LOS ANGELES (AP) — The election that made Antonio Villaraigosa the city’s first Hispanic mayor since 1872 confirmed the clout of a fast-growing Latino population and turned the former barrio tough into one of the most visible Hispanic politicians in America.
Eight years later, with the historic barrier to the mayoralty erased, issues of race and ethnicity have been mostly muted in the contest to succeed him. The cries of “Si, se puede,” Spanish for “Yes, we can,” that followed Villaraigosa’s 2005 campaign are long gone, and there is no Hispanic standard-bearer among the five candidates who want his job.
The city could elect its first woman mayor this year, its first Jewish one, or the first openly gay one. But more prosaic issues have dominated — 10.2 percent unemployment, a proposed sales tax jump, the grip of municipal unions, troubled schools.
“These things become firsts, and then they become the standard and the norm,” said former California Assembly speaker and one-time mayoral candidate Robert Hertzberg, who compared Villaraigosa’s victory to the breakthrough election a generation earlier of Tom Bradley, the city’s first and only black mayor. “The pendulum swings.”
Retiree Tony Zapata, a longtime resident of the heavily Hispanic area where Villaraigosa went to high school, voted for the mayor and said the neighborhood took pride in the success of one of its own.
But the bond frayed. Zapata said his feelings soured after the mayor three times snubbed invitations from local veterans who wanted him to attend events.
This time he’s backing City Councilman Eric Garcetti, because he’s impressed with development in Garcetti’s district, not his Hispanic family ties.
A candidate’s race or ethnicity “is not a concern with me,” said Zapata, 68, a tall, square-shouldered Vietnam veteran. After Villaraigosa became mayor “we never saw him again.”
The nonpartisan primary on March 5 takes place with the nation’s second-largest city at a fitful juncture.
There are bright spots. Crime is low, new lofts and restaurants have lured young professionals to the long-neglected downtown, and a transit-building boomlet aims to one day get more drivers off the clotted freeways.
But a comeback from the recession has been slow, rising pension and health care costs for government retirees threatens money needed to plug potholes and trim trees, and school dropout rates and housing costs remain alarmingly high.
“The city’s ability to provide services that improve the quality of life of city residents has diminished,” Administrative Officer Miguel Santana wrote bluntly in a report this month.
Angelenos appear ready to turn to a workaday manager after years of Villaraigosa’s high-energy if sometimes unsteady style, and distracting headlines about his romantic endeavors and celebrity pals. The Democrat and former legislator has kept a distance from the campaign to replace him.
After Villaraigosa’s election “there were predictions that it would be a long time before we had another white mayor,” said Franklin Gilliam, Jr., dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles. But Villaraigosa “has not, or has not been able to, anoint an heir apparent” within the Hispanic community.
Scant turnout is expected. Most residents could probably name more Oscar nominees than candidates on the ballot.
The low-drama campaign involving several City Hall regulars and a longshot Republican will almost certainly end in a two-person runoff, since the divided vote makes it unlikely any candidate will gather the majority needed to win outright.
The runoff would take place May 21.
The Los Angeles mayor oversees a budget of over $7 billion, but it’s a notoriously weak office hemmed by a powerful City Council. Unlike other big cities like New York, the Los Angeles mayor cannot directly appoint the head of schools, or police.
That helps explain why some leading Hispanic politicians are looking elsewhere for work, rather than City Hall. Former U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis is a likely candidate for Los Angeles County supervisor, and state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, is considered a prospect for statewide office, for example.
Much of the high-profile Hispanic support that helped twice elevate the outgoing mayor to office has coalesced around a white woman with a Jewish husband from the city’s suburban-ish San Fernando Valley, Controller Wendy Greuel, a 51-year-old Democrat.
She’s been in a close race with Garcetti, another Democrat who is Jewish on his mother’s side, with Italian and Mexican roots from his father, and often plays up his Latino heritage and ready command of Spanish.
But Garcetti, 42, has a far different profile than Villaraigosa, the product of a broken home who grew up on the rough streets east of downtown and once sported a “Born to Raise Hell” tattoo. Garcetti, the son of a former district attorney, is an Ivy Leaguer and Rhodes Scholar from the Valley’s tony Encino enclave who enjoys playing jazz piano.
Villaraigosa’s Hispanic identity was central to his 2005 victory over Mayor James Hahn, a scion of an Irish political clan. He won with record Hispanic turnout, but also claimed significant support across a wide range of demographic and geographic groups. He won an easy, but not impressive, re-election in 2009.
The city’s diverse population — 93 languages are spoken in the Los Angeles Unified School District — is about half Hispanic. However, Hispanics are expected to make up only about one-in-four votes in the primary, since a chunk of that population is too young to vote, not U.S. citizens or not registered. Blacks and Asians each make up about 10 percent of the population, with most of the remainder white.
The expected low turnout makes surprises more likely, elevating the roles of Democratic Councilwoman Jan Perry, 57, who is black and Jewish, and former prosecutor Kevin James, 49, a Republican former prosecutor and radio talk show host who is openly gay. Former technology executive Emanuel Pleitez, 30, a Hispanic, is also on the ballot.
In the post-Villaraigosa era, Hispanic voters “have gotten beyond having a Latino candidate for mayor, or having to have one,” said Jaime Regalado, former executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.
“It’s a certain maturation of Los Angeles’ Latino voter,” Regalado said. “That threshold has been passed.”