Election of Latino Mayor Marks Shift in L.A. Politics

Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa becomes first Latino elected as Los Angeles mayor in over 100 years. His rise in Los Angeles politics marks a distinct shift in California's largest city.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Los Angeles voters gave Antonio Villaraigosa a landslide victory yesterday over incumbent Mayor James Hahn. Today the city's first Latino mayor in more than a century unofficially started work. Villaraigosa held a morning meeting with LA's police chief and then spoke at a vocational school. He said the depth of the city's racial divide was overstated. In a moment we'll hear about the mayor-elect's challenges. First, NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on his personal history.

(Soundbite of chanting)

Group: (In unison) Antonio! Antonio! Antonio!

MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:

During his campaign for mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa got some of his strongest support from people in his old neighborhood on the East Side of LA.

Mayor-elect ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles): I'm so proud to be from Boyle Heights.

(Soundbite of cheering)

DEL BARCO: As a bilingual third-generation Mexican-American, Villaraigosa is now the first Latino mayor in modern history of a city that's nearly half Latino.

Mayor-elect VILLARAIGOSA: When I was growing up here and my mother was growing up here and my grandpa got here so many years ago, I can tell you even back then this is a place where people came together from every corner of the Earth. Gaviva(ph), Boyle Heights!

DEL BARCO: Villaraigosa was born 52 years ago and grew up in this scrappy, multicultural barrio across the river from downtown LA.

Mayor-elect VILLARAIGOSA: I wasn't born with a silver spoon, that's for sure. I grew up in a home of domestic violence and alcoholism. My father left when I was five. My mother raised four kids on her own. I had a tough life. There were times in my life when I wondered whether I'd graduate from high school. And yet because of a great mom and a public school system that gave me a second chance, a great teacher who believed in me and had high expectations, I'm here today.

DEL BARCO: His mother has passed away, but his old teacher is still around. Herman Katz(ph) remembers how Villaraigosa got kicked around from one high school to another, dropping out for a time before he finally graduated.

Mr. HERMAN KATZ (Former Teacher): He was a lot like what he is now; he's kind of a brash kid. And I think he was caught up somewhat with everything that was going on, the protests and the questioning and, you know, why weren't there Hispanic administrators, you know, and so few Hispanic teachers.

DEL BARCO: During the Chicano movement in the early 1970s, Villaraigosa helped lead other students to walk out of their high school, to fight for more rights, to support the United Farm Workers and to protest the Vietnam War. Katz says Villaraigosa continued his activism at UCLA as a union organizer and then a politician.

Mr. KATZ: He doesn't mind being called a liberal. I think it's refreshing. (Laughs)

DEL BARCO: Villaraigosa's politics are reflected even in his last name, which is not the one he was born with.

Mayor-elect VILLARAIGOSA: I believe that women are on equal status with men, and when my wife and I got married, we decided to combine our names. My name was Villar before we got married; her name was Raigosa. And my name ended with an R; hers started with an R. We took one R out and made a 12-letter name that nobody can pronounce but is a symbol of our commitment to one another.

DEL BARCO: His old friends say he was always a charismatic leader of the pack.

Mr. JESUS QUINONES (Labor Lawyer): He had a Chevy Malibu that was a beautiful car. We would go cruising.

DEL BARCO: Jesus Quinones is a labor lawyer who has known Villaraigosa since elementary school. He remembers how, even in high school, his old friend was always crossing barriers.

Mr. QUINONES: He sort of went above and beyond what most kids were doing and actually became one of the founding members of the African-American student organization at that high school at that time.

DEL BARCO: Villaraigosa's supporters say he continued to build coalitions as a union organizer, as speaker of the California Assembly and then LA City Council member. Political consultant Kerman Maddox says Villaraigosa won over many skeptics who didn't vote for him before.

Mr. KERMAN MADDOX (Political Consultant): Part of his victory is the fact he was able to pull together this ethnic coalition between African-Americans and Latinos that many people have talked about for years, but it's never been able to be pulled together for whatever reason. And Antonio Villaraigosa, through his hard work, pulled it off.

DEL BARCO: Maddox says Villaraigosa now becomes a national figure as well as LA's first Latino mayor since 1872.

Mayor-elect VILLARAIGOSA: While I may be the first, I won't be the last. This city's changed.

DEL BARCO: And the change was apparent at last night's victory party, a celebration of a new mayor who looks and sounds like much of LA.

(Soundbite of celebration)

Unidentified Man #1: Whoo!

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) Don't it feel like a beautiful day?

Mayor-elect VILLARAIGOSA: This was my mother's favorite saying to all us. It's a beautiful day, Los Angeles!

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah!

DEL BARCO: I'm Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music and clapping)

Unidentified Man #3: The people's man!

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