Three months ago, when Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa entered the race for L.A. mayor, Latinos were looking at their best chance in recent history of having one of their own elected mayor next year.
At that point, the Democratic legislator was the sole Latino candidate, and as a leader in the Assembly had demonstrated an ability to reach across ethnic and geographic lines for support, making him a strong contender in a city marked by coalition politics.
But things have changed. The candidacy of Rep. Xavier Becerra now threatens to split the Latino vote. And with Villaraigosa trailing three of the other candidates in fund raising, and Becerra being pressured to pull the plug on his campaign to avoid splitting the vote, Latinos’ hopes of taking control of the Mayor’s office for the first time in a century appear to be in trouble.
“There is no doubt that Becerra’s entry hurts Villaraigosa more than any other candidate in the race,” said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “It doesn’t kill Villaraigosa’s chances, but if both stay in the race, it will be even harder for either to stand out from the pack enough to make the run-off election.”
So far, Villaraigosa has been able to garner more support than Becerra outside the Latino community. He has two of L.A.’s most powerful business leaders behind him, Sun America chairman and chief executive Eli Broad and supermarket investor Ron Burkle.
“With Broad and Burkle, it’s much more than getting the attention of some of the most powerful corporate interests in L.A.,” Guerra said. “They have taken a keen interest in the development of the city.”
Becerra, meanwhile, has not been in the race long enough to file a campaign contribution report. He had been contemplating a run for mayor for more than 18 months but waited until two months after Villaraigosa entered the contest to make his intentions official.
In the eyes of many, that made him the No. 2 Latino right out of the starting gate, casting him as a spoiler who could siphon just enough Latino votes to deny either Latino candidate a legitimate chance of victory.
Becerra dismisses such notions.
“I’m running for mayor because I think I have the right vision for Los Angeles,” Becerra said. “My focus is only on getting there. Everything else is peripheral. Whether the next mayor is black, brown or white, it’s who has the right vision and the right qualifications.”
Becerra’s chief of staff and campaign advisor Henry Lozano pointed out that the campaign has only just begun. “Right now, it’s mostly an insiders’ game, a jockeying for media attention,” he said.
Becerra has picked up the endorsement of prominent venture capitalist Danny Villanueva, one of the richest Latinos in the nation. However, Lozano concedes that Becerra has thus far been unable to garner much support beyond the Latino community.
That is fueling calls for the candidate to withdraw. “There is enormous pressure on Becerra to get out of the race,” said political consultant Richard Lichtenstein. “There have been some who have suggested you don’t divide the base. You anoint one candidate and the other steps aside.”
Among those who reportedly made the request is County Supervisor Gloria Molina, though she denies such a move.
Lichtenstein and other political observers say there is a chance that Becerra or Villaraigosa eventually will withdraw from the race. But that depends on three factors how much each can raise in campaign funds, who is most able to broaden his support beyond the Latino base, and how each fares in the polls.
“Right now, it’s still early to determine these things,” Lichtenstein said.
Both face formidable competition from other candidates. City Attorney James Hahn is widely considered the front-runner because of his name recognition, the $500,000 in campaign cash he has on hand, and his growing number of politically well-connected supporters.
Meanwhile, real estate consultant and investor Steve Soboroff has raised over $1 million while garnering the endorsement of Mayor Richard Riordan. And the other declared candidate, Councilman Joel Wachs, has raised more than $500,000 in campaign money.
Among that group, Villaraigosa has raised the least money, just over $300,000. While that can be explained by the fact that he was the last of the four to formally announce, it leaves him with a significant gap to overcome.
Calls to Villaraigosa were referred to campaign advisor Darry Sragow, who said a fund-raising pause at this stage is to be expected, in part because the matching public contributions don’t kick in until one year before the election, which would be next month.
For generations, Latinos were largely excluded from local politics, with rare exceptions like former Rep. Ed Roybal, who became the first Latino on the L.A. City Council in modern times.
But in the past several years, Latinos have become much more politically active, thanks in large part to Proposition 187, the initiative passed by California voters in 1994 that ordered benefits cut off to illegal immigrants.
“For so long, Latinos have been told ‘it’s not your turn,'” said Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF. “What has happened is that Latinos have decided that we’re not going to be told it’s not our turn any more.”