The Remaking of Los Angeles
TONY CASTRO, Columnist 16.NOV.05
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.
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
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
“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.
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.
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.’”
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.”
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
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
says Cisneros, who lived in Los Angeles for several years in the late
1990s, “is constantly sweeping the horizon for the right answer.”
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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