Fifty years ago, Bert Corona had a dream. Latinos in California--the field workers and factory hands, the kids in school forbidden to speak Spanish--could win real political power. Transforming the excluded and marginalized into power-brokers in the state with the largest population in the country seemed a task so gargantuan that only a visionary like Corona--social radical, labor militant, Chicano activist and father of the modern Latino political movement--could consider it achievable.

Yet on June 5, Antonio Villaraigosa, one of Corona's disciples from the heady days of the '60s, may be elected mayor of Los Angeles. Villaraigosa learned politics in that era, becoming a community activist in an early left-wing immigrant rights organization founded by Corona, the Centro de Accion Social Autonoma (CASA). From those radical roots, Villaraigosa went on to get a law degree at Los Angeles' People's College of the Law, a unique project creating community lawyers from community activists. He worked as an organizer for the city's huge teachers' union, United Teachers Los Angeles. And he began running for office. Villaraigosa eventually became speaker of the State Assembly, one of California's most powerful political positions.

The June 5 election is a runoff, pitting Villaraigosa against James Hahn. Both are

Antonio Villaraigosa (center) is a
longtime progressive activst.


Democrats, itself a notable change in a city governed for eight years by Republican Richard Riordan. If Villaraigosa is elected mayor, he'll be the first Latino in that position in more than a century.

The election is partly the story of changing demographics. Los Angeles has the largest urban population of Mexicans outside of Mexico City, and racial minorities in California now make up a majority of the state's population. Most of this demographic shift is due to immigration, and the state is home to as many as half of the nation's undocumented residents.

But the changing population only provides a base. And in California, it took former Gov. Pete Wilson to transform it into a formidable voting force. In 1994, Wilson won re-election by betting his political future on Proposition 187, which sought to exclude the undocumented from schools and medical care.

It was a Pyrrhic victory. Proposition 187 passed, but in the election's wake, thousands of immigrants became citizens with the express intention of never again being excluded from the political process. They then set out to administer a punishment to the Republican Party from which it's still reeling. Democrats today control both houses of the state legislature, and a Democrat sits in the governor's mansion. The new immigrant vote has become the decider in race after race, especially in Los Angeles.

But having a Spanish surname alone isn't enough to get elected in Los Angeles. Although minorities make up 60 percent of city residents, they account for only 39 percent of its voters--14 percent are African-American, 20 percent are Latino, and 5 percent are Asian-American. Class issues are increasingly the glue holding together a new progressive coalition, bringing together progressive whites with a new generation of leaders in minority communities. "I think the big issues are economic," says Kent Wong, director of UCLA's Labor Center. "People are voting for things like a living wage, affirmative action and an economic development policy that promotes growth based on good jobs, and which pays attention to underserved communities."

The city has become a hotbed of labor activity. In the past five years, Los Angeles has seen major strikes and organizing drives by immigrant janitors and hotel workers. While immigrants have been the most visible part of that upsurge, African-American and Asian-American union members have been very much a part of labor's rise.

The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which elected its first Latino secretary, Miguel Contreras, five years ago, has put these issues on the political agenda. In a series of bruising electoral fights, it has built up a core of precinctwalkers and phone-callers, and used them effectively to win upset victories for pro-labor Latinos against more conservative ones, like Hilda Solis, who beat longtime Congressman Marty Martinez last November.

The Villaraigosa campaign is the biggest test yet for the federation because it has to be won citywide, involving a larger labor turnout than ever before. "It was a very big risk for the labor movement to step out front and endorse Villaraigosa in the primary," Wong says. "But it has a lot of boldness and daring, and it has built up an incredible ground operation involving hundreds and hundreds of people each weekend."

Unlike Villaraigosa, who has been a high-profile community activist and legislator, Hahn has been a quiet member of an old guard his father helped build. He has been an elected official for 16 years, first as controller and then as city attorney.

Hahn's father, Kenny, was a county supervisor for 40 years, during the era when Mayor Sam Yorty was notorious for racist scare attacks directed at white voters. Hahn was a leading white liberal who stood up for the African-American community in South Central Los Angeles. People definitely remember Kenny Hahn, but few voters can point out initiatives taken by his son.

In the local press, the Villaraigosa-Hahn battle is being portrayed as a conflict between blacks and Latinos. "But there's a whole political realignment taking place here," says Anthony Thigpenn, chairman of Agenda, a South Central community organization, and a leading activist in the Villaraigosa campaign. "It's happening in the African-American community, like everywhere else, and many of us are looking to be part of it."

Karen Bass, executive director of South Central's Community Coalition, says that Latinos and African-Americans have more issues in common than ones that divide them. "Ninety percent of the kids in the criminal justice system and in foster care are African-American and Latino," she says. "The most important factor here is that we're neighbors."

In the first election, while Hahn got a majority of black votes, Bass says Villaraigosa still won 26 percent in South Central precincts, while rolling up big majorities in heavily Latino neighborhoods. She predicts the African-American vote for Villaraigosa will go higher in the runoff as people become more familiar with him.

"Villaraigosa has a long record, not just supporting the issues important to all of Los Angeles' locked-out communities, but leading many of the efforts to put them into practice," Wong adds. "If he becomes mayor, those communities will have access to power. The ability to turn our issues into real policy will increase dramatically."


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