L.A. Mayoral Election: 'Voter Turnout Will Be Key'

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Mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa(r) is joined by the current LA mayor

The power of Los Angeles' growing Hispanic population will be tested today as voters go to the polls in a tight mayoral runoff election. The candidates are similar — James K. Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa are both liberal Democrats with strong roots in the city. They are also familiar with its politics: Hahn, 50, is the current City Attorney and Villaraigosa, 48, is a former speaker of the state Assembly.

Villaraigosa enjoys the support of the city's growing Hispanic community, and the outcome depends heavily on whether that group votes. Time.com spoke with TIME Senior Correspondent David S. Jackson, who is covering the election in Los Angeles.

Time.com: How's the race going?

David Jackson: A poll last week showed Hahn about seven points ahead. A new poll released a day before the election showed him about ten points ahead out of likely voters. He seems to have momentum, but turnout is going to be crucial in this one. The first election in April drew less than one-third of eligible voters. Both sides are worried that this run-off could draw fewer voters than that. The election hasn't really caught fire in Los Angeles. Both candidates are liberal Democrats and there is not a lot of difference between them on the issues. Unless there is some pressing crisis, people here don't get that involved.

Who do you think will win?

I think Hahn is more likely to win, but I do think turnout will determine the winner and whoever gets most of his supporters out will win. In that scenario, Villaraigosa has more opportunity because he is backed by the Democratic Party and by the top labor organizers. One of his supporters is the head of the county's leading labor organization. On election day there are going to be a lot of campaigners working for him, whereas Hahn will have to rely on unpaid volunteers. The other issue is that Villaraigosa does not seem to have sewn up the Latino vote, and he will have to get a high percentage of them to actually turn out and vote to win, and Latino turnout figures have not been impressive.

What do you think about both candidates being liberal Democrats, when the current mayor, Mayor Riordan, is a Republican?

There is not a strong-mayor system in Los Angeles. The mayor has limited power and is in a non-partisan position. Whoever the mayor is, whether he is a moderate Republican or a moderate Democrat, is going to be pulled in many directions by all the different constituencies in Los Angeles.

That's why both Hahn and Villaraigosa, although they both have liberal Democrat records, have been stressing moderate positions because it worked for Riordan.

What do you think about the Los Angeles Times' endorsement of Villaraigosa?

Actually Villaraigosa got Mayor Riordan's endorsement too. I think the endorsements by the LA Times and by Riordan were in part a recognition of growing Latino clout in the city. And Latinos are growing as a percentage of the population. They are not a majority, but they are the biggest minority, certainly bigger than the black population.

The problem is they don't vote in proportion to their numbers. As for what impact these endorsements will have, so far there's not a lot of evidence that they've been that influential. The polls actually show more Republicans supporting Hahn.

The predominantly black area of southern Los Angeles is in favor of Hahn. Why?

Hahn used to live there, and his father, who was a well-known city supervisor, was very popular among blacks. Later the racial makeup of the area changed, but the family stayed. Today Hahn, like his father, enjoys wide support of black voters. But he also has a lot of support in the Latino community, particularly with older voters.

They support him for the same reason that black Democrats do: he supported causes that were popular with minority voters. Polls show he has more than 35 percent of the Latino vote, whereas Villaraigosa has a much smaller percentage of the black vote.

With both candidates sharing many of the same issues, the race may well come down to issues of character. And Hahn has targeted that issue head on, reminding voters that Villaraigosa lobbied on behalf of a convicted drug-dealer who was later pardoned by Clinton. Villaraigosa has charged that the ads are unfair, but Hahn says that they are accurate and he points out the first person to launch attack ads in this campaign was Villaraigosa. They've really gotten under Villaraigosa's skin, but they accurately represent what happened. He did write the letter (for the pardon) and he got campaign contributions from the drug-dealer's father.

Are there other issues in the race that should be acknowledged?

The other issue in this race is leadership. And Hahn has the best record there. He has served in high city positions, including city attorney for two decades, and he is well known in Los Angeles. He knows all the players. Villaraigosa is less well known in the city, although by all accounts he did a good job as speaker of the Assembly. But some voters still wonder whether he's up for the mayoral job. Los Angeles has had a Latino mayor before, but it was 130 years ago. This has not been a race about Latino politics; it's been devoid of discussion about racial politics. After having had a black mayor in the 70s and 80s, when blacks were a small percentage of the population, Los Angeles voters proved that race was not a pivotal factor for them. If Villaraigosa loses today, it's less likely to be because voters don't want a Latino leading the city than it will be because they don't want this particular Latino leading the city.