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
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.
Antonio Villaraigosa (center)
longtime progressive activst.
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
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."