Mayor Picked by a Shrinking Electorate
Antonio Villaraigosa made history in a big way Tuesday, sweeping into office in a landslide that put an emphatic punctuation mark on the hard-fought Los Angeles mayor’s race.
But there is a less celebrated footnote to the groundbreaking contest: the incoming head of the nation’s second-most populous city was chosen by just a fraction of its registered voters.
That does not lessen the significance of Villaraigosa’s election as the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in well over a century. Rather, the meager turnout -- expected to be about one in three registered voters when all the ballots are tallied -- reflects a steady decline in civic participation over the past several decades.
Consider that in the 1973 mayoral runoff, another breakthrough election often compared to this year’s race, winner Tom Bradley received nearly as many votes -- roughly 433,000 -- as Villaraigosa and Mayor James K. Hahn combined.
Going back further, roughly 100,000 fewer votes were cast Tuesday than in the 1953 mayoral runoff, when the city had roughly half today’s population of 4 million residents.
Villaraigosa’s meager share of the city’s registered voters, about 18%, should not hamper his ability to accomplish things in City Hall, most analysts agree. After all, President Bush failed to win the popular vote in his first term yet managed to wield enormous clout.
Further strengthening his political hand, Villaraigosa swamped Hahn by a 17-point margin, carrying nearly every part of the city and voters of just about all descriptions.
“A mandate is something that’s claimed. It’s never given,” said David King, a Harvard University professor of public policy and an expert on civic engagement. “It’s really up to Villaraigosa to say what his mandate is.”
Still, King and others say the widespread lack of participation is not healthy, particularly at a time when Los Angeles faces serious problems with crime, traffic and a deeply troubled public school system.
“People get mobilized and activated in politics when they’re asked to participate, when they believe their vote will make a difference and when they have a stake in the community,” King said.
By abstaining themselves from the election, many residents indicated they wanted no part of city politics, which raises the question of how invested they are in the city itself.
“This could be a sign of potentially greater middle-class flight over the next few years,” said Arnold Steinberg, a longtime Republican campaign strategist, who stayed neutral in the mayor’s race. If that were to happen, Los Angeles could eventually become a city much more akin to San Francisco, with the rich, the poor and few residents between.
Of course, civic ennui is hardly a new phenomenon in Southern California. Starting from a high-water mark of 76%, the turnout in the 1969 Los Angeles mayor’s race, voter participation has steadily declined to roughly the one-third level in the last two mayoral runoffs, which featured Villaraigosa and Hahn.
Analysts say that the 1969 contest is a good starting point for discussing why people vote or opt to stay home.
Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and fresh memories of the 1965 Watts riot, a great deal seemed to be at stake when Bradley, bidding to become the city’s first black mayor, faced incumbent Sam Yorty.
“Politics was in. Social change was in. And L.A. was really at the forefront of a lot of that stuff,” said Bob Kholos, press secretary to Bradley in his 1973 campaign, when he defeated Yorty in their rematch. Turnout fell in that election to 64%.
Apart from race and its roiling undercurrents, there were also substantive differences between Democrat Bradley and Republican Yorty. By contrast, said Bill Carrick, a Hahn strategist in Tuesday’s election, “You had differences on this issue or that issue” between the incumbent and Villaraigosa. “But by and large they shared the same philosophy and political values. So people say, ‘Who cares who’s mayor? They’re both fine.’ ”
The ceaselessly negative tone of the Hahn-Villaraigosa runoff -- and the lack of specifics from either candidate -- may have also depressed turnout.
“It was a terrible campaign,” said Robert Gottlieb, director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Los Angeles’ Occidental College, expressing a view widely shared across the city. Indeed, more than one in four voters said they considered the choice between Hahn and Villaraigosa a matter of picking between “the lesser of two evils,” according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll.
“The TV ads, the debate, what was presumed to be issues being debated -- the back and forth was pretty awful, enough to turn anybody off,” Gottlieb said.
There are also larger, structural reasons that could help explain the city’s low rate of voter participation.
Municipal elections in Los Angeles, like most in California, are officially nonpartisan, a result of the Progressive movement of the early 20th century that purposely sought to weaken the power of political parties.
