Jewish World Review May 17, 2005/ 8 Iyar, 5765

Wesley Pruden

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The future intrudes in L.A. (maybe) | LOS ANGELES — "The Mexicans are coming! The Mexicans are coming!"

Sometime early (or late) this evening, we'll know whether the future actually got here. Antonio Villaraigosa, a charismatic city councilman with movie-star looks, goes into the runoff as a slight favorite to defeat the one-term incumbent, Jim Hahn, to determine who will be the mayor of the nation's second city for the next four years.

The two candidates are both Democrats. The incumbent is regarded as more conservative, and the challenger was endorsed by John Kerry. Both spent the weekend campaigning mostly in churches, and these were black churches of reliably Democratic congregations so nothing was made of it. Voices that grow sharp and shrill at the sight of evangelical Christians campaigning for Republicans were suddenly struck as dumb as eucalyptus stumps.

Prayers, pleas and piety comprised the menu of the moment. Mayor Hahn campaigned in South Central, a wide swath of the city that has gone in a single generation from white to black and now to shades of brown. This was once reliably Hahn territory, first for Ken Hahn, a one-time municipal kingmaker, and then for his son, who grew up in the district. Now it's dotted with black churches, and the mayor's replacement of a black police chief with a white chief has diminished his once strong black support.

Mr. Villaraigosa, who lost a runoff to Mr. Hahn four years ago and came back two years later to win a council seat, has moved smartly to exploit his ethnic opportunity, a tactic known in other places, other times as "playing the race card." He does this mostly by invoking the name of Tom Bradley, elected as the first black mayor in 1973.

"There were some who questioned whether or not he could represent the entire city," Mr. Villaraigosa said on Sunday. "They said, 'I know you can represent them, but can you represent all of us?' In that first election, he wasn't quite able to convince all of the people of this city. Four years later, he was back. He was back and with him a broader coalition for a new Los Angeles."

The challenger's ubiquitous yard signs make the point in not so subtle language: "For all of Los Angeles." With a bow to the English-speaking gringo majority, the yard signs even offer a quick course in Spanish pronunciation: "Vee-ya-ray-gosa."

The mayor calls the challenger "soft on crime"; the challenger calls the mayor a "mudslinger." The challenger, says the mayor, is a man who can't be trusted "with an issue as important as public safety." Retorts the challenger, who if serious reveals that he has not observed politics closely: "I think there's no room in American politics for [mudslinging]."

But for all the bitter rhetoric, bluster and sharp elbows, registrars say turnout will be 30 percent or less of the 1.4 million Angelenos who are registered to vote. But informal conversations and a casual reading of the abundant media suggest that more than apathy is at work.

Apathy, says one political consultant, is only part of the story. It's not that people don't care, says Cynthia Corona, who has worked on municipal, statewide and congressional campaigns in California, but they're oblivious to the election.

"And," she writes in the Los Angeles Times, "that's the way we like it. "Who are we? We are political strategists, political campaigners, elected officials and aspiring candidates. We are the people who have turned elections into a billion-dollar industry. We make a living off 'voter apathy.' How? It's easy, really. We use a nefarious little tool called targeting."

If, as seems likely, Mr. Villaraigosa wins, he'll be the first Hispanic mayor in more than a century in a city perfect for "targeting." The illegal-immigration debate intrudes often, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly. A radio station popular with recent immigrants stirred controversy not long ago with a billboard advertising its audience as "Los Angeles, Mexico." In one predominantly Latino neighborhood, artists inscribed an arch at the entrance to a park: "This land was Mexican once, was Indian always, and will be again."

Organized protests naturally followed and police in riot gear were called in to keep pro and con apart. One woman was hit in the head with a water bottle. And why not? It's the abiding conceit of L.A. that the American future starts here.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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