As the campaign of City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa gathers increasing momentum, people who do business with City Hall are scrambling to get on board.

With unusual urgency over the past few weeks, business professionals, companies and their executives have been writing checks to the campaign, asking how they can raise funds or otherwise volunteer and establish personal contact with Villaraigosa's longtime friends and supporters.

"I've had clients call me and say, 'Hey, we're seeing there's a good chance that Antonio can win and we really want to be on board the Villaraigosa campaign,' and they are asking me how this should be done," said Jerry Neuman, a partner in the real estate practice of downtown L.A. law firm Allen Matkins Leck Gamble & Mallory LLP.

Such activity on behalf of the challenger underscores how much momentum has moved toward Villaraigosa and the doubts about whether Mayor James Hahn can be re-elected even though the typical pattern is for people doing business with the city to support the incumbent mayor.

Last week, sources with access to internal polls from both campaigns said Villaraigosa has widened his lead over Hahn since the primary, when he beat the mayor by 10 percentage points. The internal polls now show a margin ranging between 16 percent and 21 percent, the sources said.

Villaraigosa has also reeled in major endorsements from City Councilman Bernard Parks, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles; the L.A. County Democratic Party and state Education Secretary Richard Riordan.

"People are beginning to wonder whether the Hahn administration has run out of string," said Richard Lichtenstein, an L.A.-based political consultant who is not supporting either candidate. "They are seeing all these endorsements coming in for Antonio, especially from people who endorsed Hahn four years ago. It's causing people to say, 'Hey, wait a moment. Maybe I ought to get to know this Villaraigosa guy.'"

Neuman, who supported former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg in the primary but has not chosen sides in the runoff, said the number of inquiries have picked up in the last 10 days or so as endorsements have come in for Villaraigosa.

Calls like those led to a surge in fundraising for Villaragosa $653,000 in the first four weeks after the primary, according to campaign reports filed with the City Ethics Commission last week. Hahn's fundraising effort has lagged, with only $408,000 in the same period.

There has been so much fundraising for Villaraigosa that the candidate has been unable to attend many of the informal events that being organized at people's homes.

"There are a lot of people trying to have fundraisers for Antonio right now, but they just can't get on his agenda. It's just a surge of people who want to help Antonio," said Tony Gonzales, vice president in the L.A. office of HNTB Corp.'s architecture group.

Gonzales counts himself a longtime friend of Villaraigosa, although he said he has also maintained a friendship with Hahn and has contributed to both candidates. He said he has personally received calls from several people looking to get involved in the Villaraigosa campaign.

Villaraigosa spokesman Nathan James said the campaign would not comment on fundraising, except for what is reported to the city.

To be sure, no one is writing Hahn off. Four years ago, Villaraigosa held a substantial lead in the polls, secured most of the major endorsements and out raised Hahn in the runoff, yet still lost. A last-minute ad referencing Villaraigosa's efforts to seek a presidential pardon for a convicted drug dealer helped Hahn solidify support in the San Fernando Valley. That, along with his strong base of black support in South L.A., pushed him over the top.

Hahn campaign consultant Kam Kuwata downplayed the activity on behalf of Villaraigosa. "The campaign hasn't really begun in earnest yet," he said.

Hahn, who has won six straight citywide elections, also has one of the most experienced campaign teams in recent city history. Since the March 8 primary, the mayor has secured endorsements from the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and former L.A. City Councilman Nate Holden, among others.

Kuwata said the Hahn campaign is also enjoying a boost that it didn't have four years ago: the endorsement of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

"We have support from both the L.A. Chamber and the Labor Federation that's unique in recent L.A. history," Kuwata said. "They are enthusiastically supporting our campaign, raising money, making phone calls and walking precincts. The labor endorsement is a huge difference this time around, not just because we have it but because Villariagosa doesn't."

Ben Reznik, a partner with the law firm of Jeffer Mangels Butler & Marmaro LLP, said his support for Hahn was firm.

"I've not heard of anyone jumping ship," he said.

Some disenchantment
But others are looking to cover their bases, according to several well-connected L.A. businesspeople.

"I've spoken with people who were supporting Jim Hahn as the incumbent who are now hedging their bets," said Lisa Specht, an attorney with the law firm of Manatt Phelps & Phillips LLP who was a Hahn commission appointee until she broke with him last year to support Hertzberg. She has yet to make an endorsement.

Others who used to support Hahn became disenchanted with his administration and have been looking for new leadership. One Leimert Park businessman who did not want to be identified said he backed Parks in the primary but is now supporting Villaraigosa.

"Sure, there is an element here of getting your name on the list of somebody you think is about to win office," this businessman said. "But I have had some disappointments with the current administration and find myself believing in Antonio on the issues."

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