RACE AND THE L.A. MAYOR'S RACEby Rip Rense
(Originally published in the "The Rense Retort.")
They should have just had venerable "Voice of the Lakers," Chick Hearn, call the action in the L.A. mayor's race:
"The Blacks fake the Latinos into the popcorn machine. ... And here come the White Valley Conservatives. ... The Encino Jews are yo-yoing up and down. ... Negative TV ads in the front court? No harm, no foul!"
From the L.A. Times to the evening news, racial emphasis was as subtle as a Shaquille O'Neal slamdunk. The mayor's contest was covered largely in terms of which ethnic groups might support which candidate. And all this happened in "post-ethnic Los Angeles," as an L.A. Times opinion page article recently dubbed the "City of Angles."
Week after week, poll after L.A. Times poll sought to divine how many Jews, blacks, Latinos, whites, Asians were supporting which mayoral aspirant. TV newsmannequins chanted daily about the "Latino vote," and whether it would be enough to elect (Latino) Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa. Would the Latinos outscore the pro-James Hahn African-Americans? Would the African-Americans and "white San Fernando Valley conservatives" combine to edge Villaraigosa? Would the Jews or Asians play spoiler? What of white liberal Westsiders?
Capping off the race-based reporting was L.A. Weekly Executive Editor Harold Myerson's election post-mortem in the New York Times last week with its running references to "coalition of blacks and Jews" and "bastion of white conservatism," and so on.
Whatever happened to um ... issues?
Incredibly, the Myerson article was headlined "A City Hesitates at Political Change."
It did? I thought the city politically changed specifically, that it changed mayors. The outgoing mayor was a Republican who ran the place like a corporate CEO. The new one, Hahn, is a fairly liberal Democrat who has been city attorney for the last decade or so. Sure looks like change to me!
Besides, didn't the former mayor uh, Dick Riordan, I think was his name endorse Hahn's (Democratic) opponent, Villaraigosa? Meaning that had Villaraigosa won, there would effectively have been ... no political change? Just a different smile on the same corporate-government Happy Meal? "Mayor Howdy," as the firebrand weekly, New Times L.A., dubbed the goofy-grinned Riordan, would have simply been replaced by "Mayor Doody."
In other words, Myerson had it backasswards. Of course, everything is backasswards in this city, and that's much of the problem with politics here. It often seems that the only people who take L.A. seriously are the Times columnist Patt Morrison, KPCC "Air Talk" host Larry Mantle, New Times columnist Jill Stewart, and a few elected officials. Everyone else in this unwieldy sprawl of ill-defined suburbs is a kind of spectator. Elections are like Dodger games; people arrive late and leave by the seventh inning.
Still, Villaraigosa attracted a puzzling amount of starry-eyed adulation exemplified by Myerson, who cast his hero as heading a grass-roots, leftist, labor-based coalition despite being backed by hardcore Republican multimillionaire Riordan! His article begins with this almost rhapsodic passage:
"The mayoral candidacy of Antonio Villaraigosa, a former California Assembly speaker, promised to empower a political coalition rooted in the great Latin American immigration of the past 20 years." (Read: vote for Villaraigosa because he's Latino, since much of the city is becoming Latino. This, of course, is racist, as it implies that all Latinos share a particular political view.)
From there, the ex-New Yorker drifted into a kind of hyper-liberal reverie:
"Los Angeles was to be to the new century what New York had been to the last, and Mr. Villaraigosa was our Fiorello LaGuardia, a gifted pol off mean streets who'd formed a citywide, pro-labor legion that would redefine liberalism in America, much as New York once did."
Whew! Cue the John Williams score! That sure sounded grand and everything, but I've got to say that I never heard Villaraigosa utter anything but the hollowest, emptiest, most maddeningly meaningless clichés things like reaching out to all the people and making this the city that it can and will be, and so forth. It was so embarrassing that I am baffled as to how Myerson and so many in the press came to regard Villagraigosa as a "gifted pol" who stood for misty-eyed stuff like "political change" and "the future." An otherwise discerning friend of mine actually referred to the candidate's "Bobby Kennedy charm." Was he kidding? Villaraigosa's iron-on smile is as sincere as Kathy Lee Gifford's, his prose straight from the dog-eared Encyclopedia of Campaign Rhetoric. Martinet's Familiar Quotations.
There was a candidate, incidentally, who dealt bluntly with issues, head-on that is, if you agree that the most pressing issue in Los Angeles is traffic congestion. That was Steve Soboroff, Riordan's handpicked successor who lost in the primary. Soboroff did something utterly wonderful. He ran campaign commercials promising what no candidate since County Supervisor Baxter Ward in 1971 promised rapid transit. No, not the preposterous $300 million-per-mile theme-park subway that does nothing to relieve freeway congestion. Soboroff promised light-rail lines paralleling the freeways, zero construction on city streets during rush hour, and reversible lanes during peak congestion. Totally pragmatic solutions to the very worst and most pressing problem facing the city. At least on this issue, he was the anti-rhetoric candidate.
