May 25, 2001

A "Homeboy" could be the next mayor of Los Angeles

EDITOR'S NOTE: The runoff election for mayor of Los Angeles, coming June 5, pits a member of the Democratic Party's "old guard" against one of the most successful Latino politicians in the state's history. In a way, Antonio Villaraigosa incarnates a decades-long struggle, but the mix of ideas and alliances involved is far more complex than that would suggest.

By David Bacon

LOS ANGELES — Half a century ago, Bert Corona had a dream that Latinos in California — field workers and factory hands, school kids forbidden to speak their families' language — would win real political power.

At the time, only a visionary like Corona, a labor militant and Chicano activist, could consider it achievable.

Yet on June 5, one of Corona's "homeboys" from the heady 1960s may be elected mayor of Los Angeles.

Antonio Villaraigosa learned as a community activist in an immigrant rights organization founded by Corona, the Centro de Accion Social Autonoma (CASA).

Villaraigosa went on to get a law degree at People's College of the Law, worked as an organizer for the huge Los Angeles teachers' union, and began running for office — eventually becoming speaker of the State Assembly.

Now he's running for mayor of the second largest city in the United States. If he's elected, he'll be the first Latino in that position for more than a century.

The election pits Villaraigosa against James Hahn. Both are Democrats, which is a change in a city governed for eight years by Republican Richard Riordan.

The L.A. election reflects in part changes in the population — but only in part. It took former Governor Pete Wilson to transform a demographic change into a formidable voting force.

In 1994, Wilson narrowly won reelection by betting his political future on a proposition excluding the undocumented from schools and medical care. It passed, but in the wake of that election, thousands of immigrants became citizens with the express intention of never again being excluded from the political process.

They set out to punish the Republican Party — and succeeded so well that it is still reeling. Democrats today control both houses of the state legislature, and a Democrat sits in the statehouse.

In race after race, the new immigrant vote has been the deciding factor. But having a Spanish surname isn't enough. While people of color make up 60 percent of Los Angeles residents, they account for only 40 percent of its voters.

Instead, there are signs of a new coalition bringing together progressive white activists with a new generation of leaders in communities of color.

At the ballot box, class issues move voters as much as traditional questions of color or nationality. One reason for this is that Los Angeles has become a hotbed of labor activity, with major strikes and organizing drives.

The most visible of these involved immigrant janitors and hotel workers, but African-American and Asian-American union members have played a major part in labor's rise.

"The big issues are economic," says Kent Wong, director of UCLA's Labor Center. "People are voting for things like living wage, affirmative action, and economic development policy that...pays attention to underserved communities."

The county Labor Federation has a core of precinct walkers and phone callers, and used them to win upset victories for pro-labor Latinos against more conservative ones.

The Villaraigosa campaign has to be won citywide, which will involve a larger turnout of labor's political activists than ever before. The endorsement was a very big risk for the labor movement, Wong says. "But it has a lot of boldness and daring, and it's built up an incredible ground operation involving hundreds and hundreds of people each weekend."

Unlike Villaraigosa, Hahn has been a quiet member of an old guard his father helped build. An elected official for 16 years, first controller and then city attorney, he is the son of Kenny Hahn, a county supervisor for 40 years, when Mayor Sam Yorty was notorious for racist scare attacks directed at white voters.

The L.A. press portrays the Villaraigosa/Hahn battle as a conflict between Blacks and Latinos. "But there's a whole political realignment taking place here," says Anthony Thigpenn, a leading community organizer in the Villaraigosa campaign. "It's happening in the African-American community, like everywhere else, and many of us are looking to be part of it."

David Bacon writes widely on immigrant and labor issues.

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