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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 May 2005, 10:08 GMT 11:08 UK
Reaching across LA's ethnic divide
By David Willis
BBC News, Los Angeles

It is 7am on the sprawling campus of the most notorious US inner-city schools. Pupils are filing into class under the watchful eye not of teachers, but policemen.

Mayoral hopeful Antonio Villaraigosa
Antonio Villaraigosa needs to attract votes from varied ethnic groups

Violent clashes between black and Latino students in recent weeks have left several students seriously injured.

The special guest at a peace rally outside the school is a man many in the US' second-largest city are looking towards to ease its simmering racial tensions.

Antonio Villaraigosa, a former gang member, talks not of segregation but unity. He has gained the support of prominent African-American leaders in his campaign to become Los Angeles' first Latino mayor in more than 130 years and he is believed to be ahead of his competitors.

"I could be the first," states Mr Villaraigosa. "But what I've said to people is: what we know for sure is that I won't be the last.

"And my opportunity here is to be a mayor for all the people: a mayor that unites us; a mayor that focuses on what we have in common; a mayor who's got the ability and the energy to build a consensus around the tough challenges that we face."

'Opening doors'

The son of a Mexican immigrant, Mr Villaraigosa epitomises the American Dream. Having dropped out of college, he paid his own way through law school and is now the fastest-rising Latino star in US politics: a source of hope for the poorest, fastest-growing section of this sprawling city.

"We recognise that, if he's elected to office, this opens a lot of doors for the community at large," says Alahundro Menchaka, president of the Latino Professional Network, one of the many organisations backing Mr Villaraigosa.

[Antonio Villaraigosa's] campaign is an excellent example of an exercise in practising the politics of diversity
Efran Escibido,
National Association of Latino Elected Officials

"And that's something that needs to be done and has probably taken too long.

"He's really building bridges and has built bridges throughout his career amongst these different communities, to really unite LA and really celebrate its diversity, more so than any other candidate that I've seen."

Although Latinos are the largest minority group here, only a relatively small number are registered to vote. So, to become mayor and oust incumbent James Hahn, Mr Villaraigosa must build and retain a consensus - effectively, a coalition of all races.

Diverse challenges

"I think that his campaign is an excellent example of an exercise in practising the politics of diversity," says Efran Escibido, of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.

"We understand that the next mayor will not be elected by one single group in the city. And no group expects to elect a mayor on their own.

"It's a group of voters from diverse backgrounds - say, Jewish voters, in conjunction with African-American voters, white voters and Latino voters, really coming together around issues, around the future of the city."

With racial tensions spilling from the streets to the classroom, the challenge could hardly be greater.

The hope here is that this election will prove a watershed, inspiring greater political participation from a large but traditionally disenfranchised section of society.

But Mr Villaraigosa will be judged not just on what he can do for Latinos but on whether he can make good on his promise to bring this diverse city back together.

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