Now that Antonio Villaraigosa has finally turned his attention to unseating Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, the question is whether he's too late.
With only four months to go before the mayoral primary, the L.A. city councilman is well behind in fundraising, has lost much of his labor support, and leads a campaign organization that's still feeling its way.
What Villaraigosa does have going for him, however, is name recognition much of it the result of his unsuccessful run for mayor four years ago as well as a solid base of support among Latinos and progressives.
And unlike the 18-months-plus marathon that's required for a presidential run, a candidate running for mayor of Los Angeles can make quick headway, provided there's enough cash in the bank.
"We got a late start, but since we got in, we've raised money at a record clip, we've gotten major endorsements and we're continuing to reach out to a broad cross-section of Los Angeles voters," Villaraigosa said last week in an interview.
Opponents may question the commitment to his candidacy, in light of his role as co-chairman of John Kerry's presidential campaign and the speculation about a major appointment had the Massachusetts senator won.
But Hahn also has his own challenges, including the ongoing federal investigations into the city's contracting practices, in which the mayor's office has been subpoenaed for documents. Should the investigations lead to indictments, they could leave Hahn politically damaged.
Otherwise, it's considered a good bet that the mayor will at least make it to a runoff. That leaves the four other major candidates to duke it out for the second spot. With a series of private polls putting Villaraigosa at anywhere between 20 percent and 30 percent support, he's in reasonably good shape as the campaign goes into full swing.
"Of all the candidates, he has the most established electoral constituency. Even with his late start, he comes in with a significant block of voters who know him and think well of him," said Raphael Sonenshein, a professor of political science at California State University Fullerton who has written extensively on L.A. politics.
"It's going to take at least 25 percent of the vote this time around, if not 30 percent, to make the runoff," Sonenshein said. "He's going to have to get the lion's share of the Latino vote and battle Hertzberg for the liberal Westside vote that he won last time."
The obstacles start with money.
Through Sept. 30, Hahn had raised $2.3 million, former Assembly Speaker Hertzberg $1.1 million and Villaraigosa $640,000. Part of that difference involves campaign time: Hertzberg has had five months to raise cash and Hahn more than a year, while Villaraigosa has only recently entered the fray. In the past six weeks, he has held dozens of fundraisers and is expecting to top the $1 million mark by the end of the year.
The councilman concedes he's not counting on having the 350 unions represented by the L.A. County Federation of Labor in his corner this time, as he did in 2001. That loss could be crucial not just for the funds, but for phone banks, precinct walking and other get-out-the vote efforts.
Only city employee unions which are backing Hahn have comparable field operations.
"It's very difficult to get an endorsement like that when running against a sitting incumbent," Villaraigosa said.
Since he was elected more than three years ago, Hahn has actively courted labor, primarily through his support of major projects like the multibillion dollar overhaul of Los Angeles International Airport. He also put L.A. County Federation chief Miguel Contreras on the Board of Airport Commissioners.
"We have worked very hard to try to neutralize the labor support for Villaraigosa," said Kam Kuwata, a campaign consultant to Hahn.
With little chance of securing the labor nod, Villaraigosa hopes he has enough sway with local union leaders to prevent Hahn from getting their nod. "Getting no endorsement is preferable to getting an endorsement against you," he said.
The County Federation of Labor's political education committee is due to meet early next month to consider making an endorsement in the primary. It takes a two-thirds vote of the committee's 280 board members to endorse a candidate.
Among other endorsements Villaraigosa has received: Rep. Howard Berman, D-Van Nuys, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles and L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss.
Some of Villaraigosa's challenges are just operational: Unlike the other candidates, he has yet to set up a campaign office or hire significant numbers of staff besides campaign manager Parke Skelton, who managed his unsuccessful 2001 contest. As of last week, Skelton was also functioning as campaign spokesman.
Much of the delay is the result of Villaraigosa's involvement in the Kerry effort. Now that the presidential campaign is over, Villaraigosa and Skelton said that the organization will be ready to go by the end of the year, in time for the final nine weeks.
For now, the effort has been fledgling. Villaraigosa has not held many news conferences or attracted as much media attention as his rival and fellow councilman Bernard Parks, who is routinely attacking Hahn on issues ranging from Police Department policies to the LAX overhaul.
Villaraigosa's most public move to date was appearing on a political ad for Measure A, the half-cent sales tax for public safety on the November ballot. The appearance echoed a spot he made in 2000 for a successful statewide water and parks bond measure and was designed to boost his exposure to Angelenos with a positive message. But Measure A failed.
"Villaraigosa's strategy appears to be one of remaining the positive candidate," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "With that strategy, perhaps it's better for him to have someone like Parks tearing down the mayor."
Villaraigosa hasn't refrained from attacking Hahn entirely. Last week, just after filing his papers for his candidacy, he called the Hahn administration "the most scandal-plagued administration since Frank Shaw." Shaw was recalled from his mayoral post in 1938 amid charges of using federal relief funds for his own campaigns.
In going after the Latino vote, Villaraigosa will be battling state Senator and former L.A. City Councilman Richard Alarcon, who said last week he wasn't planning to change his strategy because of Villaraigosa.
"No candidate is going to get 100 percent of the Latino vote," Alarcon said. "My primary base is in the San Fernando Valley, but I also have a lot of friends on the Eastside and on the Westside."
Villaraigosa is also making a bid for the black community, although such outreach is not likely to have much effect for as long as Parks remains in the race. "Frankly, I see it as a waste of his time to come down here," Parks campaign manager Carol Butler said of Villaraigosa's efforts.
But should Villaraigosa beat out Parks to make the runoff, the black vote could be up for grabs especially since Hahn, who has a history of support from black politicians and voters, antagonized many when he ousted Parks as police chief. Villaraigosa, on the other hand, largely ignored black voters in his first run for mayor they were conspicuously absent from the broad coalition he attempted to put together so it's unclear whether his recent forays can pay dividends.
His biggest challenge in the runoff will be the San Fernando Valley, which typically makes up about 40 percent of the total citywide vote. In 2001, the Valley went overwhelmingly for Hahn, although this time Hertzberg is likely to gain a significant share in the primary.
"Clearly the Valley and south Los Angeles are two keys to winning the general election," Villaraigosa said. "Last time, I won on the Eastside and on the Westside; to the extent I can expand that, it clearly boosts my chances."
While Villaraigosa has focused on building his mayoral campaign, he faces rumblings in his own council district.
When he ran for council two years ago, he pledged to his constituents that he would serve a full four-year term. A group of five constituents, upset that he appears ready to renege on his pledge, launched a drive last month to recall Villaraigosa.
The councilman has dismissed the recall effort. "When interviewed, these people made it clear I was doing a good job as a councilmember and they wanted me to stay there," he said.
So far, the recall effort has made little headway toward getting the required 11,000 signatures. But it could prove thorny for the candidate should someone emerge with money to back the recall effort.
Meantime, Villaraigosa and the other mayoral hopefuls are gearing up for the first of several debates, now slated to take place on Dec. 2. So far, Hahn has not said whether he intends to participate.
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