The Limitations of the Deracialization Concept in the 2001 Los Angeles Mayoral Election

Article excerpt

In June 2001, Mexican American candidate Antonio Villaraigosa and white candidate James Hahn competed in the Los Angeles mayoral runoff election. Both were liberal Democrats seeking office in a political climate characterized by nonpartisan mayoral elections, a majority Latino population, and a long history of successful deracialized campaigns and biracial coalition politics. From 1973 to 1993, former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley utilized deracialized campaigns to develop a coalition of liberal white, African American, Latino, and Jewish voters. In June 2001, however, the coalitions supporting white candidate Hahn and Latino candidate Villaraigosa differed from the Bradley coalition. Whereas African Americans, moderate whites, and conservative whites preferred Hahn, the majority of Latinos and liberal Democrats voted for Villaraigosa. A Villaraigosa victory would have symbolized the evolving political power of Latinos both locally and nationally. In addition, Villaraigosa's mayoralty would have resulted in an electoral and governing coalition dominated by while liberals and Latinos in Los Angeles. Although he won the plurality of votes in the primary, Villaraigosa lost the runoff after the Hahn campaign used racially-offensive ads to attack his integrity and character. We attempt to provide explanations for the loss of a Latino candidate to a white candidate who "played the race card" and the possible implications for the theory of deracialization. First, we examine the question, Why was Antonio Villaraigosa's deracialized campaign unsuccessful? The concept of deracialization was developed to describe one useful method for developing citywide biracial and multiracial electoral coalitions. Candidates "deracialize" their campaigns by de-emphasizing racially-divisive issues in an attempt to garner crossover support from voters of other races while also receiving the lion's share of support from voters of the candidate's racial group. We hypothesize that Villaraigosa lost the runoff because he received a small percentage (less than 20 percent) of the black vote and failed to mobilize a turnout of 50 percent or more of the Latino voting-age population. We conclude with a discussion of the possible implications of Villaraigosa's loss about the future usefulness of deracialized mayoral campaigns in racially-mixed cities.

In june 2001, Mexican American candidate Antonio ViIlaraigosa and white candidate James Hahn competed in the Los Angeles mayoral runoff election. Both were liberal Democrats seeking office in a political climate characterized by nonpartisan mayoral elections, a majority Latino population, and a long history of successful deracialized campaigns and biracial coalition politics. From 1973 until 1993, former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley utilized deracialized campaigns to develop a coalition of liberal white, African American, Latino, and Jewish voters. In june 2001, however, the coalitions supporting white candidate Hahn and Latino candidate Villaraigosa differed from the Bradley coalition. Whereas African Americans, moderate whites, and conservative whites preferred Hahn, the majority of Latinos and liberal Democrats voted for Villaraigosa.

If he had won the runoff, Antonio Villaraigosa would have become the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles since Cristobal Aguilar in 1872 and one of the most powerful mayors in the nation. The city's charter had been changed from a weak mayor to a strong mayor- weak City Council system. Because of the increased amount of power possessed by the city mayor after this change, a Villaraigosa victory would have symbolized the evolving political power of Latinos both locally and nationally. In addition, Villaraigosa's mayoralty would have resulted in an electoral and governing coalition dominated by white liberals and Latinos in Los Angeles. Although he won the plurality of votes in the primary, Villaraigosa lost the runoff after the Hahn campaign used racially offensive ads to attack his integrity and character. …