Will Los Angeles elect a mayor whose name will be regularly misspelled by school kids, news reporters, and, heaven forbid, bloggers? Antonio Villaraigosa—yes, correct spelling—could become California’s most notable Latino politician in May. For a sense of his challenge, let’s jump in our blogospheric time machine and go back to San Jose, 1998.
Then, Ron Gonzales was a former County Supervisor and working at HP. I was a lead strategist for his mayoral campaign.
We wanted to test the race issue since Gonzales would be the city’s first elected Latino mayor. We knew race would be a factor for some voters. But figuring it out would be tricky. We were savvy enough to know you just can’t have your polling firm call voters and ask: “are you a racist?” Well, you could but the hang up rate would be pretty darn high.
So, we came up with another question: “Do you agree or disagree with this statement – ‘to tell you the truth, San Jose is not quite ready for a Latino mayor.’”
I guessed the number would be low – around 10 percent. After all, San Jose is considered progressive: electing two female mayors (Janet Gray Hayes and Susan Hammer) and a Japanese American (Norm Mineta) to lead the city.
The polling numbers came back higher – 25 percent. That meant if Gonzales had no shot with one quarter of the electorate, he had to essentially win 2 out of every 3 of the remaining votes to get to the 50 percent mark – which he did, barely.
Gonzales was fortunate that he could count on some Latino votes (about 12 percent), and the coattails of a popular Mayor Hammer. Plus, he was a Democrat running against a Republican in a Democratic town.
Villaraigosa is running against an incumbent mayor and both are Democrats. But the Latino population in LA is over 50 percent. The Latino vote is about a quarter of the electorate.
My guess is that LA is ready for a Latino mayor – as long as voters don’t have to correctly spell his name on a write-in ballot.