When Liberals Collide: The Los Angeles Mayoral Race Raises Difficult Questions for Progressives

Article excerpt

Four years ago the Los Angeles mayoral race pitted two Democrats against each other in a battle to preside over America's second biggest city. And once again the upcoming March 8 election might see a rematch between incumbent James Hahn and the man he beat last time, former Assembly Speaker and current councilman Antonio Villaraigosa. The five leading contenders in the nonpartisan race are all Democrats. Hahn and Villaraigosa have been running top in the polls at around 20-25 percent. If nobody wins 50 percent in the March balloting, the two top finishers will face off in a second round in May.

As bitter as the 2001 election was--it ended in widespread charges that Hahn had run a gutter-level campaign to take out Villaraigosa--this season's fight promises to be even more brutal. This time around, the political divisions generated by the contest not only raise difficult questions about whether it's appropriate for liberals to support a moderate incumbent Democrat when there is a more progressive Democrat in the race, but also threaten to rip apart the city's labor-led progressive coalition. "I can't remember when I've seen such division among us liberals," says one local veteran Democratic consultant. "And it doesn't bode well for the postelection period when one or another of these guys has to govern. We're gonna have natural allies divided against each other."

Hahn, scion of a local political dynasty and a former city attorney, was elected by an eight-point margin, succeeding moderate Republican Richard Riordan, who had served two terms. From his first day in office Hahn reinforced his public image as a sleepy, almost invisible presence. But much like the administration of another low-key former California politician, Gray Davis, Hahn's tenure has earned a reputation as a money-soaked, pay-to-play enterprise.

Hahn's popularity has plummeted (some polls suggest he might fall into third and out of the runoff) as scandals lap at the doors of City Hall. Hahn early on named campaign fundraiser Troy Edwards as a deputy mayor overseeing the city's three top proprietary departments--the airport, the harbor and the municipally run Department of Water and Power (DWP), which administer more than $1 billion a year in contracts. Soon, accusations were flying that major campaign contributors were getting lucrative city contracts--some seventy-seven firms that had contributed did so.

Another scandal implicates the Fleishman-Hillard public relations firm, said to be virtually intertwined with the mayor's office, in cases of deliberate overbilling of the city.

Two joint federal-county criminal investigations are now under way, a couple of grand juries have been impaneled and the FBI and the city ethics commission are also investigating. Edwards has resigned. One Fleishman-Hillard staffer was indicted in January on eleven federal counts of wire fraud. "Remember the movie The Firm? That's what LA is like now," says a self-described "heartbroken" David Freeman, a longtime progressive Democrat and former general manager of the DWP. "The mayor is responsible. He's completely responsible for this."

Hahn insists he bears no responsibility for the corruption scandal and that "the city of LA is a victim...and when somebody steals from the government they should be punished severely." Meanwhile, sixteen current and former Hahn staff members have already been cited by the two grand juries, and the city is holding its breath waiting to see when the next indictments will be handed up and whether they will reach into the mayor's office itself.

By the time the scandals broke last year, Hahn was already faltering. He had achieved his 2001 victory by running hard to Villaraigosa's right and cobbling up an odd coalition of conservative suburban whites and inner-city blacks--the latter supported him because of his deceased father's forty-year record as a popular Democratic County supervisor. …