The Left Loses in Los Angeles
Jun 07, 2001
By Joel Kotkin
Publisher: The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal

LOS ANGELES - Tuesday's election here ended the city's eight-year flirtation with civic reform and restored a traditional liberal Democrat, City Attorney James Hahn, to City Hall. Yet in turning away the better-financed and much-ballyhooed candidacy of left-wing firebrand and former California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, voters also repudiated an incipient alliance of activist groups that threatened to turn this vast city into a laboratory of social-democratic experimentation.

Although increasingly liberal and minority, Angelenos, by a decisive seven-point margin, proved too fundamentally cautious to take a chance on the charismatic Mr. Villaraigosa, who was strongly backed by organized labor, environmentalist and feminist groups.

The left's defeat went well beyond the mayor's race. Candidates backed by labor, environmentalist and Democratic Party organizations lost critical contests for city attorney and the school board, as well as several City Council races - most notably, the defeat of radical vagabond Tom Hayden. The reverberations should be felt both nationally and across the Golden State. Among those Los Angeles has now given a major migraine are AFL-CIO boss John Sweeney, who hoped to use Mr. Villaraigosa as the poster child for his Latino-labor strategy in the Southwest, and California's struggling Democratic governor, Gray Davis, who placed much of his battered prestige and millions in party funds behind the Villaraigosa campaign.

This being Los Angeles, none of this followed a predictable script. The unlikely architect of Mr. Villaraigosa's undoing, James Hahn, is himself a 50-year-old career politician whose late father, Kenneth, lives on as one of the enduring heroes of traditional liberalism in Los Angeles and as an icon in the city's still-potent African-American community.

Yet the generally dull Mr. Hahn, who ran a savvy and surprisingly spirited campaign, managed to combine his strong base in south Los Angeles with an unlikely coalition of moderate and conservative voters from the San Fernando Valley. Mr. Villaraigosa, who won April's nonpartisan primary, spent much of the runoff campaign doing a victory lap around the city and picking up endorsements, including those of the increasingly liberal Los Angeles Times, outgoing Mayor Richard Riordan, and Clintonite multibillionaires such as SunAmerica founder Eli Broad, Hollywood's Haim Saban, and supermarket mogul Ron Burkle.

Mr. Hahn zeroed in on profoundly local issues such as crime and the economy. He also doggedly raised questions about his opponent's character and political orientation. In a city of often eccentric and individualistic voters, the points Mr. Hahn made about Mr. Villaraigosa meant more than the lavish anointing of the city's political and economic elites.

Mr. Villaraigosa, notes longtime Los Angeles political consultant Arnold Steinberg, provided the phlegmatic Mr. Hahn with plenty of raw material to work with. In a city newly concerned about suddenly resurgent crime, Mr. Villaraigosa's former leadership position with the American Civil Liberties Union opened him to criticism as insufficiently tough on law-and-order issues. This perception was further enhanced by revelations that the former speaker had written to the Clinton White House to pardon a convicted cocaine smuggler, Carlos Vignali, whose wealthy father had contributed to Mr. Villaraigosa's past campaigns. Mr. Vignali did receive that pardon.

The Vignali issue also fed into suspicions about Mr. Villaraigosa's character. During the campaign, it became known that the former speaker had fathered at least two children out of wedlock and had a reputation in Sacramento as a womanizer on an almost Clintonian scale. In contrast Mr. Hahn, a member, like his father, of the conservative Church of Christ, came off as a relatively solid and well-grounded family man.

But arguably Mr. Villaraigosa's biggest problem was the fact that his whole campaign often seemed to be more part of a social and political "movement" than one focused on the less heady task of making life better in Los Angeles. In the end, Angelenos were ready to vote for a pale local rendition of Hubert Humphrey, but unwilling to opt for someone who seemed, perhaps unfairly, cast a bit too much like Emiliano Zapata.

In the aftermath of the election, the leftist editorialists who dominate the local media will no doubt lay blame for Mr. Villaraigosa's defeat on racism and Mr. Hahn's "dirty" campaign. Yet ironically, the biggest beneficiaries of the election may turn out to be the city's emerging Latino political classes, who now have a chance to reorient themselves along more centrist lines.

As observer Gregory Rodriguez, among others, has pointed out, roughly half of Latino voters, according to a Los Angeles Times poll, considered Mr. Villaraigosa "too liberal" even though most ended up supporting him, largely as an expression of ethnic pride. Many leading Latino politicians - including "post-Chicano" generation City Council members Alex Padilla and Nick Pacheco, as well as State Senator Richard Polanco - backed Mr. Hahn, whom they saw as more amenable to local economic development and crime control as well as less beholden to liberal, predominately Anglo Westside advocacy groups.

Perhaps most revealing of all, Los Angeles voters, while rejecting the leftist Mr. Villaraigosa, also elected Rocky Delgadillo, a former deputy mayor for economic development in the Riordan administration, as city attorney. The 40-year-old Mr. Delgadillo soundly defeated City Councilman Michael Feuer, who was backed by the usual array of Democratic Party, union and environmental groups. The Harvard-educated Mr. Delgadillo, who won the enthusiastic support of many businesspeople, now adds a new, and decidedly more moderate, face to the city's emerging Latino political elite.

These results - notably the defeat of the environmentalist and labor left - give the rather uninspiring Mr. Hahn a chance to build on the economic progress made in Los Angeles over the past eight years under Mayor Riordan. He may not prove up to the task, but the prospects for better times ahead for the nation's second largest, and arguably most confounding, city are better today than they have been for months.

Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow with the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University and the Milken Institute, is author of "The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape" (Random House, 2000).