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April 12, 2001

Los Angeles Vote Puts Latino First

By TODD S. PURDUM
N. Y. Times

Los Angeles, April 11 - For years political experts have talked about the day when this city's surging Latino population would shape the outcome of local elections. In Los Angeles this morning, there was an unavoidable feeling that that moment had arrived.

In a crowded mayorial primary election on Tuesday, Antonio Villaraigosa, a high school dropout who went on to become speaker of the California Assembly, pieced together a multi-ethnic coalition to finish first, positioning himself for a runoff that could make him the city's first Hispanic mayor since 1872.

Because no candidate got a majority of the vote, Mr. Villaraigosa, who won 30 percent in a field of six major contenders, will now face City Attorney James K. Hahn, the son of a beloved local political family who is white but rode his strong support among blacks to take 25 percent of the vote.

Steve Soboroff, a Republican businessman making his political debut, finished third with 21 percent, but he narrowly carried white neighborhoods in the traditionally conservative San Fernando Valley and the city's politically eclectic Westside. Those areas will be decisive in the nonpartisan runoff on June 5.

Mr. Villaraigosa's first-place showing reflected not only the growing power of Hispanic voters - who made up one-fifth of the electorate, two and a half times their share just eight years ago - but his early success in styling himself as a worthy heir to Tom Bradley, who was elected the first black mayor in 1973. Mr. Bradley built a path-breaking coalition of his own with black voters and white liberals, before the Hispanic population exploded.

For a year, Mr. Hahn, a Democrat, as is Mr. Villaraigosa, had led in virtually all the polls. But his support stalled several weeks ago while Mr. Villaraigosa surged from the low double digits with endorsements from the state's Democratic Governor, Gray Davis, the local party organization, the city's main labor union umbrella group and a handful of local billionaires, many of them sensing that the time had come for a Hispanic mayor and that he had the best chance to win.

"This candidacy represents an opening up of this city to more people," Mr. Villaraigosa (pronounced VEE-yah-ray-GO-suh) said today at news conference in the Valley, which he called "ground zero" in the coming campaign. At the same time, Mr. Villaraigosa took pains to say, as he has throughout his campaign: "I'm not running to be first. I want to be mayor for the whole city."

The election was a remarkable turnabout for a city that only eight years ago, reeling from the 1992 riots and a punishing recession, chose Mayor Richard J. Riordan, a maverick multimillionaire Republican making his first run for public office, and then re-elected him overwhelmingly four years ago against token opposition.

This year, Mr. Riordan's campaign team was split, with most of his political advisers backing Mr. Hahn, with whom the mayor has often tangled, and a group of his wealthiest supporters, including Eli Broad, the city's richest citizen, supporting Mr. Villaraigosa.

Mr. Riordan's own chosen successor was Mr. Soboroff, and the two runoff candidates must now compete for his voters, as well as those of Joel Wachs, a veteran city councilman who has represented neighborhoods on the Westside and in the Valley and who finished fourth, with 11 percent of the vote.

"The real battleground is going to be over those voters who were neither black nor Latino, especially white Jewish voters," said Raphael Sonsenshine, a political scientist at the California State University. "While Villaraigosa led among Jewish voters, he by no means has a majority yet."

For Mr. Hahn, 50, the challenge is to stop Mr. Villaraigosa's momentum and build beyond his base with black voters in South-Central Los Angeles, who fondly remember his father, the longtime County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. A familiar, if often phlegmatic figure in the city's political world, Mr. Hahn must appeal to moderates and conservatives in the suburban Valley and Westside neighborhoods where he has run well in citywide campaigns since he was elected city controller in 1981 and city attorney in 1985.

"I have experience where it counts, right here in my hometown," Mr. Hahn said today, in a preview of a campaign that seems certain to try to portray Mr. Villaraigosa, 48, as lacking local government experience and too liberal for a city with a long tradition of middle-of-the-road nonpartisanship in municipal politics.

"I think most people consider themselves moderates," Mr. Hahn added. "They don't like labels like liberal or conservative. They look past labels and want ideas."

State and local term limits drove the dynamic of this year's contests. Mr. Riordan was barred form seeking a third term, and Mr. Hahn was barred from seeking re-election to his current job as the city's chief lawyer. Mr. Villaraigosa had to give up his seat in the State Assembly just two years after becoming speaker.

At the same time, demographic changes left whites a smaller share of the electorate, and black and Asian voters roughly stagnant, compared to eight years ago, while the Hispanic share of the electorate rose to about 21 percent from 8 percent in 1993, an all-time high, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls by The Los Angeles Times. Four years ago, Hispanic voters made up about 15 percent of the electorate, and most backed Mr. Riordan.

Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University's Los Angeles campus, said that Mr. Villaraigosa's candidacy "is really ushering in the new era of politics in Los Angeles."

"People have talked for a long time about the political potential of the Latino community, but it's only been in the last four to five years that we've really seen that taking place," Mr. Regalado added. "And yet it wasn't really a base for Antonio. He ran as a coalition candidate, and he spent a lot of time for the past two years reaching out to other communities and I think he knew he had to because he wasn't even a household name in the Latino community."

While Mr. Villaraigosa won a clear majority of the overall Hispanic vote, he split it with another candidate, Representative Xavier Becerra, who took just under 20 percent of the Hispanic vote to more than 60 percent for Mr. Villaraigosa, according to voter surveys. Mr. Becerra came in fifth. State Controller Kathleen Connell finished last of the six leading candidates.


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