Those of us with a sense of Los Angeles history approach the June 5 election with trepidation. No one wants a repeat of the first Sam Yorty/Tom Bradley race in 1969, with its bitter overlay of race-baiting. That's one reason why throughout most of the campaign the candidates have wisely lowered their rhetoric, stressing their similarities rather than differences. As Los Angelenos consider picking the first Latino mayor in the modern era, Tuesday's election, pitting former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa against City Attorney James Hahn, already has, if anything, too much historic significance.
To their credit, voters have apparently taken their cue from the candidates, keeping their cool. I spoke this week with north San Fernando Valley voters. It was hard to mistake how, as the race has tightened, the emphasis has shifted. In the April primary, voters in our community spoke freely of what it would mean to the city's Latino population to have one of their own in City Hall.
All that has changed. The key word now is "comfort," for us as well as for others. The stress is on "coalition" and "inclusion." Voters, whether for Villaraigosa or Hahn, even when speaking off the record, never mentioned the possibility of a Latino mayor; nor did they mention an Anglo or white mayor. They were far more likely to suggest that their candidate reflects their own values or the common good, that Hahn had bureaucratic competence or that Villaraigosa worked with the Jewish Labor Committee or created park bonds; or to quote Sunday's Los Angeles Times articles on the candidates' religious values in which Villaraigosa praised Judaism as "a very accepting religion" in which he felt at home.
In that sense, Tuesday is about how much Los Angeles can change and still feel the same. The Valley vote is the great unknown. Real estate developer Steve Soboroff, who came in third in the primary, has declined to endorse. But on Friday, City Councilmember Joel Wachs, who has represented the Valley for 30 years, gave his nod to Villaraigosa.
This was big news. Wachs, who came in fourth in the primary, speaks for a certain kind of Jewish voter: older, fiscally conservative -- including many Valley Republicans -- but socially liberal. Wachs' endorsement follows Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's the week before. Like Zev, Wachs' explicitly vouched for his own comfort with Villaraigosa.
"Antonio's dynamism and commitment is infectious," said Wachs. "He won me over and if you give him a chance, he will win you over too."
Hahn has won endorsements from former Seceretary of State Warren Christopher and the former Supervisor Ed Edelman, and at press time had pulled seven percentage points ahead in a Times poll.
I spoke with older men split between memories of Kenny Hahn and Tom Bradley. There are married couples who are divided between the candidates, though there's less of a gender gap than eight years ago when Richard Riordan caused real breakfast-time friction. In some homes, it's the woman for Hahn, the husband for Villaraigosa; in others it's the opposite.
Voters kept repeating that the other guy would "do a good job." That, in itself, is interesting, perhaps reflecting the current anxiety. Contrast this with the city attorney race, in which passions run high for 5th District Councilmember Mike Feuer, who takes no special-interest donations, who faces Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo, the recipient of billboard industry money.
Here are some of the concerns tugging at the chads of voters north on the 405:
Secession: Uniformly regarded as a bad idea, "pandering to the worst instincts," one woman told me, my informers want Valley separation from Los Angeles to be put to rest once and for all. There is relief that neither Hahn nor Villaraigosa are for secession, yet these voters hope that the next mayor will help make the case for One Great City.
Education: Jewish voters in the Valley -- like those in the city -- have children and grandchildren who want to go to public high school. This issue is being played out in Jewish homes, even among those now attend day schools. While the next mayor has no power in education, they can't leave the issue of school performance to the board of education.
Roads: Valley voters are as disgruntled with traffic as anyone else, even if they accept distance as the price of suburban life. But road repair really is their beef. Those who spend their weekends traveling to beaches, hiking trails and riding bikes, get the "fanny test" on the city's lax repair schedule; they want action.
Pride: The cynicism and exhaustion that characterized voter attitudes eight years ago is gone. The next mayor must get a grip on the LAPD, encourage business development, solve the housing crisis and make sure we do, indeed, all get along. Valley voters who spoke with me have no patience with ethnic partisanship any more than they do geographic chauvinism. They believe there is opportunity for everyone on both sides of the hill.
Love for Los Angeles is the common chord. In that regard, we are one people, at least for now.