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A Candidate Ready for His Closeup

By Harold Meyerson
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page A21

LOS ANGELES -- Someone once asked Jean Renoir, the great French filmmaker whose flight from the Nazis plunked him down in Los Angeles in 1941, why he'd never made a film about his adopted city. After all, even after World War II ended, Renoir continued to split his time between France and L.A.

"Wilshire Boulevard," Renoir replied. "It has no smell to it."

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It wasn't just by the standards of Paris that Los Angeles must have seemed a supremely colorless city to Renoir, and its main drag as soulless a strip of corporate architecture as the mind of man could devise. Unlike the great cities of America's East Coast and Midwest, L.A. had no Little Italy, no German Quarter, no Irish political machine. While the great wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe remade nearly all of America's biggest cities in the early years of the last century, L.A. was enticing Iowans and Ohioans to leave winter behind and come out to the land of perpetual sun. Straight through the 1960 Census, Los Angeles was the most white Protestant of America's major cities. Courtesy of the Third Reich, it may have boasted an elite cadre of refugees -- Renoir, Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch -- but it was largely devoid of the ferment of immigrant communities that elsewhere had transformed the landscape of local, and ultimately national, politics.

That, of course, was then. Today, the city least affected by the second wave of immigration is the city most affected by the third -- the tsunami of Mexican, Central American and Asian immigrants that has been reshaping the United States for the past quarter-century. In the 2000 Census, Los Angeles was 47 percent Latino and had the lowest percentage of whites of the eight largest U.S. cities. Wilshire Boulevard remains one of the city's less interesting streets, but it is abutted for several miles by a Korean and a Central American community, jumbled together. And five years ago, when striking janitors, virtually all of them immigrants, marched down Wilshire through Beverly Hills, it was the site of a spectacle that Renoir would have loved: Startled bystanders, with considerable discretionary incomes, darting into the street and handing cash to the even more startled janitors. It remains the only instance of spontaneous redistribution in the recorded history of the city.

The Latino working-class/Westside liberal alliance that popped up so peculiarly five years ago found a more normalized expression Tuesday, when city councilman and former California Assembly speaker Antonio Villaraigosa finished first in the city's mayoral primary. That set up Villaraigosa for a rematch against his runoff opponent of four years ago, Mayor James K. Hahn, who won just a quarter of the vote on Tuesday in narrowly besting another former Assembly speaker, Bob Hertzberg, for a second-place finish and a ticket to the May 17 runoff. (In L.A.'s nonpartisan elections, the top two primary finishers duke it out in the runoff.) Four years ago, Villaraigosa also ran first in the primary and Hahn second, but there the similarities to Tuesday's elections end. In 2001, Hahn won election by attacking Villaraigosa, who was not very well known, with an ad that all but depicted him as a drug lord. This year, Villaraigosa has run a more cautious and centrist campaign than his liberal crusade of four years ago, while Hahn's administration has been tarred by allegations that the price of getting a contract from the city was a contribution to hizzoner's war chest. The Los Angeles Times exit poll on Tuesday showed Villaraigosa with a favorability rating of 74 percent, while Hahn's was an anemic 46 percent.

If the attacks Hahn leveled in the final week of the primary are any indication, vilifying Villaraigosa will be the theme of the mayor's campaign -- albeit a theme already yielding diminishing returns. Meanwhile, Villaraigosa tools tirelessly around the city with plans for more police and rail lines in this gridlocked land of the auto, for construction of affordable housing and for living-wage compacts -- universal programs and programs targeted at the city's vast community of immigrant working poor. He campaigns in English and Spanish, with a smattering of Yiddish and Korean when required.

Four years ago, there were neighborhoods in this huge city in which Villaraigosa -- who grew up in some of the meanest public housing projects on the Eastside -- was viewed almost as an alien. This year, he's everybody's homeboy -- though his story plainly means more to some Angelenos than others. In restaurants, he frequently finds himself campaigning in English with the diners and in Spanish with the servers -- such are the demographics of Los Angeles -- and often as not workers step out tentatively from the kitchen to talk to him, to get their pictures taken with him. Suddenly, the help is becoming visible; a new city is beginning to cohere. Old Jean Renoir might find us suitable for filming after all.


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