L.A. Mayor's Race Tests Traditional Alliances

In Los Angeles, the battle between incumbent Mayor James Hahn and City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa has challenged the city's traditional political coalitions. Polls indicate Villaraigosa is reaping the benefit from those shifting voter blocs.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Coming up, Manchester United States? But first, on Tuesday, Los Angeles voters will decide if they want to keep Mayor Jim Hahn for another four years or go with his challenger, City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa. Theirs is a rematch from four years ago, when Mr. Villaraigosa lost to Mr. Hahn. But this time around, Mayor Hahn is struggling with obstacles largely of his own making. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE reporting:

It was not a good sign for Jim Hahn that in the multicandidate primary last March, more than three-quarters of the voters picked someone else. The most recent LA Times poll showed him 11 points behind Antonio Villaraigosa. So the mayor's relying on the tried and true. Four years ago, he successfully tagged Villaraigosa as soft on crime, and it's the major theme of his campaign now.

(Soundbite of rally)

Group of People: (Chanting in unison) Four more years! Four more years!

JAFFE: This week at a rally and news conference in South LA, he blasted Villaraigosa for not being tough enough on street gangs.

Mayor JIM HAHN (Los Angeles): There is one candidate for mayor who has a proven record of fighting crime, and that's me. There's another candidate...

Unidentified Woman: Yeah!

Unidentified Man #1: Right!

(Soundbite of crowd reacting)

Mayor HAHN: There's another candidate who has a proven record of standing on the wrong side of the issue again and again and again. I don't think this city can trust our public safety to Antonio Villaraigosa.

JAFFE: Later, as Hahn was getting back into his car, a volunteer excitedly handed him a cell phone. The mayor heard good news on the other end of the line.

Mayor HAHN: I like it when it sounds like 90 percent, so keep going. Make some more calls then. Thank you very much, Edie. All right. Bye.

She's on fire.

Unidentified Man #2: She knows it.

Mayor HAHN: We're gonna win this thing.

JAFFE: Edie was calling from a phone bank targeting Republican voters. She told the mayor he had their overwhelming support. And Hahn's not even a Republican. LA's city elections are non-partisan. Both Hahn and Villaraigosa are Democrats. But Hahn will need strong Republican support because he can't rely as heavily on the people who put him in office four years ago. He alienated black voters when he fired the African-American police chief, and he angered many voters in the San Fernando Valley when he waged a successful campaign to keep the valley from seceding.

Professor RAPHAEL SONENSHEIN (Cal State University, Fullerton): But it was the corruption charges that really made Hahn vulnerable.

JAFFE: Raphael Sonenshein is a political science professor at Cal State University at Fullerton. While no one in the Hahn administration has actually been charged with anything, there are local and federal investigations into whether his campaign donors got sweetheart contracts from the city.

Prof. SONENSHEIN: And the corruption investigations have hampered his campaign from day one. It has been difficult for him, I think, to get a real hearing from the voters on a lot of other issues because of those investigations.

JAFFE: The district attorney is also investigating some of Antonio Villaraigosa's donors for possible money laundering, and his campaign has returned the money. Yet the taint of possible corruption in the Hahn administration remains one of Villaraigosa's strongest issues. The other is himself: his personal story and personable style all on display at a Rock the Vote forum in a tough neighborhood in South LA.

Mr. ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Mayoral Candidate): I grew up in a neighborhood very similar to this one. I didn't grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. I worked since I was seven years old. My mother raised four kids on her own; I didn't have a father. I say to young people that I got in trouble from time to time, but I turned my life around.

JAFFE: As usual, Villaraigosa downplayed the possibility that he could be making history by becoming the city's first Latino mayor in modern times.

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: So I am very committed, in answering your question, to being a bridge, a bridge to a city that doesn't talk to one another sometimes, a bridge to a new LA where we realize that this diversity is our strength. It's our strength.

JAFFE: This is the kind of talk that Jim Hahn dismisses as pie in the sky, but it's a message that may be hitting home in this majority minority city. Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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