Mahony’s influence is dwindling in L.A.

Times Staff Writers

There was a time when Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, leader of the largest Roman Catholic diocese in the United States, was a formidably influential political figure. A decade ago, he was a member of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan’s inner circle and the spiritual leader of a growing community with exponentially expanding power.

Today, Mahony remains one of the region’s most recognized leaders and a sought-after voice on certain issues. But time, scandal and the shifting demographics of Los Angeles politics have diminished Mahony’s might to the point that his recent remonstrations -- in which he took to task Fabian Nunez, the speaker of the California Assembly, for endorsing an assisted suicide bill -- have served more to emphasize Mahony’s weakness than to deter Nunez.

Told that the cardinal had accused him of favoring a “culture of death,” Nunez expressed unhappiness but pressed ahead. “I have a lot of respect for the cardinal,” Nunez told Times columnist George Skelton, “but I’m deeply disappointed in his comments.”

Unlike African American leaders, who have struggled to hold onto power in the face of their community’s declining demographic significance, Mahony’s limited political punch does not reflect his base: Catholics make up an increasing percentage of Los Angeles, and Latinos, who are primarily Catholic, are far and away the region’s fastest-growing population group.


Instead, the cardinal’s dwindling throw-weight reflects several intersecting trends as well as the damage done to the church -- and to Mahony personally -- by the long, painful scandal over pedophile priests. Those cases have eroded the church’s authority generally and have specifically embroiled Mahony in charges that he protected priests rather than taking steps to ensure the safety of children.

Moreover, Mahony’s influence oddly may be waning in inverse proportion to the power of some of his flock. Over the last decade, the rise of Latino voters has propelled a growing number of Latino officials -- notably Nunez and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- and they now command much of the leadership that once was Mahony’s.

“The rise of Latino elected officials has overshadowed the influence of the church,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton and longtime student of Los Angeles ethnic politics. “The cardinal’s influence is not what it once was.”

That is not to say that he has become irrelevant. On certain issues, Mahony retains forceful authority. He was, for instance, a powerful defender of immigration rights during last year’s huge marches calling for immigration reform.

Mahony also retains strong standing in the labor community. A longtime proponent of the so-called “living wage,” Mahony has overcome reaction to his opposition to an effort by gravediggers in Catholic cemeteries to join a union in the late 1980s; he supports the labor movement and enjoys substantial support in return from its leading figures. Mahony has, for instance, made strong statements in support of immigrant workers and striking grocery workers.

“There are key moments where he has taken strong stands,” said Madeline Janis, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. “We can feel the boost when he does that.”

But where the cardinal’s positions as a prelate depart from those of some leading secular Latinos, his influence drops off precipitously, according to many Los Angeles political and religious leaders.

“It seems clear that a very significant number of Roman Catholic lay people reach their own decisions about values that cross over into their voting behavior,” said the Rev. Peter Laarman, executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a mainly Protestant network of congregations and individuals in California. He said Mahony doesn’t have the clout of Bishop John Keating of Arlington, Va., who decades ago helped define moral issues. These days, Laarman said, “a lot of lay Catholics simply dissent on what hierarchy says.”

Some other interfaith leaders in Los Angeles declined to speak openly about Mahony out of fear that their comments would adversely affect their working relationships with the diocese. Their reluctance underscores that Mahony, though wounded, still has some clout.

“He is, without question, less powerful than he used to be,” said one minister who spoke on the condition that his name not be used. “There was a time in the early part of his tenure when, if he called for a meeting on a subject of common concern -- poverty, for example -- everybody would come and take seriously what he was recommending. He doesn’t even try to do that anymore.

“The fact that Nunez, a Catholic, isn’t buckling under at all is interesting,” the minister added. “The cardinal is making that an absolute litmus test on whether someone in public life is morally responsible. But even Roman Catholics are divided on this issue; the Nunez dispute shows these bishops and cardinals can’t deliver their own people.”

It wasn’t always so.

Amid economic recession and high unemployment in 1994, Mahony rallied his parishioners and mounted a spirited opposition to Proposition 187, which was designed to save the state $5 billion a year by reducing public services for illegal immigrants.

The measure was approved by voters, and its long-term political consequence was to help push many Latinos into the column of California’s Democratic Party. The measure later was ruled unconstitutional in federal court.

Mahony’s most visible achievement was the opening of the monumental Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels: a 12-story, $200-million edifice built to replace the downtown St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, severely damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

In 1996, with his influence at its apex, Mahony helped arrange for the county Board of Supervisors to authorize the $10.85-million sale of what became the new cathedral’s site, a county-owned parking lot next to the Hollywood Freeway. The buyer was the city of Los Angeles’ Community Redevelopment Agency, which a month later sold the 5.8-acre parcel to the archdiocese for the same price.

During those years, Mahony’s importance was enhanced by his close and public friendship with Riordan. In 1999, for instance, Mahony lent quiet but important support for Riordan during the mayor’s effort to push aside Ruben Zacarias, then the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Mahony’s support for that move was especially significant because Zacarias was backed by many in the city’s Latino community, the heart of Mahony’s parish.

For labor leaders, Mahony also offered a way to reach Riordan, whose background as a venture capitalist caused many union representatives to be wary of him. Riordan, for instance, vetoed the city’s first living-wage proposal, only to be overridden by the City Council. When labor officials wanted to make their case to Riordan, they reached to Mahony to broker a conversation.

“He offered a way to get into the mayor’s office,” Janis recalled.

Some critics of Riordan and Mahony snickered about their mutual admiration -- Riordan helped raise the money to buy Mahony a jet helicopter when Mahony, a licensed pilot, was still a bishop, and wags liked to summon the image of the flying priest astride the Riordan chopper -- but their allegiance helped both men accomplish important objectives.

Mahony’s support helped cement the mayor’s ties to Latino Los Angeles, and Riordan carried that community in both his mayoral elections.

Still, Mahony’s ability to influence even that mayor had its limits. Despite his religious convictions and admiration for the cardinal, Riordan remained ardently in favor of abortion rights.

Riordan, for one, was dismayed to see Mahony and Nunez clash over the suicide issue.

“Cardinal Mahony has been a great supporter of Latinos, and it’s a shame to see him on the outs with one of the top Latino leaders,” Riordan said last week. “It calls out for a Solomon to bring these two well-meaning leaders together.”

Today, Los Angeles’ leading political figures no longer need Mahony in order to cement ties to the Latino electorate. Villaraigosa, for example, hardly needs Mahony to appeal to Mexican Americans.

If changing politics have diminished Mahony’s influence, so too have the dispiriting controversy regarding pedophile priests and charges that the molestation of children was covered up by church officials. Even admirers of the cardinal acknowledge that it is far more difficult for church leaders to issue moral proclamations in the face of the withering allegations against their own leadership.

One result is that Mahony’s influence in the Legislature is considered minimal, although the church has an active lobbying division in Sacramento that closely monitors bills.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is Catholic, met privately with Mahony after he was elected in 2003. But “we don’t have any official meetings on record in our database” since then, said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear.

Former Senate leader John Burton, a Democrat from San Francisco who was raised Catholic, dismissed Mahony’s influence in Sacramento except possibly among lawmakers “from his diocese.”

As for Mahony’s rejoinder to Nunez, Burton added that the cardinal “ought to be worried about what the priests have done to little children rather than how elderly people choose to die.”

Times staff writer Robert Salladay contributed to this report.