Just about everything went wrong and ugly for Jim Hahn leading into this week's city primary -- except the outcome. The result itself wasn't exactly a winner either, but it was close enough. The incumbent mayor barely scraped past energetic third-place finisher Bob Hertzberg, making it into a May runoff to keep his job.
First place went to Eastside City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa --just as pre-election polls predicted. Without a Villaraigosa collapse, the drama centered on the joust between Hahn and Hertzberg, the former state Assembly speaker who'd risen in recent weeks to a virtual tie with Hahn in some polls. Hahn's second-place finish means that he and Villaraigosa will face off just as they did when Hahn bested Villaraigosa in 2001.
It also means that the City of Angels won't have its first Jewish mayor in more than a century. Reality began to sink in for the Hertzberg camp well after throngs of supporters had straggled home from the Airtel Plaza Hotel in Van Nuys. Hertzberg's final public statement of the evening came at about 11 p.m. By then, early promising returns had taken a decidedly southward bend. At that point, Hertzberg still held out hope.
Hertzberg slipped badly in the next hours, then, began to creep steadily back as late precinct tallies rolled in. By 4 a.m. it was over. With less than 1 percent of votes uncounted, Villaraigosa had cruised in with 33.1 percent of the vote. In the squeaker for second, it was incumbent Hahn with 23.7 percent and Hertzberg with 22.2 -- a difference of less than 6,000 votes. Next came two candidates whose campaigns faded in recent weeks. Councilman and former police chief Bernard Parks captured just 13.4 percent of voters. And state Sen. Richard Alarcón fell hard to 3.6 percent, landing barely ahead of long-shot Republican Walter Moore. With 24,000 provisional ballots yet to be counted, the outcome was mathematically in doubt, but only an electoral miracle could save Hertzberg.
These dim prospects prompted Hertzberg to concede Wednesday morning.
"All the experts tell me it's very difficult to make up that difference,'" said Hertzberg, speaking to supporters and reporters at his Encino headquarters. "I stand here this morning with the same passion, the same energy, the same commitment to public service."
The denouement happened long after Hahn's faithful had departed their Tuesday night party at the Conga Room on Wilshire Boulevard. The aura of Hahn's gathering, despite the ear-punishing disco beat, was more expectantly edgy than celebratory, like the Yankees clubhouse in the first round of the playoffs. Like the Yanks, incumbent Hahn was supposed to get through this round. Like the Yanks, Hahn had the best campaign money could buy. The alternative to making the next round was unthinkable -- and it also weighed on everyone's mind.
Only Villaraigosa could go to bed happy, knowing that polls were right about his place in the political order. He could pump up supporters at The Music Box at the Henry Ford Theatre in Hollywood for the struggle to come. He reminded them that every vote would count and that they should start getting on the phones again the next morning. Of course, he, too, has something to lose sleep over: He claimed only a slightly higher percentage of the vote this week than he had in the primary of 2001.
Lately, the campaigns of all three front- runners made the same assumptions: All presumed a win for Villaraigosa and a dogfight for second. For Villaraigosa, that meant doing nothing extraordinary, staying with a positive message: Don't give voters reason to defect; get your base to the polls. Compared to 2001, Villaraigosa had lost most union support to Hahn, but he retained a faithful core of rank-and-file union members, Latinos, liberals and Westside voters. A good many of those liberals and Westsiders were undoubtedly Jews who could have elevated Hertzberg into a runoff.
For its part, Hahn's campaign identified Hertzberg as the immediate hurdle. This reality made the race, at times, almost a two-person Hahn/Hertzberg tilt. In the world according to Hahn, Hertzberg was behind Enron, California's bankruptcy and Los Angeles' cash shortage.
"Look at what Hahn's done in the last few days," said Ron Kaye, managing editor of the Los Angeles Daily News, which endorsed Hertzberg. "I've been told by strategists that there's one point to his game, which is to shave one, two, three points off Hertzberg and slip in ... and he's willing to pay the price."
The price included Hahn's bizarre Tuesday morning call-in to KFI's "John & Ken Show." It was unfriendly territory from the start -- one host noted that he'd already voted for Hertzberg. What ensued was an emotional Hahn trying to talk rapid-fire over a combative and rude talkmeister, one who kept Hahn's volume turned down to a fraction of his own. It was gutter showmanship and arrogance from John and Ken. But Hahn didn't sound so noble either, with his voice cracking from emotion and anger. When he could get a word in edgewise, Hahn blamed everything but the Siberian winter on Hertzberg. Hertzberg's campaign immediately posted a link to the "interview" and speculated on whether Hahn was crying near its conclusion.
