Mayor's Race Registers a Big Nada
The March 8 election hasn't sparked the interest seen among L.A. Latino voters in 2001.
By Matea Gold
Times Staff Writer
Edward Colunga hopes 2005 is his candidate's year.
Four years ago, he was dismayed when Antonio Villaraigosa lost the Los Angeles mayor's race to James K. Hahn, an outcome the Echo Park resident blames on "dirty tricks politicking."
But even his eagerness at a possible rematch between the city councilman and incumbent mayor is dampened by Colunga's worry that many in his largely Latino neighborhood aren't paying attention to the campaign.
"There's not very much enthusiasm for this election," the 65-year-old engineer said as he headed into a Boyle Heights grocery store on a recent rainy morning. "Nobody cares."
Colunga is not alone in his assessment. Latino voters across the Eastside and the rest of Los Angeles report lukewarm interest in the mayor's race — the result of, among other factors, a low-profile, compressed campaign season and a more jaded electorate, many of whom gave their all in 2001 to try to elect Villaraigosa the first Latino mayor in Los Angeles' modern history.
"I don't know if the buzz is as big as it was four years ago simply because we've kind of seen it play itself out before," said Alejandro Menchaca, a 29-year-old entertainment attorney who runs the Latino Professional Network, a nonpartisan social networking organization.
The lack of enthusiasm may slow the growth of the city's Latino electorate, a pool of voters that has steadily expanded in the last decade. If the low level of interest persists to election day, it could also complicate matters for Villaraigosa, a front-runner who is relying on Latino voters in his bid to make it into the May 17 runoff and unseat Hahn.
The political atmosphere is starkly different from the one four years ago.
In 2001, the presence of two Mexican American candidates on the ballot — Villaraigosa and Rep. Xavier Becerra — excited many Latino voters and sparked an anguished debate about whether the two men would divide a shared base of support, preventing the historic election of a Latino mayor.
The anxiety was so great that, at one point, county Supervisor Gloria Molina and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros held a series of private meetings to try to get one of them to drop out.
In the end, both men remained in the race and Villaraigosa won the most votes in the first round, making the runoff and thrilling many Latino voters who were giddy at the prospect of an Eastside native in the mayor's office.
The former Assembly speaker ended up losing to Hahn by 40,000 votes, but he got the backing of 82% of Latino voters.
That June, Latinos made up 22% of the voters, according to The Times' exit poll, up from just 15% in the 1997 mayor's race, an increase that political analysts said spoke to their enthusiasm about the race, not just growing population.
Latinos have the potential to demonstrate even more political might in this year's race. The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a nonpartisan voter registration group, helped add 9,000 Latino voters to the city's rolls since last fall and aims to register an additional 30,000 this spring, which would make Latinos a full quarter of the electorate.
"We're interested in having Latino voters determining the outcome of the election," said Antonio Gonzalez, the organization's president.
But it remains to be seen whether turnout will increase as it did in 2001, despite the fact that two Latinos — Villaraigosa and state Sen. Richard Alarcon — are once again among the major candidates.
This year, there has been no talk of one of them being a spoiler. In part, that is because Villaraigosa's past bid has given him a decided advantage over Alarcon, a relative unknown who has had trouble raising money.
"It probably shows the maturing of the Latino community," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "The presence of two Latino candidates doesn't have the same kind of novelty it had before."
But less novelty may translate into less interest. Vargas and some other community leaders fret that the city's Latino population seems largely unenthused about the mayoral race and that the candidates are not doing enough to court Latino voters.
"I don't think Latinos are feeling engaged, frankly," he said. "I don't think any of the candidates are doing the kind of smart job they need to be doing" in a city that is 48% Latino.
There are also signs of disenchantment with Villaraigosa, who angered some constituents after jumping into the mayor's race despite promising to serve a full four-year term as councilman when he ran for the 14th District seat in 2003.
