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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Are two Latino candidates too many for L.A.?

March 06, 2001

For some Mexican-American leaders in Los Angeles, the most Hispanic of large American cities, two Latino candidates in the April 10 mayoral primary election are one too many.

But neither of the two Mexican-Americans among the six major candidates so far is listening to that sort of talk. Both are rejecting efforts by other Latino leaders to get one to drop out of the race so the other would have a solid chance of reaching a June runoff for the post now held by termed-out incumbent Richard Riordan.

"I believe that I will be able to connect with voters, whether Latino or otherwise," insists 42-year-old Rep. Xavier Becerra, a Democrat elected last fall to his fifth term in the House.

"I can win this because my appeal is not just to Latinos," says Antonio Villaraigosa, 47, termed out last December as speaker of the state Assembly.

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"I had hoped to avoid running against a friend," Villaraigosa said, citing recent endorsements by the Sierra Club and the local chapter of the National Organization for Women as evidence of his appeal to non-Hispanics.

Both acknowledge the reality of today's Los Angeles, where the populace is now more than 40 percent Hispanic and growing — but Latinos still make up just under 20 percent of the actual electorate, and less when voter turnout is poor, as expected this spring. Both also got in hot water for writing ex-President Clinton and urging him to release a drug dealer from prison years before his sentence was up.

"It could all be for naught if they both go forward for what may be a futile exercise," cautioned Gloria Molina, a Los Angeles County supervisor who may exercise more clout than any Mexican-American politician in California.

She fears if Villaraigosa and Becerra split the Latino vote in a primary expected to draw no more than 150,000 voters, it will be eight years before Los Angeles gets a Hispanic mayor.

For that matter, the heavily Democratic city of 4 million could end up with another Republican mayor, as it did when businessman Riordan pumped more than 1 million of his own dollars into an advertising blitzkrieg that put him into a 1993 runoff with the ultra-liberal City Councilman Mike Woo.

All six of the major candidates — including early favorite James Hahn, now the city attorney; state Controller Kathleen Connell; openly gay Councilman Joel Wachs, and businessman Steve Soboroff, a close Riordan ally who has the mayor's endorsement and plans to spend almost $1 million of his own cash — hope to establish strong bases in their own communities or interest groups.

While Hahn is caucasian, his base is among liberals and African-Americans. As the only female among the top echelon of candidates, Connell expects strong support from women. Wachs anticipates support from gays and residents of the suburban San Fernando Valley who may remember his efforts on their behalf over 26 years in the City Council. And Soboroff, whose advertising blitzkrieg started in early February, hopes for support from Republicans and Jewish voters.

It would surprise no one if each of the two finalists reach the runoff with fewer than 25 percent of the primary votes.

Fearing a Becerra-Villaraigosa split of the Latino vote, Molina and former Clinton administration cabinet member Henry Cisneros convened three private meetings late last year trying to persuade the two prospects that one would have to leave the race or both would lose.

They proposed a poll to determine which man could wage the stronger race, with the other dropping out. No dice, said the candidates.

One report said that even though Mr. Villaraigosa has a large fund-raising lead over Mr. Becerra, he agreed to drop out if Mr. Becerra would agree not to run for re-election to his House seat in the event of defeat in the mayoral race. Presumably, that would have left the House seat as a base from which Mr. Villaraigosa could continue his own political career.

"For me, it is truly a lost opportunity," Molina told a reporter. "It was the opportunity to build a very strong coalition and really have a shot of winning this thing and bringing some really great leadership to this city."

Added Cisneros, a former San Antonio mayor who lives part-time in Los Angeles,

"I think it's quite likely that neither one can make the runoff if both are in the race. That is really a shame for Latino ambitions in Los Angeles."

Many analysts believe that if neither Latino makes the runoff, it will merely postpone what they see as inevitable Hispanic political domination of the city.

"If they both run, I don't think either can make the runoff," said Colleen McAndrew, a Republican election attorney and consultant. "That would mean we will probably get our last non-Latino mayor for a long time. I don't think anyone but a Latino could win eight years from now, when this year's winner would be termed out."

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