Wooing Latinos for Obama

Times Staff Writer

When a Spanish-language radio ad slammed presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama for just discovering the “importance of the Latino vote,” his campaign called on Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to knock the attack down.

Villaraigosa issued a public statement praising Obama as a “champion of the Latino community” who was “fighting for our families” and then delivered the same glowing message when he addressed two of the nation’s most prestigious Latino civil rights organizations.

The mayor’s ascension as an Obama pitchman, while intriguing because of Villaraigosa’s support of rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during the Democratic primary, is a move that promises to work to the political advantage of both men.

Whether reality or mere perception, the specter of a smoldering animosity between blacks and Latinos is an issue that both Obama and Villaraigosa treat with great care as they preside over the multiracial coalitions essential to their political success.

Villaraigosa, one of the nation’s most prominent Latino politicians, can help Obama by unleashing his bilingual charms to help win over a Latino electorate that voted overwhelmingly for Clinton in the primaries.


With his historic candidacy and tight embrace from African American voters, Obama helps Villaraigosa cast himself as a coalition builder in the mold of five-term Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who was the city’s first black mayor and was best known for his ability to unify the fractious city.

Villaraigosa’s increased support among black voters was a critical factor in his defeat of former Mayor James K. Hahn in 2005, but that support has vacillated. Villaraigosa has been praised for the diversity of his administration, for a drop in violent crime and for working with community leaders to stimulate the economy of South L.A.

But he was criticized by black leaders for the way he handled a racially charged lawsuit filed by a black firefighter who was fed dog food by colleagues. And black leaders were leery of his attempted takeover of Los Angeles’ public schools.

Those actions by the mayor rekindled doubts that some black voters had about Villaraigosa, who campaigned to unite the city as well as create jobs, improve schools and provide better city services to neglected black neighborhoods, said Jackie Dupont-Walker, a leader at Ward AME Church in South L.A.

“There was always some question on how he was going to deliver on the promises. Will you show you are who you say you are?” Walker said.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass said that Villaraigosa had devoted his life to fighting for civil rights and that his record as mayor reflected that. The Los Angeles Democrat noted, for instance, that the mayor went after construction companies for failing to hire black workers and, in partnership with church and union leaders, helped establish an apprenticeship program that has trained hundreds of African Americans for the high-wage building trades.


‘A set of values’

“He came into office with a set of values, and I believe he has been consistent with that set of values when he’s been in office,” said Bass, a friend of Villaraigosa for 30 years and the first African American woman to become speaker of the Assembly.

Villaraigosa, who thus far faces no serious challenger in his 2009 reelection bid, is defensive when his support among African Americans is questioned. He says polls conducted by his campaign show that black voters are among his “strongest” supporters.

That popularity comes, he said, because he is devoted to “providing opportunities, regardless of race”; he has tripled the number of positions offered by the city’s summer jobs program, with a third going to African Americans; and the number of locations that provide L.A.'s Best after-school programs for at-risk youth has increased threefold.

African Americans account for 37% of the general managers he has hired and 22% of his appointments to the commissions that oversee the Fire Department, the airport agency and other departments.

“I’m very proud of the fact that last year in Watts, we went two months without a homicide for the first time in 50 years and, importantly, broke ground on market-rate housing for the first time in 50 years,” Villaraigosa said. “So there’s a real focus here on making sure, as I said in the campaign, a great city is a city where we’re growing and prospering together, not leaving communities behind.”

When Villaraigosa lost his first run for mayor in 2001, Hahn won 80% of the black vote -- aided by the vast African American political base that his father, Kenneth, established as a county supervisor decades ago.

James Hahn lost that advantage, in part, because of his role in ousting then-Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, an African American who is now on the City Council. A large group of prominent black leaders who backed Hahn in 2001 threw their support behind Villaraigosa in 2005. Times exit polls showed that Villaraigosa won 48% of the city’s black vote, but the mayor contends that the figure was closer to 59%.

“I would not be willing to say to you that it was such a big ‘We love you, Antonio’ as much as it said, ‘We’re [upset] and we’re going to fix you, Jimmy Hahn, because of Bernie Parks,’ ” said Genethia Hudley-Hayes, a city fire commissioner who endorsed Villaraigosa in both 2001 and 2005.

Hudley-Hayes said Villaraigosa had done “some good things and some bad things.” She credits him for a drop in violent crime, the addition of LAPD officers and a successful crackdown on soot-spewing big-rigs at the Port of Los Angeles.

But she said many were still disturbed that Villaraigosa vetoed the city’s $2.7-million settlement with Tennie Pierce, who sued for discrimination after being fed dog food by fellow firefighters at the Westchester station.

Villaraigosa issued the veto after a public outcry about the size of the settlement arose, fueled by news outlets publishing photos of Pierce also engaged in firehouse pranks. The case was eventually settled for $1.5 million.


‘Still some acrimony’

“There is still some acrimony and suspicion about why he did that,” Hudley-Hayes said. “Was it racial, wasn’t it racial? . . . And there was a portion of the community that was always suspicious of him, but that has to do with African American and Latino politics in this town.”

Amid the public outcry, Villaraigosa forced Fire Chief William Bamattre out and replaced him with the city’s first African American chief, Douglas L. Barry.

Villaraigosa defended the veto as the “right thing to do,” saying the case did not merit a $2.7-million settlement.

At the time, however, his decision added to concerns among some African Americans about his unsuccessful effort to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District, further stirring up anxieties about the increasing influence of Latinos over their daily lives.

That was magnified again last year when Villaraigosa backed a slate of school board candidates to increase his voice in the school system. African American board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte was up for reelection and, although the mayor denies it, many in the black community believed he worked behind the scenes to support her challenger, who failed to oust her.

“That was the perception,” said political consultant Kerman Maddox, a Villaraigosa supporter, “and there were some people in the African American community who were offended.”

Villaraigosa has overcome much of that animosity, he said, by building long-standing relationships with community leaders, walking the neighborhoods and visiting “every black church in L.A.”

Maddox remembers when the massive May Day immigrant-rights rally in 2006 led to a lot of dinner-table conversations about whether continuing Latino immigration would start pushing blacks out of their jobs and neighborhoods. Villaraigosa sat down with African American leaders to listen to those concerns, he said.

“I give him an A-plus on that because . . . if you have a city that’s full of racial tension and about to blow, it doesn’t matter what kind of transportation system you have or what type of school system you have. It’s not going to matter,” Maddox said.