumvent caps on donations to previous campaigns. A public-relations advisor to the city was indicted.
Hahn’s air of vulnerability drew a strong field of challengers. Parks, by then a city councilman, entered the race and siphoned black support from Hahn. Former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg of Sherman Oaks attracted ex-Hahn supporters in the Valley. State Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar) set out to expand his Valley base, though his candidacy ultimately sputtered.
Last into the race was Villaraigosa, whose determination to vanquish Hahn in a rematch superseded his vow to serve a full four-year term in the council seat he had won in 2003.
Given the candidates’ combined strengths -- and months of joint attacks on the mayor -- Hahn faced a struggle just to win one of the two spots in Tuesday’s runoff. In the March 8 election, he indeed barely made the cut: Villaraigosa garnered 33% of the vote, followed by Hahn, who won 24%.
Close behind was Hertzberg, who captured the imagination of many voters with television ads showing him as a giant who dared to “think big” -- an implicit dig at Hahn.
Having limped into the runoff with a strikingly poor showing for an incumbent, the mayor quickly fell behind Villaraigosa in gathering funds. Under city rules, runoff candidates must start raising money from scratch, which made the task especially daunting for Hahn amid polls showing Villaraigosa strongly favored to unseat him.
Short of money, the mayor was swamped in the campaign’s final weeks by his challenger’s television ads, which were broadcast more than twice as often as Hahn’s and supplemented by independent commercials on Villaraigosa’s behalf.
Still, Hahn performed strongly in debates. The mayor also capitalized on a blunder made by his foe: Villaraigosa had accepted money from Florida donors who had trouble explaining their interest in a Los Angeles mayoral candidate. Hahn’s first TV ad focused on the donors’ potential interest in L.A. airport contracts and a district attorney’s probe of their contributions to Villaraigosa.
Hahn also reprised the central attack of his 2001 campaign, assailing his opponent for urging President Clinton to grant an early prison release to a convicted cocaine trafficker whose father was a political donor to Villaraigosa.
More than anything else, Hahn painted his rival as soft on crime. The mayor’s goal: to build support among white Republicans and conservatives, many of them in the West Valley, and the least likely of the city’s voters to side with Villaraigosa.
In a TV interview last weekend, Hahn pressed the point by saying his foe took “the side of the street gangs” when Villaraigosa was a leader of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
“He really doesn’t enjoy stiff sentences against criminals,” said Hahn, who closed his campaign with ads hammering the challenger for voting against tougher penalties for child abusers who kill children.
But Hahn’s effort to stain Villaraigosa’s image faced an obstacle: The councilman is much better known to voters than he was four years ago. A Times poll completed a week ago found that 62% of likely voters still held a favorable impression of Villaraigosa, barely down from his 66% rating three months ago.
Under attack, the challenger accused Hahn of trying to create “a climate of fear” by demonizing him the way Yorty did Bradley in the 1969 and 1973 contests. Yorty ran racially charged campaigns against Bradley, who ousted the white incumbent in their rematch.
But Villaraigosa stopped short of echoing supporters’ charge that Hahn tried to exploit fears of some white and African American voters about electing a Latino mayor.
Indeed, the challenger has played down overt appeals to Latinos, his strongest base of support.
That was central to his strategy for making inroads into Hahn’s former base of black voters. Villaraigosa’s advisors say an important challenge of his candidacy was to assure African Americans in particular that he would watch out for their interests despite what some saw as a rivalry with Latinos over jobs and political power.
As the campaign wound down, Villaraigosa pledged, over and over, to “be mayor for everyone.”
Times staff writers Tina Daunt, Richard Fausset, Daniel Hernandez and Jeffrey L. Rabin contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
*--* Los Angeles mayor Villaraigosa 244,779 58.53% Hahn 173,423 41.47% Precincts reporting 92%
*--* 11th Council District Krisiloff 18,855 43.55% Rosendahl 24,442 56.45% Precincts reporting 91%
*--* Charter Amendment A Shifts control of airport police Yes 134,455 35.62% No 243,059 64.38% Precincts reporting 92%
*--* Charter Amendment B Changes city recall election rules Yes 191,412 51.97% No 176,868 48.03% Precincts reporting 92%
Los Angeles Times