NewsAnalysis

LOS ANGELES — Virtually every news outlet in the nation, and in much of the world, is hailing as historic the victory of Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor of Los Angeles.

Almost all cite the election of the first Latino to that position in 133 years and some note he is the first labor organizer. Most underscore that he was elected by a coalition of forces with an overwhelming base among Mexican Americans. Many also credit his winning personality and good looks.

All this is true — and more. Villaraigosa has worked overtime for some 37 years, ever since he was a high school student in the barrios of east Los Angeles, building unity on progressive issues. These efforts have helped develop his political persona and built a growing base around the issues of civil, trade union, immigrant and environmental rights, as well as peace.

His victory marks the coming of age of Latino leadership in progressive politics here and points to potential breakthroughs in the state and nation.

Villaraigosa’s disciplined, hard-working approach was evident when the national AFL-CIO held its annual Martin Luther King Birthday activities here in January. There were labor breakfasts, banquets, workshops and demonstrations around the city. Although Villaraigosa won the local labor council’s endorsement in his unsuccessful run for mayor in 2001, the incumbent, James Hahn, had won the endorsement this year by supporting the same issues Villaraigosa had championed all his life.

Both Hahn and Villaraigosa attended most of the events. Incumbent Hahn was at the podium, the mike or head table as sitting mayor and endorsee. Villaraigosa was in the crowd, shaking hands and exchanging, at every table, every group, chatting up leaders and rank and file about past, present and future struggles. He was there before Hahn arrived and after Hahn left.

Despite most of labor endorsing Hahn, Villaraigosa didn’t give up organizing at its base. This year he narrowly won the vote of the majority of trade unionists. Villaraigosa supporters exerted the same kind of effort all around the city.

The core were those who knew Villaraigosa from his work in the Chicano student movement of the late 1960s, his trade union work since the late 1970s, his leadership in the Southern California ACLU in the 1980s, and his leadership role as a Democratic state legislator in the 1990s. His campaign offices were also filled with a rainbow of young, 21st century activists as well.

The result was a 59-41 percent margin of victory over an incumbent who had handily won citywide elections for mayor, city attorney and city controller.

A Los Angeles Times exit poll showed Villaraigosa winning more than 80 percent of the Latino vote, solid majorities in the Jewish community, among white liberals and young African Americans, and youth in general.

Education was a key issue in the election, half of all Villaraigosa voters calling it decisive compared to 24 percent of Hahn voters. Much of Villaraigosa’s career as a labor activist was with the United Teachers of Los Angeles, which solidly backed him with volunteers and money.

Villaraigosa’s progressive base was so strong that the liberal Hahn resorted to ads portraying him as too liberal and joint appearances with Republican leaders attacking Villaraigosa as soft on crime.

The Times’ exit poll indicated 58 percent of Hahn voters considered him “the lesser of two evils,” while two-thirds of Villaraigosa voters said they liked him and his policies.

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