When former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa came in first in the April 10 mayoral race in Los Angeles, he seemed a good bet to win the June 5 runoff against the runner-up, L.A. City Attorney James Hahn.
As both men are liberal Democrats with nearly identical stands on the issues, the race came down to personality, Villaraigosa's trump card. He had spark, Hahn had little. He was a high-school dropout from the barrio competing against a career pol who owed much of his standing to family ties.
But in the final count, Hahn beat Villaraigosa, 54-46.
In 1996, Villaraigosa made the mistake of seeking a presidential pardon from President Clinton for convicted cocaine dealer Carlos Vignali. Villaraigosa wrote that Vignali had "no prior record" -- which wasn't true. He argued that Vignali, whose family had contributed some $6,000 to his campaigns, was the victim of guilt by association.
After Clinton freed Vignali seven years into a 14-year sentence, Villaraigosa's letter became news. Villaraigosa made it worse when he denied writing Clinton -- until a copy of the letter surfaced.
At best, the fiasco made Villaraigosa appear inexcusably sloppy. At worst, he looked dishonest. Hahn went with the worst, running political ads on television depicting the letter and some crack cocaine, as a narrator intoned, "Los Angeles can't trust Antonio Villaraigosa."
To fight back, Villaraigosa was left attacking Hahn's "climate of fear." But the damage was done, as he had failed to give a good explanation of why he had tried to free a well-connected drug dealer. As Democratic political consultant Joe Cerrell noted, "You didn't have to say he's soft on crime."
How ironic. The man known as the first black president may have helped elect Los Angeles' last white mayor.
It also helped that Team Villaraigosa misplayed the race card. Hahn's family ties gave him a near lock on black voters, as Villaraigosa had a near lock on Latino voters. Because their politics are similar, their campaigns had to win support from the mostly white voters who had opted for more conservative candidates in April.
GOP strategist Arnold Steinberg noted that the campaign made a point of waving American flags -- in contrast to the Mexican-flag waving that enraged conservatives during the Proposition 187 campaign in 1996.
Steinberg believes that the campaign should have used Villaraigosa's many GOP endorsers -- especially outgoing Mayor Richard Riordan -- to let white swing voters know he supported their issues. Instead, Riordan's insistence on speaking Spanish, albeit badly, "sent the opposite message." Not: He understands you. But: It will be good for you to accept change. It made Villaraigosa something of a castor-oil candidate.
The talk of Los Angeles, Cerrell noted, was that, if elected, Hahn would be the city's "last white mayor." Such talk probably prompted some whites to support Hahn.
Call it racism. Call it ethnic pride. Ask yourself if there's a difference. Pray for the day when it's not what turns the vote.