April 13, 2001

Commentary

Villaraigosa Making History, But He's Not Alone

By James E. Garcia

Antonio Villaraigosa is making history.

On Tuesday, Villaraigosa won about 30 percent of the vote in the Los Angeles mayor's race. Nipping at his heels was James Hahn. The two Democrats will meet in a runoff election June 5.

But this column is not as much about Villaraigosa and Hahn as it is about the parallels between L.A. politics and the advent of an unstoppable political juggernaut known as America's growing... No, check that... America's exploding Latino electorate.

I'm not here to comment on whether the people of Los Angeles should choose Villaraigosa to lead their city, but to note that as it happens Los Angeles is one of five major U.S. cities that could elect a Latino mayor this year. The others are San Antonio, New York, Houston and Miami.

Modern day San Antonio had a Latino mayor in Henry Cisneros in the 1980s, and its citizens may elect Ed Garza in May. Miami's current Mayor Joe Carollo had to beat out a fellow Cuban American to win the post and is now running for reelection.

But New York could elect its first Latino mayor in Democrat Fernando or Republican Herman Badillo; Villaraigosa could become L.A.'s first Latino mayor in nearly 130 years; and Houston's slate of candidates is expected to include Republican Orlando Sanchez, a Cuban American raised in Corpus Christi.

The lack of estrogen in this bunch notwithstanding, the historic trend is clear and the local and national ramifications are far reaching. As the chief executive, a mayor becomes a city's ambassador to the nation. Along with filling potholes and keeping the buses running on time, it's a mayor's job to make your city's first impression.

It matters if America knows that Miami's Mayor Carollo was recently accused of allegedly whacking his wife on her head with a teapot or that former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, while in office, was once busted on cocaine charges.

On the other hand, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's tenacity and his notorious pugnacity are credited with having burnished the city's dulled image — except, perhaps, in the area of race relations. And Cisneros is applauded for having dragged San Antonio kicking and screaming into the 20th century. Now if they could just find a pro football team to play in the Alamodome.

The job of big city mayor can also be a stepping stone to other big time political jobs. If any of these guys wins, expect to see them pop up as candidates for statewide office or Congress in the coming years.

The odds are slim, of course, that all five cities I just mentioned will elect a Latino mayor. Entrenched power never goes quietly. Big city campaigns are expensive. Prejudice is also a factor. And who's to say the Latino candidates running really deserve to win. No one but the voters.

Still, just the possibility that Americans could elect five big city Latino mayors this year proves that there's a new paradigm in American politics. Not that Latino mayors will able to avoid having to build strong coalitions and win the support of non-Latinos just as Anglo mayors have had to learn to court minority voters. But a Latino mayor will have burdens mostly unfamiliar to their Anglo predecessors.

Names like Carollo, Villaraigosa and Garza carry unique cultural baggage. While all mayors serve as ambassadors for a city, Latino mayors also must be ambassadors for their ethnic communities.

Henry Cisneros was elected mayor of San Antonio and selected, whether he liked it or not, as a champion of his community. If he wins, Villaraigosa will assume similar responsibilities.

Not only will Villaraigosa have to exhibit the strength, wisdom and humility required to represent all of the people of Los Angeles, but he'll also have the added responsibility of living out the dreams of Latinos nationwide who want nothing more than to be accepted as full-fledged participants in the democratic process.

Garcia is editor and publisher of PoliticoMagazine.com. E-mail the writer at Politico1@aol.com

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