News Analysis

LOS ANGELES — With less than a month to go before the May 17 vote in the heated mayoral runoff here, there are strong signs that City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa could become the city’s first Mexican American mayor since 1872.

An April 13 Los Angeles Times poll gave the former speaker of the California Assembly an 18-point lead over incumbent Mayor James Hahn. A KABC-TV poll gave Villaraigosa a 64-32 percent lead.

Villaraigosa picked up the endorsement of another former speaker of the Assembly, Bob Hershberg, on April 14. Hershberg ran third in the March 9 primary behind Villaraigosa and Hahn.

Villaraigosa had previously picked up the endorsement of the next two highest primary vote getters, city councilman and former police chief Bernard Parks, an African American, and state Sen. Richard Alarcon.

The growing momentum for Villaraigosa is also reflected in a growing fundraising lead for the popular former labor leader. He has made strong inroads into Hahn’s 2001 electoral base in the African American community and the populous, more suburban San Fernando Valley area, where there are large numbers of Latino, Jewish and African American voters.

African American Congresswoman Maxine Waters and former Los Angeles Laker superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson have both endorsed Villaraigosa, switching from their support for Hahn in 2001. In the San Fernando Valley, U.S. Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, both Jewish, are supporting Villaraigosa.

Hahn holds onto his endorsement by the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, whose rank-and-file volunteers can turn out union family voters in huge numbers. Villaraigosa, a former labor organizer, had the federation’s support in 2001. Many see this year’s endorsement of Hahn as a consequence of his incumbency, rather than as a rejection of Villaraigosa. An L.A. Times exit poll in the March 9 primary had Villaraigosa leading Hahn among union voters 35-27 percent.

A Villaraigosa victory would rank with the historic elections of Ed Roybal in 1949, the first Mexican American and member of a minority elected to the City Council in the 20th century, and Tom Bradley in 1973, the first African American mayor of Los Angeles and only minority mayor since 1872.

The Roybal and Bradley breakthroughs were also significant for progressive politics in the city, state and nation. Roybal was a strong opponent of McCarthyism and ran for lieutenant governor in 1954 before being elected to Congress along with Augustus Hawkins, another progressive, in 1962.

Bradley was a strong opponent of Reaganism in his 20 years as mayor, nearly won the California governorship in 1982, and ran a strong race for governor again in 1986.