Just a decade ago Los Angeles was ruled by a uniquely effective coalition of labor, business and ethnic forces. Forged by the AFL-CIO’s Jim Woods, the corporate elite, and Jewish and African-American political establishments, it formed the core of what urban historian Bill Fulton has called the “growth machine” that helped catapult L.A. into the front ranks of global cities.
Today we may be seeing the revival of such a coalition, one that could again provide the political consensus missing since the first decade of Mayor Tom Bradley’s reign. Yet this revival comes with as many differences as similarities from the earlier version, most notably with Latinos largely replacing African Americans as the key ethnic coalition partner.
As in the Bradley era, the reconfiguring forces are clustering around a potential future mayor Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa. A former labor organizer and Latino militant, Villaraigosa has close ties to both of the two ascendant forces in L.A.’s political economy, the trade-union movement and the Latino community. Charming and intelligent, he is now assiduously courting the two other key elements, the business community and the Jews critical not only for electoral success but for the successful running of the city.
Villaraigosa, even more than Bradley, the former cop and black political star, seems on surface an unlikely choice to head a new pro-growth coalition. The product of the hardscrabble neighborhoods of East Los Angeles, he spent much of his first few decades as self-styled bad boy expelled from high school, a poor student and, later, an angry militant advocate of Chicano and labor radicalism.
Yet now, at 46, Villaraigosa insists that “I’m not mad anymore.” Unlike many 1960s vintage radicals, the speaker has matured in his judgement and become more concerned with getting things done and taking power than posturing about outdated ideals. This does not mean he has given up many of his core beliefs, such as the right of the working poor to health care, but he now focuses more on how to accomplish the goal than wage class warfare.
“If health care is a right, you have to pay for it,” he suggested over lattes at the Universal Sheraton the other day. “The real issue comes down to how to get there.”
Getting “there,” Villaraigosa realizes, means building a stronger economy and developing what he calls an “equilibrium” between business and labor. In some cases, such as the recently unionized health care workers, that can be accomplished through traditional labor organizations, but ultimately that requires a strong tax base to foot the bill. But unionization is unlikely to be successful with vast parts of Los Angeles made up of small, privately held businesses an economy that even the Labor Council’s own chief, Miguel Contreras, recognizes can never be effectively organized.
Instead Villaraigosa expressed interest in providing incentives for employers or networks of companies, such as in the apparel industry, to provide basic care to their workers. This too, he recognizes, requires a strong, growing economy and the cooperation of business leaders.
“The business community has a place here the city will die without them. We have to make a place for them to flourish,” he suggests, adding that “several billionaires” in the region have pledged to back him if he chooses to run.
Like Tom Bradley, the ambitious Villaraigosa will have to overcome numerous challenges before he can build his “growth coalition.” He won’t be fighting off the likes of Sam Yorty and the remnants of Okie LA. Instead, much of his challenge will come from the “left” political culture that nurtured him in the first place.
Yet the “left” today, he acknowledges, is no monolith. There is the wind-chime, environmental radical fringe that opposes virtually every major civic project from the Alameda Corridor to the Staples Arena and expanding LAX all of which Villaraigosa supports. He describes left-leaning opponents of such projects, such as state Sen. Tom Hayden, as “not living in the real world.” Others, such as Contreras and Villaraigosa, see such projects as key to revitalizing L.A.’s blue-collar economy and lifting wage rates.
Indeed, it is fascinating to see this former Chicano student leader dissassociate himself from the “progressive” ideologues such as Hayden and his apocalyptic ally, author Mike Davis. These comfortable radicals have little interest in job-creating ventures that, for the most part, offer potential employment to working-class (that is predominately Latino) Angelenos. In an odd way, the wind-chime left’s natural allies are the well-heeled Nimbys of the Westside and parts of the San Fernando Valley, who seek to preserve their views and easy freeway access.
The new few months will be crucial for Villaraigosa and his nascent coalition. He already has taken some hits from erstwhile left-wing allies, who don’t like signs of pragmatism from the speaker. There also will be more established forces in Los Angeles backers of potentially strong candidates like Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky or City Attorney James Hahn who might be able to put together something closer to the old-style Bradley coalition in the next election.
But time is running out for the echoes of the past. Los Angeles seems destined to be a city run politically by an emerging Latino political class allied with business and labor. It’s just a matter of time and of Antonio Villaraigosa’s maturation as the forger of a new coalition that can bring L.A. into the next century.
Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow with the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and a research fellow at the Reason Public Policy Institute.