Nation's Eyes on Los Angeles Mayoral Election

The March 8 mayoral election in Los Angeles has drawn national attention. The hotly contested race has tossed the glare on the contentious issues of urban racial balkanization, white flight, surging Latino voter strength, declining black political power, and police abuse. Two of the top challengers, California State Sen. Richard Alarcon, and Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa are politically savvy, and nationally-known Latino candidates. Villaraigosa was a national co-chair of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's campaign.

Alarcon and Villariagosa have made no overt appeals to Latino voters. But if either one wins he would become the first Latino mayor in modern times to run the nation's second biggest city. That would be a major boost for Latino political power in Los Angeles and the nation's most populous state. Latinos now make up nearly half of the city's three million population. In the past decade their vote numbers have nearly tripled. They now account for one out of five Los Angeles voters. Many Latinos have prospered in the professions and business and have deepened their influence within the Democratic and Republican parties. Latino political leaders and activists relentlessly demand that political and social issues no longer be framed solely in black and white.

As Latino voting strength has grown, black voting strength has declined in Los Angeles and California. The number of blacks in the state legislature has plunged in the past decade. In Los Angeles, Latinos now make up the majority of the population in what were once exclusively or predominantly African-American neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles. The number of black elected officials in Los Angeles almost certainly will erode further in the next decade.

This has increased tensions and even panic among some African-American leaders. A win in the mayor's race would be a chance to stop the political hemorrhaging. Many have rallied behind the candidacy of Bernard Parks, an African-American. During a contentious term as LAPD chief, Parks and the department garnered national headlines following the shooting of Margaret Laverne Mitchell, a middle-aged, homeless, African-American woman in 1999. The killing sparked massive protests, and renewed demands for LAPD reform.

But Parks, a popular, reform-minded chief, bumped heads with the mostly white police union; the city's white mayor, James Hahn, unceremoniously dumped him. This drew angry screams of racism and betrayal from African-American leaders. They had overwhelmingly backed Hahn for election largely on the promise that he'd retain Parks as chief if elected. Parks banks heavily on the anger and long memory of black voters to help put him over the top.

The recent shooting of an African-American teen allegedly while fleeing from police again dumped the always hot-button issue of police violence back on the city and nation's political table. The mayor and the other candidates have promised to make LAPD reform a priority issue.

Mayoral candidates, however, have repeatedly promised reform in the past. Yet, the issue of police violence continues to tatter relations between the LAPD and African Americans in L.A. and other cities. Whoever wins the top spot again will be called on to fulfill that promise. Elected officials in other cities will be watching closely to see if that happens.

White flight has also inflamed passions during the campaign. Another top candidate, former California Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, has demanded the break up of the Los Angeles school district, which is predominantly black and Latino. This is a not-so veiled effort to pander to suburban whites. In the 1970s and 1980s, white parents waged bitter court fights, lobbied the state legislature, and sponsored ballot initiatives to split the district. That would have created a two-tiered system in which white students attended better-funded, high-achieving suburban schools, and blacks and Latinos remained trapped in poorer, grossly underserved inner city schools.

California's Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has endorsed Hertzberg. That further sent a strong signal to conservatives to line up behind Hertzberg. Villaraigosa has barnstormed through the city promising to forge a multi-ethnic coalition. If he can pull it off, that could serve as a model for racial peace and progress in Los Angeles and the nation. Four years ago, though, Villaraigosa's multi-ethnic pitch crashed on deaf ears with black voters. He got less than one-fifth of the black vote. They voted overwhelmingly for Hahn. While Hahn won't get much of the black vote this time around, the real test for multi-ethnic politics is whether enough blacks, Latinos and whites can resist the tacit and overt racial appeals, and vote for the candidate that has the best program to combat the city's towering urban and racial ills.

Mayor Hahn and his challengers have publicly promised to unify the city's widely diverse ethnic groups. That promise has been made time and again, and more often than not it has been broken. This election is yet another chance for the candidates to fulfill that promise. The nation is watching.

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