Local labor clearly showed its clout in last week's city primary election, getting out the troops on behalf of its chosen mayoral candidate, Antonio Villaraigosa. But there was no matching effort from the city's business community; even the one actual businessman among the six major mayoral candidates garnered only minimal support from the city's business establishment.

Sure, business groups contributed to respectable showings by a couple city council candidates, like former prosecutor Jack Weiss in the Fifth Council District and City Hall veteran Jan Perry in the Ninth District. And one business group, the Central City Association, endorsed candidates in a couple of the school board races. But overall, the election will be remembered for labor's endorsement of Villaraigosa powering the former Assembly Speaker into the lead position.

So the question must be asked: Can L.A.'s business community marshal its resources to get behind a single mayoral candidate in the June runoff and become an effective counterweight to local unions?

The answer: It's possible, but not likely.

Both the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce and the Central City Association have declined to endorse anyone for mayor so far, although both groups will consider in coming weeks whether to make endorsements for the runoff.

Given the choice of Villaraigosa or City Attorney James Hahn, one might think the business community will go full throttle for Hahn, who has the reputation for being the more moderate and centrist of the two.

Certainly Hahn supporters think business leaders will fall in line. "Well now that it's come down to Hahn and Villaraigosa, you know this is where business is going to be," one supporter said at Hahn's election night celebration.

Others are not so sure.

"I think the business vote is going to be split," said L.A.-based political consultant Jorge Flores. "Antonio is going to get his fair share of business group votes because of his ability to sit down and bring partisan interests together."

Wherever the business groups come down, though, it may be too little, too late to make much of a difference in the June runoff. The reason: business missed its opportunity early on to groom candidates that might be more business friendly. Because businesses can't hope to marshal the precinct walkers that labor can, its best hope may lie in picking candidates at the outset.

"We need to nurture a field of candidates that are moderate and balanced and not overly ideological," said Carol Schatz, president and chief executive of the Central City Association. "The candidates must understand how jobs are created and they must realize the value of economic growth. Once those candidates are identified, business must focus intensely on them, provide funding and mentoring to help get their campaigns going."

But, cautions Flores, the candidates that business picks must have broad appeal and be viable in races.

"One lesson business should have learned this time around is that Mayor Riordan did not pick the most qualified candidates to support," he said. "If the candidate doesn't have a realistic shot to begin with, business support isn't likely going to turn that around."

Party Central

The election night victory parties held by mayoral candidates Villaraigosa and Hahn were a study in contrasts, perhaps indicative of the campaign that is to come.

Villaraigosa's party, held in the majestic old ticket hall of Union Station, had the feel of a raucous celebration, full of spontaneity and verging on out-of-control, as hundreds upon hundreds flocked there. The crowd looked and felt like walking down the streets of L.A.: some dressed in street clothes, others in suits. And it was just as diverse, as whites mingled with Latinos and a few African Americans. There was a palpable excitement in the air as the early returns started coming in. The hall erupted in applause when Villaraigosa caught up with Hahn in the tally.

Hahn's party was only a couple miles away, but a world apart in tone and style. He held court in much tighter quarters in the Catalina Ballroom of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. Though fewer people showed, it was just as packed as the vast hall at Union Station. But suits predominated there, matching the more upscale surroundings. As expected, the crowd was largely white and African American, with only a few Latinos and Asians.

And there was one other key difference at the Hahn gathering, at least as this columnist observed as that party was beginning to wind down: the cheering took on more of a staged feel whenever the television cameras were turned on. Perhaps this reflected the disappointment in the Hahn camp as it became evident that Hahn, for so long the frontrunner in this race, was not going to finish first.

Perhaps the most striking image of the evening took place back at the Villaraigosa festivities. As people were milling around the floor, waiting for Villaraigosa to address them, billionaire businessman and civic leader Eli Broad stood on television camera risers well above the crowd, calmly surveying the scene that he had helped make possible. For Broad was one of the first to endorse the former state Assembly Speaker, laying the groundwork for the Latino-liberal Jewish coalition that propelled Villaraigosa past Hahn in last week's primary.

Staff reporter Howard Fine can be contacted by phone at (323) 549-5225, ext. 227, or by e-mail at hfine@labusinessjournal.com.

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