David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
Crossing L.A.'s Racial Divide
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES (5/7/01) - Half a century ago, Bert Corona had a dream. Latinos in California - the field workers and factory hands, the kids in school forbidden to speak the language of their families - could win real political power. Transforming the excluded and marginalized into power brokers in the largest state in the country seemed a task so gargantuan that only a visionary like Corona - social radical, labor militant, Chicano activist, and father of the modern Latino political movement -- could consider it achievable.

Yet on June 5, one of Corona's homeboys from the heady days of the 60s may be elected mayor of Los Angeles. Antonio Villaraigosa learned politics in that era, becoming a community activist in an early leftwing immigrant rights organization founded by Corona, the Centro de Accion Social Autonoma (CASA). From those radical roots, Villaraigosa went on to get a law degree at People's College of the Law, a unique project creating community lawyers from community activists. He worked as an organizer for the city's huge teachers' union, United Teachers Los Angeles. And he began running for office. Villaraigosa eventually became one of California's most powerful elected officials -- speaker of the State Assembly.

Now he's running for mayor of the US's second largest city, and if he's elected, he'll be the first Latino in the position for more than a century.

The June 5 election is a runoff, pitting Villaraigosa against James Hahn. Both are Democrats, itself a notable change in a city governed for eight years by Republican Richard Riordan.

The LA election is partly the story of changing demographics. Los Angeles has the largest urban population of Mexicans outside of Mexico City, and racial minorities in California now make up a majority of the state's population. Most of this demographic shift is due to immigration, and the state is home to as many as half of the nation's undocumented residents.

But changing population only provides a base. And in California, it took former Governor Pete Wilson to transform it into a formidable voting force. In 1994, Wilson narrowly won reelection by betting his political future on Proposition 187, which sought to exclude the undocumented from schools and medical care.

It was a pyrrhic victory. Proposition 187 passed, and with it Wilson sailed into another four years at the capital. But in the election's wake, thousands of immigrants became citizens with the express intention of never again being excluded from voting and the political process. They then set out to administer a punishment to the Republican Party from which it's still reeling. Democrats today control both houses of the state legislature, and a Democrat sits in the statehouse. The new immigrant vote has become the decider in race after race, especially in Los Angeles. It's not an accident that Bush had no chance of carrying California.

But having a Spanish surname alone isn't enough to get elected in LA today. Although people of color make up 60% of city residents, they account for only 40% of its voters - 14% are African-American, 20% are Latinos, and 5% are Asian-American. Class issues are increasingly the glue holding together a new progressive coalition growing in Los Angeles, bringing together progressive white activists with a new generation of leaders in communities of color. Class issues determine who gets the votes as much as traditional questions of color or nationality

That's partly due to the fact that he city has become a hotbed of labor activity. In the last five years, the city has seen major strikes and organizing drives by immigrant janitors and hotel workers. But while immigrants have been the most visible part of that upsurge, African-American and Asian-American union members have been very much a part of labor's rise. African-Americans constitute a big percentage of LA county workers, whose confrontations with management provided the base for another Corona student, Assemblyman Gilbert Cedillo.

Crossing racial lines again just a few months ago, predominantly African-American bus drivers made common cause with mostly-Latino riders, in a strike to stop privatization, fare increases and declining service.

"The overriding issue in Los Angeles is economic polarization," says Susan Alva, staff attorney at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. "The gap between rich and poor has become so extreme it's dangerous. And the problem is that so much of LA is blind to this fact and won't acknowledge it."

Kent Wong, director of UCLA's Labor Center, agrees. "The big issues are economic," he says. "People are voting for things like living wage, affirmative action, and economic development policy that promotes growth based on good jobs, and which pays attention to underserved communities."

The Los Angeles County Labor Federation, which elected its first Latino secretary, Miguel Contreras, five years ago, has put these issues on the political agenda. In a series of bruising electoral fights, it has built up a core of precinct walkers and phone callers, and used them effectively to win upset victories for pro-labor Latinos against more conservative ones, like Hilda Solis, who beat longtime Congressman Marty Martinez last November.

The Villaraigosa campaign is the biggest test yet for the labor federation because it has to be won citywide, involving a larger turnout of labor's political activists than ever before. "It was a very big risk for the labor movement to step out in front, and endorse Villaraigosa in the primary," Wong says. "But it has a lot of boldness and daring, and it's built up an incredible ground operation involving hundreds and hundreds of people each weekend."

Unlike Villaraigosa, who's been a high-profile community activist, and then well-known legislator, Hahn has been a quiet member of an old guard his father helped build. He's been an elected official for two decades, first controller and then city attorney.

Hahn's father, Kenny Hahn, was a county supervisor for 40 years, during the era when Mayor Sam Yorty was notorious for racist scare attacks directed at white voters. While white himself, Hahn was leading a liberal who stood up for the African-American community in south-central LA. People definitely remember Kenny Hahn, but few voters can point out initiatives taken by his son.

In the LA press, the Villaraigosa/Hahn battle is being portrayed as a conflict between Blacks and Latinos. "But there's a whole political realignment taking place here," says Anthony Thigpenn, chair of the board for Agenda, a south-central community organization, and leading activist in the Villaraigosa campaign. "It's happening in the African-American community, like everywhere else, and many of us are looking to be part of it." Thigpenn ascribes the shifting alliances and formation of a new progressive coalition to changing demographics, and to the impact of term limits on city government. The next council, two years from now, will have an entirely new membership.

Karen Bass, executive director of south-central's Community Coalition, says that Latinos and African-Americans have more issues in common than ones that divide them. "Ninety percent of the kids in the criminal justice system and in foster care are African-American and Latino," she says. "The most important factor here is that we're neighbors."

In the first election, while Hahn got a majority of Black votes, Bass says Villaraigosa still won 26% in south-central precincts, while rolling up big majorities in heavily Latino neighborhoods. She predicts the African-American vote for Villaraigosa will go higher in the runoff as people become more familiar with him.

"Antonio Villaraigosa has a long record, not just supporting the issues important to all of LA's locked-out communities, but leading many of the efforts to put them into practice," Wong adds. "If he becomes mayor, those communities will have access to power. The ability to turn our issues into real policy will increase dramatically."

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