Black Support of Villaraigosa and Cross-Racial Politics

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Karen Grigsby Bates reports on a new dynamic in the Los Angeles mayor's race — many black voters seem to have turned their backs on once-favored Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn in support of mayoral challenger Antonio Villaraigosa. Some observers believe the shift is a significant turning point in cross-racial coalition building in American politics.


Now from congressional politics to big-city politics, specifically the Los Angeles mayor's race. Last week we looked at Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn's efforts to run for a second term while still providing primary care for his children. Today we explore a challenge facing his opponent, Antonio Villaraigosa, convincing the city's black voters to switch their allegiance to him. DAY TO DAY's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.


In the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, news reports carried a riveting image of civil rights activist Danny Bakewell interrupting riot cleanup by asking Latino construction workers to step down from their bulldozers.

Mr. DANNY BAKEWELL (Civil Rights Worker): Is this your job, Mr. Simon(ph)?

Mr. SIMON: Yeah. I'm just working for the family.

Mr. BAKEWELL: The demolition contractor ...(unintelligible).

Mr. SIMON: That's right.

Mr. BAKEWELL: OK. We would appreciate if you would leave the site right now, OK?

Mr. SIMON: All right.

Mr. BAKEWELL: Thank you very much.

BATES: As this exchange indicates, tensions between LA's black residents and its Hispanics, many newly arrived, were at a flash point. Bakewell saw himself protecting black jobs. He says he felt he was right then and now in insisting that African-Americans be included in the municipal work force, especially in black neighborhoods. How interesting then that 15 years later, Danny Bakewell is supporting mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. Bakewell is the publisher of the city's largest and oldest black newspaper, the LA Sentinel. He sees no irony in the fact that the last time around, he supported the current mayor, Jim Hahn.

Mr. BAKEWELL: I think our turning away from the mayor and turning to Antonio has been both about the mayor's lack of commitment and Antonio's desire to step up and make commitments and that we believe he will fulfill.

BATES: In 2001, Hahn rode into office on a wave of black votes; goodwill that his late father, county supervisor Kenneth Hahn, earned by assiduous attention to black neighborhoods' needs. But in 2005, Bakewell says, many black voters feel Hahn's inattention to their community has moved them to make another choice.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: Apparently Bakewell's not alone. At a Friday night Villaraigosa fund-raiser, scores of black professionals gathered in support of the mayoral challenger. Bren Burton(ph) is an LA County firefighter. He has a specific reason he's a Villaraigosa man.

Mr. BREN BURTON (LA County Firefighter): It's my feeling that with the growing climate of racial tensions we have between blacks and browns right now, it's very important that we support a mayor that is reflective of the community, hasn't turned his back on the community, and I really think it's real important that these coalitions are built and strengthened, so that's why we're going to support him.

BATES: So is black support of Villaraigosa a sign of a new cooperation between blacks and Latinos or enlightened self-interest? Nicolas Vaca is the author of "The Presumed Alliance," an examination of black-Latino conflict. Vaca says Los Angeles is not Miami, where black voters have been shut out of the political process by a ruling white Cuban elite. In Los Angeles, he says, black Villaraigosa supporters are hoping he will be more inclusive. And as the city's Latino population continues to swell, many black voters have decided to vote pragmatically.

Mr. NICOLAS VACA (Author, "The Presumed Alliance"): African-Americans are saying, `Look, we've got to accept reality that we're going to have a Latino mayor. It's inevitable.' And I think it's a wise choice on their part.

(Soundbite of church bells ringing)

BATES: On Sunday morning, worshipers hurry under blooming jacaranda trees into the sanctuary of First African Methodist Episcopal Church. First, or FAME as it's sometimes nicknamed, is the city's oldest black church and one of its most powerful. Politicians routinely pay court to its congregation.

(Soundbite of people talking)

Unidentified Man: Good morning. Good morning.

BATES: After he's warmly introduced by the pastor, Villaraigosa strides onstage, smoothly groomed, sleekly dressed in a dark suit. He gets a standing ovation as he embraces the church's assembled leaders and, to the congregation's delight, moves in time with the choir. He easily slips into their own language...

Mr. ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Mayoral Candidate): Giving honor to God, Reverend Hunter and you, my brothers and sisters, thank you so much for allowing me to be here today.

BATES: ...then goes straight to the heart of the unspoken question hovering in the room.

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: I know that sometimes when you're the first, people have questions. People want to know. I know he's gonna be a mayor to them, but is he gonna be a mayor for all of us?

BATES: Antonio Villaraigosa goes on to assure them that his personal history indicates the answer is yes. He'd like his victory to serve as an example to the rest of the rapidly diversifying nation.

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: I believe that in this, the most diverse city anywhere in the world, that we can make this great experiment work, but right now we need a bridge.

BATES: He's worked to be that bridge between the city's myriad ethnic communities. Part of that is being a regular presence in the black community. After church, FAME congregant and political consultant Kerman Maddox says Villaraigosa's outreach to black voters may give LA its first Latino mayor in more than 100 years.

Mr. KERMAN MADDOX (Political Consultant): You know, for years we've talked about coalition politics in Southern California but I think this is the first time where it really did take shape, where you have the African-American community coming together with the Latino community to support, in this case, a Latino candidate rather than an African-American candidate for higher office.

BATES: Tomorrow voters will decide whether that coalition will move Antonio Villaraigosa into the mayor's suite at City Hall. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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