Attending high school in Los Angeles in the 1960s, an African-American teenager in a mostly Latino neighborhood, Anthony Thigpenn saw more than his share of black-versus-brown violence. He didn't like it. In fact, he ran for student body president--and won--on a "rainbow coalition" platform aimed at easing tension.
More than three decades later, as South L.A.'s preeminent black- activist-turned-political-kingmaker, the 52-year-old Thigpenn is trying to re-create his high school success on a citywide stage. This time he brings a potent new partner to the table--the man he recently helped make mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa.
If Thigpenn's current role reinforces his early values, it's only after some twists and turns along the way. Following high school, Thigpenn joined the Black Panther Party, moving for a year to its headquarters in Oakland before returning to Los Angeles to work as a community organizer. In the early 1980s, he became a machinist.
Five years later, he was laid off and returned to activism with a group called Jobs for Peace. There he met Villaraigosa, a charismatic young Mexican-American politician and former East L.A. gang-member- turned-UCLA-graduate. In 2001, Villaraigosa ran for mayor of Los Angeles against James Hahn, a white council member who was the son of a legendary champion of L.A.'s African-American community, Thigpenn stuck with Villaraigosa. Nonetheless, Villaraigosa lost, securing only 20 percent of the black vote.
It was a difficult moment. "The Latino community was kind of angry," recalls Thigpenn. "They felt African Americans had betrayed them. African Americans were tense about the rise of Latino power--very tense."
Working with labor unions and a coalition of community organizations, Thigpenn set out to address those concerns. He also built his own organizational clout. This year, Villaraigosa ran for mayor against Hahn again--and made Thigpenn his director of field operations. Thanks in large part to 150 black neighborhood organizers that Thigpenn provided, Villaraigosa won 50 percent of the African-American vote on his way to a sweeping 18-point victory.
Despite the large margin of victory, polls show that both black and white Angelenos believe Villaraigosa's policies will tilt toward Hispanics. One of Thigpenn's chief goals for the next four years is to ensure that the man he describes as "his friend and colleague" tends to African-American needs. "We've been able to elect city council members and a mayor," Thigpenn says of the L.A. black community. "We've had three city council members since the 1970s, a number that is disproportionate to our share of the population. But unemployment has still gotten worse. Poverty is still bad. The fundamental issues have not been addressed."
One thing Thigpenn wants Villaraigosa to do is focus on inner-city development in ways that the city's long-time African-American mayor, the late Tom Bradley, did not do during five terms in office. "I plan to play an advocacy role," says Thigpenn, "to remind the new mayor of what he ran for."