A Tale of Three Cities
Latino candidates fall short in three hotly contested mayoral racesPolitical operatives in Los Angeles, New York City and Houston should not have been blamed if they thought 2001 would be the year of the Latino. In each city, a Latino candidate mounted a vigorous campaign for mayor; in each city strong multiracial coalitions supported their efforts; but in each city, the Latino candidate was defeated.
What went wrong?
“In a sense, those mayoral races came a little too early for the Latino community,” says Dr. Louis DeSipio, professor of political science at the University of California-Irvine. “Two of the candidates, those in New York and L.A., were quite good, but didn’t have skills yet — the grassroots, campaign, professional skills — to get out the vote at that level. And those races showed that.” los angeles, June 2001
In Los Angeles, last summer’s mayoral race pitted Antonio Villaraigosa, a former assembly speaker and passionately progressive union organizer and living wage advocate, against James K. Hahn, a White politician whose father was a legendary 10-term county supervisor with strong support from the Black community.
Villaraigosa seemed tantalizingly close to pulling together a strong enough coalition of Latinos, labor activists, progressives and younger African Americans to defeat Hahn. But Hahn, a Democrat, battled back with a classic strategy — playing the race card. Hahn skillfully played on Black fears of being eclipsed by the rapidly growing Latino population. The African American share of Los Angeles’ population had shrunk to 11.2 percent in June 2001, while the Latino population had risen to 46.5 percent.
U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters gave speeches in which she called Villaraigosa a “menace” to the Black community. And Hahn aired an inflammatory attack ad, juxtaposing grainy images of a crack pipe with the information that Villaraigosa had written a letter to the White House in support of a pardon for a drug dealer.
So had Cardinal Roger Mahoney and a number of other legislators, but the charge — coming in the final week of the campaign — appeared decisive. Hahn won by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin. African Americans voted for Hahn by a 3-1 margin.
“Part of this idea that I’m arguing, of there being a hierarchy of running for office, is that it’s like a series of hills to climb,” DeSipio says. “You learn over time how to anticipate your enemy’s moves, and you learn how to undercut their effectiveness. When Hahn started airing ads that linked Villaraigosa to gangs and drug dealing, he didn’t have a response. And that’s just bad campaign management. He said, ‘I won’t go dirty.’ But there are other ways to defend yourself without going dirty.”
In an interesting postscript, six months after riding African American support to victory, Hahn outraged Waters, among many others, by refusing to reappoint Los Angeles’ Black chief of police, Bernard Parks, to a second term. new york city, November 2001
In New York City, former Bronx borough chief Fernando Ferrer came tantalizingly close to succeeding Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani with stirring appeals to “the other New York” that created that rarest of beasts — a united Latino and African American front. Going into the Sept. 11, 2001, primary, Ferrer was expected to win by a landslide.Voting was cancelled due to the terrorist attacks, and Ferrer failed to win the 40 percent needed to clinch the nomination against his main opponent Mark Green in the rescheduled election. Green responded with a racially suggestive attack ad — the tag line was “Can we afford to take a chance?”— and voters reported receiving phone calls that advised them “a vote for Ferrer was a vote for Al Sharpton.”
The tactics allowed Green to edge Ferrer out by a razor-thin 15,000-vote margin in the runoff. Green received 4 of 5 White votes and 9 of 10 Jewish votes; Ferrer, meanwhile, received 4 of 5 Latino votes, and Black voters split 7 to 3 in his favor.
The backlash against Green’s tactics, not surprisingly, depressed turnout among Ferrer’s mixed-race coalition in the general election against Republican candidate Michael Bloomberg. But with Bloomberg working hard to attract Latinos and spending heavily on his campaign — an unprecedented $75.5 million, $50 million of his own money — he managed to peel off nearly half of the Latino vote to cement his narrow victory over Green.houston, December 2001
In Houston, a city where Democrats tend to romp in local races, voters were faced with the choice of an incumbent Democrat, Lee Brown, the city’s first African American police chief and the nation’s former drug czar, and a deep-pocketed Republican challenger, Orlando Sanchez.
The political views of the highly conservative Sanchez didn’t match up well with those of his co-ethnics in Houston, but playing up the Latino pride angle and trading on the Bush family’s popularity in Texas — President Bush endorsed him, while Bush’s father and mother appeared in Sanchez’ television commercials — allowed the challenger to force Brown into a runoff.
Brown, leading by only a 43 percent to 40 percent margin and facing a ferocious assault via television, telephone and mass mailing, got back to basics and concentrated on getting bodies to the polls. Mobilizing 150 vans, 2,000 paid staffers and 500 volunteers, Brown was able to negate Sanchez’s 3-1 spending edge, winning the race by nearly a 10,000-vote margin.
Sanchez won handily among Hispanics and affluent Whites, attracting more than 72 percent and 76 percent of those votes, respectively. But Brown held him off with more than 93 percent of the Black vote and just enough middle-class White voters — nearly 37 percent — to seal the victory. — By Kendra Hamilton
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