Yes, Hahn had to be worried to expose himself like this. It's been more Hahn's style to let his campaign lieutenants do the messy stuff. And they tried, with a series of negative television ads that had to attack both Hertzberg and Villaraigosa -- because Hahn didn't want to chase votes from one to the other. Hahn's Tuesday radio stint -- he eventually just hung up -- couldn't have offered a sharper contrast with Hertzberg, but it wasn't the comparison Hahn wanted.
Hertzberg played talk radio like a maestro, carefully styling his message to audience and host. He was one Democrat who'd learned something from the recall campaign that made Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger into California's governor.
Hertzberg had to be on point. He had no natural machinery to get out the vote, unlike Hahn (who had most of the unions) and Villaraigosa (who had his faithful). The less-known Hertzberg had to reach and move voters directly.
"Bob and I kind of started this thing a year ago sitting in my living room, and we said, 'Everything's got to go right,'" said John Shallman, Hertzberg's campaign consultant. "We have to be perfect. They have to make mistakes. If all that works together, we could have a three-way jump ball. We were never going to fly by those guys -- they were just too well-known and too well-financed."
"You're running against two guys who have perfect name identification, who spent $12 million three years ago fighting each other," added Shallman on election night. "We had a mayor with incumbency. He had a $1.5 million head start, and he got labor. All the institutional support was with this guy."
Villaraigosa avoided mistakes and most of the mudslinging, sticking to a simple message of generic change. Hahn was burdened by corruption investigations of his administration.
Hertzberg nearly pulled off the unthinkable -- getting past an incumbent mayor and nearly all the unions in a town where incumbents almost always win and unions also almost always win.
Early on, Hertzberg got attention by vowing to break up the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Los Angeles' mayor has no control over LAUSD, so Hertzberg said he'd do it using the mayor's bully pulpit. Hertzberg also gambled his dwindling money on an early television buy. His commercials portrayed him larger than life, as a friendly problem-solving giant striding through a city in miniature. In his unending appearances, he invited comparisons to the Energizer bunny, while also being Mr. Policy Wonk and Huggy Bob -- the thing that would clasp and embrace any human within reach.
But in the end he wasn't Schwarzenegger, who could ride his celebrity. Nor did he have the personal millions that Richard Riordan used to propel himself into the mayor's office.
Hertzberg would be in the runoff if he'd received more than a smidgeon of black and Latino votes -- or if he'd held the Jewish electorate, an influential 20 percent of the city's total.
"I couldn't decide between Hertzberg and Villaraigosa, and literally didn't make up my mind until I was driving to the polling place," said a Jewish voter who requested anonymity. "One reason I finally went for Hertzberg is that I looked in The Jewish Journal at the list of people supporting him and saw a lot of names I knew across a wide political spectrum."
It's likely that Hertzberg got a plurality of the Jewish vote, but mainly because he also appealed to these voters on issues.
"That he is Jewish is a factor, but a minor one," said Harold Samuels, 76, a Sherman Oaks Republican who voted for Hertzberg. "I like what Hertzberg is doing, his background and experience, and the fact that Richard Riordan is backing him. I like his stand on breaking up the LAUSD."
Throughout the primary season, the competing campaigns talked of the Jewish community's political maturity, and its bent to consider a variety of matters other than religious affiliation.
"I think you should vote for a candidate because he poses good ideas," said Villaraigosa backer Sara Nazarian, the University of Judaism's associate director of admissions.
Nazarian attended Villaraigosa's victory party, along with other Jews who had similarly non-tribal perspectives. "
Antonio did a lot for the nurses while he was in the Assembly," said Deanna Furman, an organizer with the California Nurses Association. "[And] he's supported the nurses at Cedars-Sinai."
In the aftermath of the Hahn/Hertzberg acrimony, it's difficult to envision Hertzberg endorsing the mayor. Hertzberg didn't endorse him in 2001, and he's been hot and cool with Villaraigosa. They once were roommates when both served in the Legislature. They've also been sometime rivals and critics. Their best recent teamwork was ganging up on Hahn On Wednesday Hertzbergsaid he hasn't made up his mind about an endorsement..
The Hertzberg run was a potential high-water mark, given the inevitable decline in the city's percentage of Jewish voters. Meanwhile, Tuesday's two survivors will continue to court the Jewish vote. Hahn will pull out his kippah and Villaraigosa will show off his smattering of Hebrew. They'll need those Jewish votes come May.
Idan Ivri, David Finnigan and Tom Tugend contributed to this report.
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