The Magazine

The Evil of Two Lessers

Voters in Los Angeles face an unscintillating choice.

May 16, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 33 • By DAVID DEVOSS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Los Angeles

James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa are both liberal Democrats beloved by and beholden to labor unions. But as these two veteran candidates enter the final week of the Los Angeles mayoral campaign, ambition has turned them into bitter rivals.

Hahn, the incumbent, calls his challenger "a fancy smile and a fancy suit." Villaraigosa, a former California assemblyman who sits on the city council, says Hahn's leadership has brought L.A. nothing more than "corruption probes and stagnation."

The Midwest has its tractor pulls; southerners love their stock cars. But out here in the blue states, mayoral races are the best show in town. Two men mud-wrestling in $1,200 suits may not sound very interesting--until you realize just how far belligerent trash talk carried the World Wrestling Federation.

In Los Angeles, incumbent mayors almost always win a second term. But Hahn, a political grandee if not a man of the people (he hates having to press flesh at political rallies), is running far behind in a recent Los Angeles Times poll. He claims to have built 35 new libraries, empowered neighborhood councils, and begun reforming Los Angeles's onerous municipal business tax. What he neglects to mention is that the library and council improvements stem from initiatives taken by former mayor Richard Riordan, and the only businesses Hahn has been known to help are those that contribute to his political coffers.

Both the FBI and local district attorneys are investigating multiple "pay to play" scandals involving Hahn appointees to the commissions running L.A.'s harbor, airport, and Department of Water and Power. Hahn's cronies are suspected of making political contributions a prerequisite to being awarded municipal contracts. Two contributors to Hahn's previous mayoral campaign have been charged with money-laundering. A couple of weeks ago, St. Louis-based public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard paid $5.7 million to settle a civil suit accusing it of massive overbilling on a Department of Water and Power contract, during which the firm spent much of its time writing press releases and planning events for the mayor.

"James Hahn may be individually honest, but you have to wonder about the money-laundering, suspected illegality, and claims of corruption that have occurred on his watch," says Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. "Hahn's will go down as one of the most mediocre administrations in the history of the city."

Hahn has won six consecutive citywide races during his 23 years in municipal government. But he may not have time to recover before the May 17 runoff. Last month, his campaign was embarrassed by news that Los Angeles had failed to make the short list of cities competing to house California's newly conceived Institute of Regenerative Medicine because his office never completed the necessary paperwork. The stem-cell institute would have brought $3 billion in new jobs and investment to the city. Attempting to regain momentum, Hahn quickly scheduled a ribbon-cutting to celebrate the opening of a regional city hall in the San Fernando Valley. If the ceremony seemed somewhat strained, it was because the event coincided with a Los Angeles Daily News disclosure that the building was months behind schedule, 20 percent over budget, and only partially complete.

"We need to have a lean and mean system of doing business here instead of the doofus way we do things now," L.A. city controller Laura Chick told the News.

An up-from-the-barrio scrambler who removed a "Born to Raise Hell" tattoo from his right arm when he became a serious politician, Antonio Villaraigosa was on the verge of beating Hahn four years ago when word leaked he had petitioned the Clinton administration in 1996 to pardon a wealthy cocaine dealer. Earlier, Villaraigosa headed the regional office of the ACLU. In that capacity he tried to block an injunction, sought by Los Angeles, prohibiting gang members from congregating in public parks. In a mass mailing paid for by Indian gambling interests, the Hahn campaign combined the two events and denounced Villaraigosa as a gangster-loving liberal unfit to lead the city. The message struck a chord with crime-weary voters, who on Election Day gave Hahn a seven-point margin of victory.