Gadfly Could Represent Trouble For Antonio Villaraigosa 's Bid

Los Angeles Business Journal, September 4 - 10, 2001
Commentary by Joel Kotkin

Mayor No?

As he seeks to become modern Los Angeles' first Latino mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa's greatest problem may lie in his past. For years before immerging as a leading advocate of  multiracialism and ethnic collaboration, Villaraigosa flirted with the extreme nationalist fringe of Latino politics.

In recent years, particularly during his recent tenure as Assembly speaker, the charming Villaraigosa's radical background has faded. In fact, despite his still-liberal politics, he has won over many, even his Republican adversaries, who are more than willing to let his past associations sit largely unexplored and uncriticized.

But as has often happened in California politics, the polite understandings of the opinion-making classes are being crudely disturbed by an inveterate outsider named Hal Netkin. A gruff 64-year-old homeowner from Van Nuys, Netkin runs a one-man political crusade called Mayor No (, which targets Villaraigosa's past associations with ultra-nationalist Latino organizations and intellectuals.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Netkin points out -- and Villaraigosa himself readily admits -- the former Assembly speaker was associated closely with MEChA, the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, a militant campus-based organization whose Mexican nationalist ideology suggests an indifference, or even hostility, toward American ideals of ethnic integration. MEChA supports such things as the Plan of Aztlan, which envision a separate nation in the Southwest inhabited by "indigenous people, who are sovereign and not subject to any foreign culture."


Netkin demands at the very least that Villaraigosa make clear that he no longer embraces MEChA or sides with such intellectuals as Jose Angel Gutierrez, Rudy Acuna and Armondo Navarro, whose rhetoric has often been openly anti-white. As Gutierrez said at one 1997 meeting, which Netkin claims Villaraigosa attended, "We have an aging white America, they are dying, I love it!"

"Díme con quien andas y te diré quien eres," the Spanish-speaking Netkin insists. Show me who you hang out with and it tells me who you are.

"I believe he still believes this stuff and he will not repudiate it when he has power." Netkin insists. "He will use those views when he is in office."

For his part, Villaraigosa seems clearly unwilling to repudiate openly any of his old associates by name, but is more than ready to separate himself from their views. Indeed, Villaraigosa has changed more than perhaps any other California politician, from nationalist firebrand to a flag-waving believer in multiracial Americanism.

"Thirty years ago, I was a Chicano, then I was a Mexicano, now I am an American of Mexican descent," he explains.

Not surprisingly, Villaraigosa finds almost laughable the old Chicano ideal of forming a separate Aztlan. "This is the greatest country in the world," he said. I don't want to go back to Mexico."

Yet despite this, Villaraigosa's sense of loyalty and pride seems to make him stop just short of denouncing longtime allies on the Latino fringe.

"I can't dissociate myself from MEChA. I was involved with them," he said. "lt's just not an accurate reflection of who I am now."

Unfortunately, until he makes a clear break, Villaraigosa -- who is easily the most likely Latino politician to win the mayor's race -- may well continue to be plagued by these issues. Sophistos on the political and media scene may dismiss the amateur Netkin, who is married to a Mexican American, as a fringe figure or even a racist, but they would be making a terrible mistake. His Web site reflects many widely held, if politically incorrect, views that are shared by many, particularly older, white voters on issues such as the primacy of English-language instruction, the negative impact of illegal immigration on older suburban neighborhoods, and the importance for immigrants to think of them of themselves as Americans first and foremost.

Indeed, these are the kind of people, and Netkin the kind of gadfly, who have driven successful right-wing California politics in the past quarter century. It is not high-priced Republican consultants who have beaten liberals in California, but grassroots figures like Howard Jarvis, who operated his successful Proposition 13 drive out of a modest neighborhood in the Fairfax District. The anti-illegal alien Proposition 187, whose campaign Netkin supported, also sprang out of the grassroots, among largely lower-middle-class home-owners in places like the San Fernando Valley and Orange County. Only later did slick Republican operatives the likes of Pete Wilson embrace these causes and make them their own.


Some people sympathetic to Villaraigosa worry about the lingering impact of old associations on the mayoral race. Jewish leaders in particular find his past and continuing associations with Latino nationalists -- some of whom have also made anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish comments -- a cause for discomfort.

"He doesn't understand there are people around him who are bad, and that he can be used," noted one sympathetic, and highly influential, Jewish community figure.

But the real crux of the problem, notes commentator Gregory Rodriguez, lies not with what other groups think but with how Villaraigosa defines the new, and inevitable, Latino political ascendancy. Rodriguez likens him to a Jewish candidate who was formerly in the militant Jewish Defense League or an African American once associated with the Black Panthers or Nation of Islam. In order to reach out to other groups, Villaraigosa needs to clearly separate himself from ethnic separatists and their extremist rhetoric.

One can accept youthful indiscretions, but only if a person is willing to admit that he no longer shares discredited and dangerous beliefs. A promising and accomplished politician such as Villaraigosa does not need MEChA, or radical academics, to win Latino votes; the once fashionable cult of Chicanismo, Villaraigosa himself admits, has lost its power virtually everywhere except among a handful of college students, intellectuals and foundation grant-writers.

"Why can't Villaraigosa get away from these people?" Rodriguez asks. "They don't matter at all anymore. This is about somebody who has a past that he needs to break with." That's a question Antonio Villaraigosa will need to answer, if he hopes ever to emerge as the great city leader so many believe he has the full potential to become.

Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow at the Davenport institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University and research fellow as the Reason Public Policy Institute. He can be reached at [email protected]