Los Angeles’ diversity is on display in the emerging race to replace Mayor Eric Garcetti and the winning candidate emerging from the growing field of hopes will have to navigate rivalries and forge alliances between the city’s racial and ethnic communities.
No group dominates the ballot box in the country’s second most populous city, making coalition building an essential task.
Democratic Representative Karen Bass officially entered the 2022 competition on Monday, hoping to become the first black woman and second mayor. Tom Bradley, the first black mayor, served from 1973 to 1993.
Bass represents a congressional district rooted in some of the city’s traditional black quarters, where she also grew up. She pledged to prioritize the city’s runaway homeless crisis, which has seen garbage-strewn settlements spread to virtually every corner of the city.
“I have spent my whole life bringing groups of people together in coalitions to solve complex problems and produce concrete change, especially in times of crisis,” Bass said in a statement.
“With all my heart I am ready,” she tweeted.
Bass will compete for the votes with an array of diverse candidates.
City Councilor Kevin de Leon, who once headed the state Senate before being appointed, is a Latino born to a Guatemalan mother and father of Chinese descent; Black businessman Mel Wilson is originally from the San Fernando Valley area; Jessica Lall, who runs a group of downtown businesses and is of Indian descent; City Attorney Mike Feuer is Jewish; and City Councilor Joe Buscaino, who spent 15 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, is a first-generation Italian-American whose parents are originally from Sicily.
The race is non-partisan, but the main contenders are all Democrats, which is not surprising in a city where party voters outnumber Republicans. Bass and de Leon are favorites of the progressive wing of the party, with other candidates penned across the Democratic spectrum.
The 2022 contest winner will inherit a city facing a tangle of urban ills, including crooked roads and sidewalks, a rising crime rate, LA’s notoriously booming traffic, and house prices that have become out of reach for many working class families. Primary is in June.
Candidates will need to connect with voters in dozens of neighborhoods with distinct identities: owners of single-family homes in the vast expanse of the San Fernando Valley, the predominant Latinos east of downtown, the neighborhood’s young professionals. hipsters of Silver Lake or residents of the traditionally black neighborhoods of South Los Angeles.
The Asian vote is at stake in the districts of Koreatown and Little Tokyo, and there are significant populations of Armenians, Russians and others.
Ninety-two languages other than English are spoken in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has 650,000 students in Los Angeles and surrounding communities.
“This town is a quilt with different designs,” said Democratic consultant Michael Trujillo, who advises Buscaino. The overriding problem will be homelessness, he predicted, with voters looking for a candidate who will put a date on the calendar to end the lineups of collapsed tents and rusty motorhomes that have become unmissable along highways, on vacant lots and under viaducts.
With such a diverse electorate, “you have to be able to talk about a common theme,” Trujillo added. The candidate who can maintain this theme “is most likely to become the next mayor of Los Angeles.”
In 2005, when Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa became the first Latino mayor in over a century, he had to overcome fears in the black community of being sacked from government positions in favor of Latinos. When he was a candidate, Villaraigosa spoke of overcoming the “black-brown divide” that can breed violence.
Villaraigosa ultimately won after promising to unite the city and garner the support of prominent blacks, including U.S. Democratic Representative Maxine Waters. He succeeded then-mayor James Hahn, another Democrat who lost support in the black community after the ouster of then LAPD leader Bernard Parks, who is black.
Bradley, also a Democrat, became the city’s first black mayor by creating an alliance of black and white liberals that took the city away from its conservative roots.
Garcetti was first elected in 2013 with strong support from Latino and white voters, including in Republican-leaning areas, although he was outmatched by his rival Wendy Greuel in traditionally black neighborhoods.
Garcetti, appointed by President Joe Biden to serve as ambassador to India, often switches to Spanish during his appearances and reminds audiences of his Mexican-Jewish-Italian roots, jokingly calling himself a “kosher burrito.”
Bass, 67, was a physician assistant and community organizer who became the first black woman president of the state assembly in 2008. She is serving her sixth term in the House and previously led the Congressional Black Caucus.
She was on Biden’s shortlist when considering a vice presidential pick and she is also close to fellow Californian who heads the United States House – Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.
Latinos and blacks are mainstays of the Democratic Party in California and often find themselves on the same side of political issues, but there have also been conflicts over the years as the Latino population in Los Angeles and across the state was increasing.
Blacks make up only about 9% of Los Angeles’ population, while Latinos make up about half, although they can be inconsistent voters and many are too young to vote, or are not citizens. Whites represent about 30% of the inhabitants.
Jaime Regalado, former executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University at Los Angeles, said the winning candidates in the primaries will need to build a coalition that will generate 22-25% of the primary vote – enough to switch to a November runoff for two in a crowded field.
“One group will not be enough,” he said, adding that Bass would likely attract a large chunk of the black and liberal vote, forcing his rivals to seek support where they “probably weren’t thinking of seeking votes.”
With Bass coming in, it’s “a rush,” he said.