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¿Quien Es Numero Uno?

Back in the 1980s, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson was running for president, some condescending white pundits wondered whether Jackson really wanted to be president, or merely “president of black America.”

[IMGCAP(1)]Now that Antonio Villaraigosa is poised to become the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in more than a century, the question may inevitably be asked: ¿Quien es Numero Uno?

That the question can be asked at all is noteworthy.

Just six months ago, the United States had one Latino governor — Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico — and no Latino Senators. San Antonio was the biggest American city with a Hispanic mayor, Edward Garza — and almost nobody outside San Antonio had ever heard of him.

Now, freshman Sens. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) stand alongside Richardson in the upper echelons of political power. And on July 1, Villaraigosa will join them as mayor of the nation’s second largest city.

Within hours of his victory last Tuesday night, Villaraigosa was bathing in the national limelight, appearing on the front pages of newspapers and magazines and sitting for interviews on national TV. The liberal group Campaign for America’s Future was quick to tout the fact that Villaraigosa had agreed to appear at its annual conference in Washington, D.C., next week.

“Antonio’s victory is not just about Los Angeles — it’s about the Latino community taking a leadership role in shaping the future of our country,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund.

Villaraigosa attempted to tamp down talk that he was about to become a national figure.

“I’m going to focus on Los Angeles — make no mistake about that,” he said during an interview last week on CNN’s “Inside Politics.” “I want to be mayor of this city. I want to focus on the specific challenges that we face here in Los Angeles.”

But Villaraigosa did acknowledge that he’ll be watched closely.

“Our ability to address how we revitalize our city is going to go a long way to being an incubator for innovation for what we do in cities around the country,” he said. “We have got to revitalize and make cities places where the middle class wants to live again — places that are safe, places with good schools. Our ability to address these problems will have an impact all across the country. Make no mistake about that.”

And that should suit an ambitious politician like Villaraigosa just fine.

It is by now almost a political cliché to talk about the growing importance of the Latino vote. While black Americans continue to turn out in overwhelming numbers for Democratic candidates, the Latino electorate is proving to be far more diverse and volatile. And because Latinos are in play between the two parties, they’ve become an intensely coveted demographic.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), first vice chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, sought to exploit the partisan advantages flowing from Villaraigosa’s win, calling it “a welcome victory for the future and Democrats.”

Mike Stratton, a Colorado-based Democratic consultant whose clients include Salazar and Richardson, sees the election of two Hispanic Senators and Villaraigosa’s victory last week as political potential that is just now beginning to be fulfilled.

“Since 1988, everybody’s been talking about that great sleeping giant — the Hispanic vote, the Latino vote — but it never really materialized,” he said. “I would say that vote has finally come of age.”

What’s more, Stratton said, Richardson, Salazar, Martinez and Villaraigosa won by touting “mainstream” issues that appealed to all voters, not just to Latinos. Moreover, Latinos have increasingly become mainstream in their policy priorities.

“You can’t just read about Mariachi bands when you campaign as a Hispanic candidate,” he said.

Whether there is now a pecking order among these Latino political leaders — or potential for jealousy among them — remains to be seen.

Richardson, who is heavily favored for re-election next year, appears to be gearing up to run for president in 2008.

But if he had any reservations about sharing the national stage with Villaraigosa, he didn’t show it during the recent mayoral election. Quite the contrary: Paid staffers from the New Mexico Democratic Party trooped to L.A. in the final days of the campaign to help Villaraigosa.

Several Latino political professionals take the “rising tide lifts all boats” view of recent developments. Success for one Hispanic politician, they say, accrues to all.

In the months ahead, former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer (D), a Puerto Rican, could be elected mayor of New York. Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) will run for Senate in 2006 if the seat is vacant. Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) is also eyeing a Senate run in 2006 and could be appointed to it early next year if Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) wins the governorship in November.

Twenty-one other U.S. cities with populations of 100,000 or more have Latino mayors.

Trail-blazing black mayors — like David Dinkins in New York, Tom Bradley in Los Angeles, Harold Washington in Chicago and Wilson Goode in Philadelphia — were historical figures in their own cities and got a measure of national notoriety. But they were never continually in the national spotlight, as Villaraigosa promises to be.

Villaraigosa’s political superstardom is due in part to his own charisma and inspiring up-from-the-Barrio success story. But it also confirms just how important the Latino vote is in key states and nationwide.

A year before he was elected mayor, Villaraigosa was already a national co-chairman of the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and served as chairman of the platform committee at the Democratic National Convention (where Richardson was general chairman). And after Villaraigosa’s victory last week, would-be presidents in 2008 raced each other to place congratulatory phone calls.

“I have said to whoever is running for president … that we have got to have an urban agenda that focuses on people in our cities,” Villaraigosa told CNN.

In his home state, Villaraigosa’s star temporarily eclipses those of two other young and ambitious Latino officeholders: Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo (D), who may run for state attorney general next year, and state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D), who heretofore had been the state’s No. 1 combatant against the biggest political superstar of them all, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

Last week, Villaraigosa wasted no time taking on Schwarzenegger. In interviews on CNN and elsewhere, he was sharply critical of Schwarzenegger’s statements supporting the idea of placing freelance armed guards at the Mexican border to curb illegal immigration.

In language full of the swagger of a Hollywood movie — language that millions of Americans and, plainly, Schwarzenegger understand — the mayor-elect said that patrolling the nation’s borders is better left to the federal government.

“We have an old saying from the days of the Wild Wild West,” he said. “Leave your gun outside of the city limits.”

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