"I just felt he was using it as a political move to come in and become the mayor somewhere down the line," said Marisa Blancarte, a 21-year-old Loyola Marymount University student who is backing Alarcon. "He's really going against his constituents and against his promises."
Blancarte said that this year's more subdued political atmosphere was evident when Villaraigosa and Alarcon both attended a recent dinner sponsored by the Mexican American Bar Assn.
"I just didn't feel the energy in the room that Villaraigosa used to have," she said. "He used to come in the room and everybody was around him."
Rigo Perez, a 30-year-old photographer from Pacoima, wistfully remembers the fervor that surrounded Villaraigosa's first mayoral bid.
"It doesn't feel that way anymore," said Perez, who has not decided whether he will back Villaraigosa again. "All that kind of died down. I guess people just see another politician who's made promises."
A Times poll taken earlier this month showed Villaraigosa pulling only a third of Latino voters, while about a fifth backed Hahn, 13% supported Councilman Bernard C. Parks, 8% were for Alarcon and 2% backed former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg. Almost a quarter said they were undecided.
But Villaraigosa disputed the notion that he has lost support among Latinos, saying that most voters have not yet begun to pay attention to the race.
"I have no question in my mind that my support in this community is deep and strong … stronger than any other candidate's, by far," he said.
So far, neither he nor the other four top candidates has aggressively courted Latinos with Spanish-language television or radio advertising. Villaraigosa, who just began airing English-language ads last week, said he plans to run commercials in the Spanish-language media before the March 8 election. Media strategists for his competitors said they have not yet decided whether they will do so.
Most political analysts agreed that Latino voters will largely coalesce behind Villaraigosa if he makes it into the runoff.
"People don't get excited about spring practice," said Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles. "People get excited when the World Series is about to arrive."
Benjamin Gomez has definitely not been enthused by the early round of the mayoral election. The 47-year-old machine operator said he hasn't even begun to focus on the race, so much so that he didn't know Villaraigosa was running again, even though he had backed his previous bids for mayor and council.
"I've always supported him, but I also need to see who else is in the race before I decide," Gomez said as he ate breakfast with his teenage daughters at a Boyle Heights diner on a recent Saturday.
Louise Sandoval expressed similar ambivalence.
"It's kind of up in the air now, to tell you the truth," the 49-year-old homemaker said as she shopped at a nearby grocery store. "I think I'm going to vote for, what's the guy, the one that starts with a V? He sounds like he knows what he's going to be doing. But Hahn's a good mayor, too. I can't complain about that."
Maria Pacho, 36, a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Long Beach who is backing Hahn, said she's been surprised by the dearth of activity in her Boyle Heights neighborhood.
"I don't feel there's as much of an excitement in the Latino community," Pacho said. "Before, there was buzz. People wanted to get out there and walk and get involved. This time, I don't see it at all."
Enrique Gonzalez, a 45-year-old doctor, has a different view. The West Los Angeles resident, whose medical practice is in East Los Angeles, said that he's even more excited about this year's campaign than the 2001 race. This time, he believes Villaraigosa has a better shot at beating Hahn because of ongoing investigations into city contracting during Hahn's tenure.
"Four years ago, he was a neophyte. He got hit, but there was not anything to hit back with," said Gonzalez, referring to a controversial commercial Hahn ran in the waning days of the race that attacked Villaraigosa's past intervention on behalf of a convicted drug trafficker. "Now the mayor has a lot of issues, and I think it's going to be more of an equal footing."
For his part, Boyle Heights resident Alberto Hernandez believes that the community's passion for Villaraigosa will propel him to victory.
"Villaraigosa is a man of the community, he's one of us," said the 33-year-old laborer. "When he lost, I felt that we as Latinos let him down, because we should have elected him. This time, he is going to win."
Over the last 12 years, Latino voters have made up an increasingly larger share of Los Angeles' electorate.
Voters in L.A. mayoral races
Source: Los Angeles Times exit polls
* There was no June runoff in 1997