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The Remaking of Los Angeles
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa celebrates with Power Packer and Councilman-elect Herb Wesson. Staff Photo by Gary McCarthy.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa celebrates with Power Packer and Councilman-elect Herb Wesson. Staff Photo by Gary McCarthy.

The rise of the city's Latino-Labor-African American coalition.

It is not that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wants to remake Los Angeles in his own image, although picture this: Celebrating an election defeat of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reform agenda, a visibly emotional Villaraigosa couldn’t resist congratulatory abrazo after abrazo to newly elected City Councilman Herb Wesson, one of his successors as Speaker of the State Assembly; to Fabian Nuñez, the present Assembly Speaker; to former Councilman and now county labor leader Martin Ludlow, his former crony in the union movement and political protege; and what seemed like a slew of others with a remarkable political resemblance to the charismatic mayor.

Los Angeles had perhaps seen nothing like this male-bonding bravado since the days when Frank Sinatra and the legendary Rat Pack were punching out gossip columnists at Ciro’s nightclub on the Sunset Strip. What could be made of this? Was this a new Rat Pack, or Political Power Pack to be more precise, with Villaraigosa as L.A.’s and Hollywood’s new chairman of the board? Could the demise of the political invincibility of a once political neophyte movie star be the source for so much emotional high-fiving? Or was this something more profound and sublime, something symbolic of what people have been saying for years is taking place in Los Angeles, the passage of power from the old city to the new — a passage of power finally approaching the demographic transformation of the past generation?

Although Villaraigosa has called it “the most ethnically and economically diverse population in America — and maybe the world,” Los Angeles itself has historically been slow in assimilating that diversity, whether on the silver screen industry synonymous with the city or in its distribution of wealth and power, particularly the latter.

For a quarter century, from 1962, when then Councilman Edward Roybal was elected to Congress until the 1987 election of Gloria Molina, no Latino served on the Los Angeles City Council. No Latino had been elected to the county’s Board of Supervisors until Molina in 1991.

But since that time the political landscape for Latinos in Los Angeles has changed dramatically, though almost unheralded at times — what Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California calls “the hidden integration of the Latino presence.”

“In a way, it's just as American as apple pie,” notes Pachon. “Just as in earlier decades Irish, Italians, and Jewish politicians made it into the mainstream, Latinos are now experiencing that. One of the jewels in the crown of America's most populous state [is] now held by a Latino.”

During the election night celebration last week, Villaraigosa was joined on stage by the City Council President, Alex Padilla, who is Latino. With them was City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who is himself of Latino background. Across town, at Salesian High School in Boyle Heights, another Latino, school board member Jose Huizar, was celebrating his own election to the council, succeeding to the seat Villaraigosa gave up when he became mayor last July. Huizar would be joining a city governing body that also has two other Latino members, Ed Reyes and Tony Cardenas.

Add to that the three African-Americans on the council — Jan Perry, Bernard Park and now Wesson — and you get a better sense perhaps of what was, in part at least, behind the euphoria of abrazos being shared at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel.

All of it added up to a powerful Latino-black-labor bloc providing progressive L.A. with much of its heart and soul, driven by the growing importance of service unions to the local labor movement, the leadership of the county labor federation and the emergence of politicians in the stripe of Villaraigosa.

If there is a commonality to the city’s coterie of new leadership at which he is at the helm, Villaraigosa says it is a determination to transcend race, ethnicity, nationalism and neighborhoods — “about saying to people, ‘You're part of the problem, and you're part of the solution.’”

“Coalition politics is where the country's going,” Villaraigosa said in an interview. “And it's what I've believed in since I was a young boy. People are looking for leadership that can engage us, that can inspire us, that can get us to get involved. There's no secret or magic ... [It is] about connecting one of us or all of us to a common agenda.”

The Villaraigosa-Wesson-Ludlow friendship is particularly significant in understanding the Latino and African-American relationships that have developed over the years in Sacramento and Washington and at the higher levels of Democratic Party politics. It is a relationship unlike the tentative ties and distrusting divisiveness among Latinos and African Americans often found at inner city high schools and neighborhoods, where jealous conflicts are usually over turf, limited affordable housing, low-paying and minimal skilled jobs and misunderstandings fostered by language differences.

In political circles, the rivalries between Latinos and African Americans are primarily over power, which they have found to be limited when they are divided in their purpose and more accessible when working together, often in coalitions.

In Villaraigosa and Ludlow, their ties are even deeper. Both have been labor organizers long before they became politicians. Their relationship came into even greater play when Villaraigosa’s longtime friend and supporter, County Federation of Labor executive-secretary Miguel Contreras died suddenly of a heart attack last May at the age of 52, just days before Villaraigosa won election as the city’s first Latino mayor since 1872.

In the days after Contreras’ death, Villaraigosa played out his first behind-the-scenes kingmaking role as mayor-elect, letting it be known to local labor leaders but especially among the Federation of Labor’s rank-and-file who supported him faithfully in both mayoral campaigns that he strongly favored Ludlow as Contreras’ successor — effectively paving the way for his friend to become the first African American to head the largest labor federation in America and securing the label of the most powerful labor figure in the nation.

“Antonio doesn't do politics for the purpose of political expediency,” says Assembly Speaker Nuñez, who, like Villaraigosa, has long ties to organized labor, including being former political director of the County Federation of Labor. “His thinking is guided by what's in his heart, gut, and head.”

