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Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Villaraigosa's Backers Revel in His Historic Feat

Party: At Union Station they marvel that a Latino has come so close to winning L.A.'s mayoralty. 'I'm bursting with pride,' says one.

L.A. Times Staff Writers

They came to see history, in the old railroad station where generations of Angelenos first set foot in this city.

On Tuesday night, Antonio Villaraigosa appeared to do something no son of Mexican immigrants had accomplished in Los Angeles in more than a century.

Veterans of political struggles past, people old enough to remember the days when the idea of Chicano power was a seemingly impossible dream, all came to Villaraigosa's Union Station celebration to see "one of our own" move one step closer to becoming mayor by making the runoff.

"I'm bursting with pride," said Samuel Paz, a civil rights attorney and longtime activist who first met Villaraigosa when he was a troubled 14-year-old. "It's the beginning of a whole new page of Los Angeles history."

Maria Cardenas, a campaign volunteer enjoying the party, gushed like a star-struck teenager after meeting the candidate.

"Today, I got his autograph," she said. "He's my hero. Today should be history for all the Latinos."

Villaraigosa declined to claim a spot in the runoff, but he told supporters late Tuesday that he was optimistic. "There's no campaign in this city that has a crowd this energized," he told cheering supporters. "There's no campaign that represents the breadth of the city like this one. So we're going to have a long night and a good night."

At the very end, he spoke a few words in Spanish, thanking "especially the workers." As he said that, another huge roar came up from the crowd.

For most of the two years he has been running for the city's top office, the former Assembly speaker has assiduously avoided mentioning the idea that he might become the city's first Latino mayor in its modern history.

Among other things, it didn't make political sense to do so. With Latinos making up less than a quarter of the electorate, and with the city weary of ethnic divisions after a decade filled with strife, Villaraigosa positioned himself as a "uniter."

Several of his supporters in the ethnically diverse crowd at Union Station embraced that theme Tuesday night.

"For me, it has no bearing that he's Latino," said Nathan Rubenson, a 16-year-old from Mar Vista who volunteered for Villaraigosa's campaign. "I mean, it's a good thing. It shows how we're moving beyond stereotypes."

Villaraigosa will face a tough fight in the runoff. But even making the second round of voting marked a personal triumph for the former legislator, who was discouraged from running for mayor by many in the Los Angeles political elite when he first began putting out feelers two years ago.

Among the hundreds of activists and volunteers who had come to bask in the glow of his triumph, there were more than a few who remembered the young man who once dropped out of high school and whose arms used to be covered with tattoos (he had them lasered off).

"His story is a wonderful American story that will give inspiration to thousands of Latino and minority children," said Antonio Rodriguez, a veteran Eastside attorney who has known Villaraigosa since the days when the candidate was a UCLA student organizer and writer for the Chicano newspaper Sin Fronteras.

"The man developed further and beyond anything I could have imagined," Rodriguez added.

Up to now the history of the search for Latino political power in Los Angeles has been one of frustrations, most notably the 1958 campaign by Ed Roybal for county supervisor. The father of Eastside politics lost after four recounts.

After that defeat, the idea that Latinos would play a central role in the life of the city was deferred for a generation. The mantle has now been picked up by Villaraigosa, who assumes the role reluctantly.

"The campaign is about you, not me," he told supporters Tuesday morning. "The reason why there's an energy is because people feel like they're at a crossroads."

Villaraigosa had campaigned with unceasing energy, calling in chits from friends cultivated during three decades of grass-roots activism. Known to a few of his oldest movement buddies as "Tony Rap," he never seemed to stop talking on the campaign trail.

After another busy day stumping, a hoarse Villaraigosa popped one of the cherry throat lozenges he carried with him.

"I have a polyp," he said. "I like to say I have a bipartisan throat. I have a polyp on my vocal cords like [former Gov. Pete] Wilson. And I have acid reflux like [former President Bill] Clinton." Of the polyp, he said, "I'm going to wait until after the election to get it operated on."

Among those celebrating Tuesday with Villaraigosa there were a few who could not even vote--representatives of the legions of immigrants who remain outside the political process but see in the legislator a symbol of hope.

"I'm proud to say I'm a mexicano," said Sergio Farias, a 41-year-old cook who attended the victory party with his 12-year-old son. "I've read a lot about him. He's going to do great things."

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