A Tale of Three Cities: Latino Candidates Fall Short in Three Hotly Contested Mayoral Races. (How They Voted, 2001)

Article excerpt

Political operatives in Los Angeles, New York City and Houston should not have been blamed if they thought 2001 would be the year of the Latino. In each city, a Latino candidate mounted a vigorous campaign for mayor; in each city strong multiracial coalitions supported their efforts; but in each city, the Latino candidate was defeated.

What went wrong?

"In a sense, those mayoral races came a little too early for the Latino community," says Dr. Louis DeSipio, professor of political science at the University of California-Irvine. "Two of the candidates, those in New York and L.A., were quite good, but didn't have skills yet--the grassroots, campaign, professional skills--to get out the vote at that level. And those races showed that."

LOS ANGELES, JUNE 2001

In Los Angeles, last summer's mayoral race pitted Antonio Villaraigosa, a former assembly speaker and passionately progressive union organizer and living wage advocate, against James K. Hahn, a White politician whose father was a legendary 10-term county supervisor with strong support from the Black community.

Villaraigosa seemed tantalizingly close to pulling together a strong enough coalition of Latinos, labor activists, progressives and younger African Americans to defeat Hahn. But Hahn, a Democrat, battled back with a classic strategy--playing the race card. Hahn skillfully played on Black fears of being eclipsed by the rapidly growing Latino population. The African American share of Los Angeles' population had shrunk to 11.2 percent in June 2001, while the Latino population had risen to 46.5 percent.

U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters gave speeches in which she called Villaraigosa a "menace" to the Black community. And Hahn aired an inflammatory attack ad, juxtaposing grainy images of a crack pipe with the information that Villaraigosa had written a letter to the White House in support of a pardon for a drug dealer.

So had Cardinal Roger Mahoney and a number of other legislators, but the charge--coming in the final week of the campaign--appeared decisive. Hahn won by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin. African Americans voted for Hahn by a 3-1 margin.

"Part of this idea that I'm arguing, of there being a hierarchy of running for office, is that it's like a series of hills to climb," DeSipio says. "You learn over time how to anticipate your enemy's moves, and you learn how to undercut their effectiveness. When Hahn started airing ads that linked Villaraigosa to gangs and drug dealing; he didn't have a response. And that's just bad campaign management. He said, `I won't go dirty.' But there are other ways to defend yourself without going dirty."

In an interesting postscript, six months after riding African American support to victory, Hahn outraged Waters, among many others, by refusing to reappoint Los Angeles' Black chief of police, Bernard Parks, to a second term. …

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