The move by Villaraigosa, which was mutually beneficial for him as well as for Ludlow, typified the kind of coalition-building during his entire career, sometimes at the cost of immediate Latino interests but inevitably with the long-range payback to all, including Latinos in what Villaraigosa outlined as his goal for the “Let’s Dare to Dream” society in his inaugural address: “To transcend our differences, to meet our collective challenges, and to define our mutual dreams, to take a stock of who we are and what we stand for, to remember where we came from, and to decide where we need to go.”

As Los Angeles political analyst Kerman Maddox saw it, Ludlow's ascension to the powerful labor position was "a huge step in the right direction" toward increasing resources for black political candidates throughout Southern California. With labor's financial support often critical for political success, Maddox said Ludlow now makes it possible for African-Americans seeking political office in non-traditional black communities to secure money and organizational support to be competitive.

“This is a good thing for black-Latino relations," says State Sen. Kevin Murray Murray, D-Culver City. "Antonio Villaraigosa, of all the Latino leaders, was the most adamant about building coalitions with the African American community, and Martin had an overwhelming number of Latino leaders and some very aggressive Latino activists express confidence in Martin Ludlow.”

For Villaraigosa, the coalition he has forged is an important cornerstone for the new Los Angeles he envisions — making Los Angeles, as he put it in his inaugural, “the great global city of our century.”

“I'm a proud progressive,” he said, using the code word now in vogue by Los Angeles liberals, who shudder at what has become a politically incorrect term. “But it's time for those of us who call ourselves ‘progressive’ to do more than just defend existing government programs. We need to be passionate advocates for change.”

In Villaraigosa, Los Angeles has a tailor-made apostle for the change that his election promised to put in place — an election that effectively was a referendum deciding the city’s power structure for years, perhaps decades, to come. Less subtly than he did in his ill-fated 2001 campaign but just as determined, Villaraigosa waged a campaign against a landscape of fundamental cultural and economic change. The old Los Angeles, a largely white city whose economy was rooted in manufacturing, is gone. The new Los Angeles, with a non-white, mostly Latino, majority and a post-industrial economy, is still in formation.

Villaraigosa’s administration now will help determine which industries and jobs are cultivated in Los Angeles, who gets public subsidies and whether community organizations are included. In that respect, former Mayor James K. Hahn symbolized the past, having been a part of the power structure, occupying public office for almost a quarter century, first as city controller, then 16 years as city attorney before defeating Villaraigosa in their first mayoral campaign.

The irony of Villaraigosa’s triumph in the second campaign was that it came in part by building bridges to the black leadership and parts of the white community that opposed him in 2001, while on the surface losing the endorsement of the Federation of Labor. The latter, however, was not without a silver lining. Rank-and-file union members ignored the leadership’s endorsement — built on Hahn having successfully curried favor with them by delivering on key promises — and still voted for Villaraigosa. It showed that Villaraigosa’s influence among union members ran deeper than that of its leadership, including Contreras.

But Villaraigosa’s hold on the union rank-and-file also showed a misunderstood or perhaps unappreciated side of the fabled Villaraigosa charisma — his ability to not only build coalitions but to maintain the loyalty among their various parts.

“[Villaraigosa has ushered in a new political era, one in which ethnicity is clearly a driving, yet not a dividing, force — in which it is present but not preeminent,” notes Gregory Rodriguez, a Los Angeles-based fellow with the New America Foundation and a student of Los Angeles and ethnic politics.

Villaraigosa’s shrewdest decision in his second mayoral campaign likely was to play down the potential historical significance of what his election would mean, becoming the city’s first Latino mayor of modern times.

On one hand, his base of support was the mushrooming Latino population — spurred by immigration and major upsurge in Latino citizenship and registration that resulted in roughly a million new Latino voters in the 1990s and almost a tripling of the Latino vote in the city from the 1993 election to his first mayoral campaign in 2001.

On the other hand, no one was more cognizant than Villaraigosa of the potential threat of the growth of the Latino vote to the stability of Los Angeles coalition politics, especially among African Americans.

The upshot of downplaying his “Latinoness” was criticism that his second campaign lacked the electricity and magnetism of his first, and the quieter tenor of support among many Latinos, for whom his first campaign had been filled with nationalism and ethnic pride.

But one of the few observers who did see the wisdom of Villaraigosa’s drift to the center in order to assuage any suspicions or reluctance among African Americans and whites was Henry Cisneros, a member of President Bill Clinton’s cabinet and former mayor of San Antonio who himself was once regarded as the national rising star among Latinos.

“Antonio,” says Cisneros, who lived in Los Angeles for several years in the late 1990s, “is constantly sweeping the horizon for the right answer.”

How effectively Villaraigosa is able to lead the Latino-labor-African American coalition will likely determine what he is able to accomplish as mayor. To that end, a viable representation of that coalition now sits on the City Council, with some members owing their own political power in part to that of the mayor and others having to play their own cards respectful of Villaraigosa’s hand and widespread popularity.

“There are public servants, and there are public servants who are stars," says Jack Valenti, the longtime film industry lobbyist and onetime aide to President Lyndon Johnson. "Antonio is a star ... He is an enticing man.”

Or as Villaraigosa, the new chairman of the board in Los Angeles has put it:

“The role of leadership is to redefine the center. Nuance is required to get broad support."

Tony Castro can be reached at tcastro@laindependent.com.

Tony Castro Archives


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