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L.A. Picks a Mayor

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, February 16, 2005; Page A19

LOS ANGELES -- The street lamps are festooned with banners reminding people about the Academy Awards, as if anyone here needed reminding. The police are scrambling to mollify the African American community after the latest South Central car chase, in which a cop shot and killed a black motorist who turned out to be a 13-year-old boy. And the race for mayor, though Election Day is less than three weeks away, hasn't really dented the public's consciousness, which in matters of politics is characteristically dent-resistant.

In other words, it's just a typical week in my hometown.

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Four years ago, with Mayor Richard Riordan term-limited out of office, the mayoral campaign of former California assembly speaker Antonio Villaraigosa uncharacteristically awakened the city. The charismatic Villaraigosa, a tribune for the Latino immigrant poor, built a citywide progressive alliance that included Westside liberals and thousands of volunteers. Villaraigosa finished first in the primary, but he lost the subsequent runoff to then-City Attorney Jim Hahn, who added to his support in the black community with a campaign that scared white conservative voters in the San Fernando Valley via a commercial that all but depicted Villaraigosa as a drug dealer.

Villaraigosa had not planned to run again this year. In the normal course of events, Hahn would cruise into his second term and head off for a term-limited retirement four years hence. But Hahn has managed to estrange his two bases of support by doing two big things right. First, he declined to renew the contract of police chief Bernard Parks -- a classic LAPD martinet in every detail, save his race: Parks is African American. The overwhelming support Hahn had enjoyed in the black community collapsed. Parks, now a city council member, is running a Vengeance-Is-Mine mayoral campaign that will badly depress Hahn's black vote.

To his credit, Hahn also led the campaign that defeated at the ballot box the Valley's bid to secede from the city in 2002. He thus estranged the Valley conservatives who never liked him in the first place (he's a moderate Democrat) but certainly had preferred him to Villaraigosa. But Hahn has also lost support for less noble reasons than standing for principle. Upon taking office he placed his chief campaign fundraiser over the city departments that issue the biggest contracts, and his administration is under multiple investigations for allegations that contractors had to pony up to Hahn's campaign treasury if they wanted city business. Moreover, Hahn's has been a somnolent, if not narcoleptic, administration. He conveys the impression that he'd rather be at home than on the job. During a transit strike two years ago that brought the city's buses to a halt, Hahn asked Villaraigosa, then a newly elected council member, to mediate the conflict -- which Villaraigosa did. With Hahn deflecting his mayoral duties on to the former speaker, Villaraigosa began to think about more formally seeking Hahn's job.

So Villaraigosa is running again -- but not as he did four years ago. "I am not as scary and not as exciting as I was last time," he says over a post-debate dinner. Villaraigosa still backs such economic equity causes as the living wage and a municipal economic development bank, but he talks more about enlarging the police force. He has already consolidated his liberal base and is targeting more centrist voters.

In the March 8 primary, though, many of those centrist electors will be voting for Villaraigosa's successor as assembly speaker, moderate Democrat and Valley boy Bob Hertzberg. An almost manic wonk with boundless energy, Hertzberg may gain enough center-right votes to knock Hahn into third place -- and out of the runoff altogether.

A Hertzberg-Villaraigosa runoff would be the stuff of novels. While Villaraigosa focuses in part on the city's immigrant working class, Hertzberg shares the views of urban theorists Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel that reining in public-sector workers and keeping taxes down is key to retaining a vibrant middle class. On a personal level, Hertzberg and Villaraigosa have known each other for 20 years. Hertz-berg was campaign treasurer for Villaraigosa's first assembly campaign. Villaraigosa lined up the votes for Hertzberg to succeed him as speaker. And the two roomed together in Sacramento when they were legislators. They had a falling out over when Villaraigosa would step down to let Hertzberg succeed him.

Battle of the onetime roomies? Now that sounds like a reality series that could grab even L.A.'s attention.


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