“There’s certainly not the kind of civic political culture you have in some of the older East Coast cities, where you have a more neighborhood-based political environment, at least a vestige of the 19th century machines,” said Parke Skelton, who helped run Villaraigosa’s campaign. “To some extent, the party apparatuses play an important role in mobilization and turnout.”
For Los Angeles residents in particular, there is also a strong feeling of separation from City Hall and, hence, the politicians who occupy it.
In part, that reflects the difficulty any mayor has addressing two of the concerns that are uppermost in the minds of voters: education and freeway traffic. The schools fall under the sway of an independent school board. The state has authority over the freeways.
The confusion is compounded by the odd geography of the city, which spreads for hundreds of square miles and is pocked with many separate jurisdictions.
“People don’t understand the nature of school district boundaries. They don’t understand places like Glendale, Culver City, Beverly Hills,” which are municipal islands in the sprawling sea of Los Angeles, Steinberg said. “They think Sherman Oaks is a city, Encino is a city,” when in fact both are enclaves of Los Angeles.
The confusion runs two ways, said Skelton, who heard during the mayoral campaign from “people in Pasadena, West Hollywood, Culver City ... wanting to know why they hadn’t got their sample ballot for the L.A. election.”
It is also difficult to stay engaged, observers said, when local politicians operate at such a far remove from their constituents. Los Angeles has 15 City Council members in a city of 4 million residents compared to, say, New York City, which has 51 for a city of 8 million.
“It’s almost impossible for a City Council representative with 270,000 constituents to serve that many people effectively,” Skelton said. “People start to believe municipal government has no role in their lives. People feel there’s no real benefit to participating in a municipal election. They’re not connected to it in any way and they don’t feel it really matters who’s elected.”
Some blame the media -- including this newspaper -- for the lackluster state of civic engagement.
“The nature of media coverage in Los Angeles continues to be a perplexing issue,” said Carrick, who helped put Richard J. Riordan and, after him, Hahn, in the mayor’s office. “Neither the papers nor television stations focus in a serious day-to-day way on covering city government.”
That, too, helps depress turnout, Carrick and others suggest, by furthering the sense of disconnect between voters and those who are supposed to represent them at City Hall.
When people do vote, he said, it is often “more about personality and style than substantive knowledge about what somebody has done or not done.”
In 1997, Carrick recalled, when Riordan was seeking reelection after almost four eventful years in office, one of the things voters most often cited in focus-group interviews was his pledge to work for $1 a year --not a concrete achievement, but a feature of TV commercials in his 1993 run for mayor.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Participation declines in L.A. elections
Voter registration has grown over the past half-century, but not voter participation. In 1969, Sam Yorty got more votes than the two candidates combined in this year’s mayoral runoff election.
Registered voters: 1,469,296
Antonio Villaraigosa: 260,721
James K. Hahn: 183,749
Registered voters: 1,538,229
James K. Hahn: 304,791
Antonio Villaraigosa: 264,611
Registered voters: 1,339,036
Richard Riordan: 250,771
Tom Hayden: 140,648
Registered voters: 1,331,179
Richard Riordan: 314,559
Michael Woo: 268,137
Registered voters: 1,375,698
Tom Bradley: 156,7245
Nate R. Holden: 84,376
Registered voters: 1,371,499
Tom Bradley: 313,318
John Ferraro: 141,499
Registered voters: 1,271,358
Tom Bradley: 293,138
Sam Yorty: 148,193
Registered voters: 1,174,439
Tom Bradley: 288,636
Alan Robbins: 136,515
Registered voters: 1,216,173
Tom Bradley: 433,473
Sam Yorty: 335,857
Registered voters: 1,127,224
Sam Yorty: 449,572
Tom Bradley: 394,364
Registered voters: 1,169,541
Sam Yorty: 395,208
James Roosevelt: 249,099
Registered voters: 1,128,070
Sam Yorty: 276,106
Norris Poulson: 260,381
Registered voters: 1,025,076
Norris Poulson: 314,910
Robert Yeakel: 142,094
Registered voters: 1,049,919
Norris Poulson: 290,239
Fletcher Bowron: 254,114381
Note: 2005 figures are unofficial and do not include all absentee and provisional ballots.
Source: Los Angeles city clerk. Graphics reporting by Maloy Moore