New Frontiers: Latino Vote in L.A., America

Antonio Villaraigosa doesn't hide who he is.

"I'm a third generation Angeleno on my mother's side," he says. "I'm an American."

But what Antonio Villaraigosa doesn't say in the campaign trail is that a victory here on Tuesday would make him the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in more than a century. But the one-time high school dropout from the barrio who rose to become Speaker of the California Assembly, does acknowledge that winning would send a powerful message.

"The message that Joe Lieberman said and articulated when he was nominated to be the democratic nominee for vice president," Villaraigosa said. "He said 'every time we open the door for one of us, we open the door for all of us.'"

Ad Campaign Takes Nasty Turn

Villaraigosa's opponent is James Hahn, an elected official here for 20 years whose father was an L.A. county supervisor. Hahn concedes the emotional appeal of a Latino candidate in a city that's more than 40 percent Hispanic, but says he's ahead because voters value his experience.

"But I also see over and over again people telling me 'My heart tells me to vote for Antonio. My head tells me that you're ready to lead this city and I'm going to be with you,'" he said.

In the final weekend, the race is still too close to call, and it's taken a nasty turn. Hahn is airing an attack ad that Villaraigosa compares to coded racial appeals made in the past by Republicans.

The ad explains that Villaraigosa wrote a letter to President Clinton asking for a pardon for a convicted cocaine dealer. A fact Villaraigosa doesn't dispute. He does question the inflammatory imagery used of a crack pipe and lines of cocaine, trying to link him to drug use. Villaraigosa calls it "Willie Horton politics, Sam Yorty politics, the politics of fear and smear, the politics that tries to demonize the other."

But, Hahn suggests it's Villaraigosa who's playing the race card when he compares Hahn to Sam Yorty, the man LA's first black mayor, Tom Bradley, defeated in 1973.

"You don't start name calling," Hahn says. "You don't start bringing up images of a campaign that everybody in this city remembers as a very racist kind of campaign."

Whatever happens Tuesday, political analysts will pore over the results because the rest of America is starting to look more and more like Los Angeles.

The 2000 census shows that Latinos are the largest and fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. Most are Mexican. Most are Democrats. And even though Latinos have not yet registered and voted at rates equal to their share of the population. Gregory Rodriguez, senior fellow at New American Foundation say that's all likely to change.

Latinos Following a Path Well Worn

"I would guess that Mexican Americans would be following the pattern of the Italians and the Irish and other groups that did, as they deconcentrated physicaly in the cities and suburbanized and moved up the socio-economic ladder," Rodriguez said. "That money, that economics, will determine their voting patterns more than their ethnic background."

And with the future Latino vote up for grabs, both parties are reaching out.

President Bush's pollsters have told him he can't win in 2004 without more Hispanic votes. So, the White House is following the same courtship strategy that worked for Bush in Texas with a Cinco de Mayo celebration on the South Lawn, the first Presidential radio address in Spanish, and not one, not two, but three meetings with Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Democrats have countered with Spanish language ads criticizing Bush's first 100 days. And just this week, the Democratic National Committee started on a multi-year, multi-million dollar "Hispanic Initiative" — an effort that will include polling, fundraising, grassroots organizing and advertising all targeted at Latino voters. Rodriguez warns that treating Latinos like an aggrieved minority won't work.

"Latino voters throughout the United States tend to poll tremendously more optimistic than do blacks or whites," he said. "That seems to be one of their gifts to the body politic in the United States and it also seems to be where candidates should be leveraging. You should be leveraging what they have most of which is hope."

But Hahn advises: don't forget the basics.

"You know what? It's not a bad idea to brush up on your high school Spanish if you're running for office in America."