Naturally, he lost.
(The media, incidentally, referred to Soboroff as "the Jewish candidate," and speculated at length as to whether he would capture "the Jewish vote.")
The new mayor, defeated by Villaraigosa in the primary (having split much of the vote with Soboroff), was hardly helped into office by the race-obsessed media. The powerful L.A. Times, which, like the L.A. Weekly, endorsed Villaraigosa, dutifully published a tepid profile of Hahn (after a radiant bio of his opponent), and on the day of Hahn's victory, chose a photo of the triumphant candidate that is known in the trade as a "nostril shot." The mayor-elect looked like an elated pig.
Why such flagrant bias? Many reasons, possibly beginning with jumping on what was perceived to be the next big power politics bandwagon, the Villaraigosa Express. I suspect, though, that the Times' endorsement might have stemmed from the paper's notorious falling out with top Latino leaders a couple years back in which several officials including County Supervisor Gloria Molina stormed out of the Times offices, correctly complaining of chauvinistic treatment by then-publisher Mark Willes. I think the paper's new regime was trying to make amends with the Latino community by endorsing Villaraigosa. If so, that was not very "post-ethnic."
Ultimately, voting for Latino Villaraigosa was openly espoused as progressive by many a media pundit. Myerson writes of Villaraigosa "assembling a progressive majority" (which he was unable to do) and at one point declares, "Mr. Villaraigosa was as much the candidate of the new multiracial Los Angeles as he was its Latino standard-bearer." (If he had been, he would have won.)
The great irony here is that the candidate who united disparate ethnic groups was ... Hahn, the "non-progressive" member of that least politically correct class in the country: the dumpy middle-aged white male. The son of revered longtime L.A. county supervisor Kenneth Hahn grew up in and around predominantly African-American South Central L.A., and is trusted by the black community here. He is widely seen as a dedicated, if overly cautious and methodical, public servant of long and good standing. "Moderate white Republicans" in the Valley voted for him, as did some Latinos (!). Never mind that charisma-wise, the squeaky-voiced mayor-elect makes Villaraigosa look like, well, Bobby Kennedy.
Why all the resentment, then? After all, mild-mannered Hahn was widely attacked for running what Myerson hyperbolized as "the most demagogic campaign Los Angeles has seen since the bad old days of (Mayor) Sam Yorty." (Wow.) Aside from being seen as an a-charismatic bureaucrat, Hahn caught a lot of flak for two anti-Villaraigosa TV ads. The first asserted that Villaraigosa had denied writing a letter to President Clinton asking for the pardon of a convicted crack cocaine dealer. The ad was factual. Villaraigosa did initially deny having written the letter. The second ad noted that the candidate once headed a local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which among other unpopular positions, does not oppose child pornography on the Internet. That's also fact. Since when is reporting the truth in a campaign commercial an example of demagoguery?
The ads elicited the stock reaction from Villaraigosa, complete with wounded, holier-than-thou tone: Hahn was tragically engaged in "negative campaigning." Ho-hum. Campaigns are "negative" by their very nature; they are contests between opposing ideologies. One side attacks the other. A "negative campaign" is not necessarily a dirty campaign.
In the end, James Hahn won the election because Antonio Villaraigosa was too far to the left for the majority of voters in L.A. Simple.
Hahn also won, I think, because Villaraigosa's pose was transparent. He's a power-seeking master of non-speak whose greatest avowed attribute is to attract support from diverse factions across party lines. To me, this says he is all things to all people, and has no real convictions. Mirror Man. It reminds me of Clinton's "consensus building." Where's the there there?
Hahn won the election because think of this he happened to unite a more racially varied citizenry than any since the election of Tom Bradley. Never mind that the likes of Myerson cynically call Hahn's electorate "a politically incoherent, one-time curiosity that should not be mistaken for a new urban political force." How a dedicated liberal like Myerson can find a way to pooh-pooh an unlikely alliance of voters from South Central to the Valley is just stupefying, especially given the racial enmity deepened by the Rodney King matter.
Under Hahn, the African-American community which happens to be his old constituency might have a greater voice in City Hall than ever, including under the corporation-cozying Bradley administration. In a city where the problems of largely black South Central have been shockingly, shamefully left to fester, administration after administration, this is a heartening development for all of L.A.
In sum, despite all the race-baiting news coverage, Hahn did not win because he is white. And Villaraigosa did not lose because he is Latino.
That's a win for everyone.
© 2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.