Los Angeles City Attorney James Hahn was battling Antonio Villaraigosa, a former state legislator, in a race Tuesday night to become mayor of the nation's second-largest city.
With 3 percent of precincts reporting, Hahn had 65,497 votes, or 62 percent. Villaraigosa, hoping to become Los Angeles' first Hispanic mayor since 1872, had 39,387 votes, or 38 percent.
The early returns were heavily weighted toward absentee votes. Hahn got more absentee votes than Villaraigosa in the April primary, but Villaraigosa went on to emerge in first place, with 30 percent of the vote compared with 25 percent for Hahn.
Villaraigosa and Hahn are both liberal Democrats who would represent a dramatic shift from the administration of Mayor Richard Riordan, a wealthy Republican businessman. Riordan, mayor since 1993, could not run again because of term limits and endorsed Villaraigosa.
It was the city's most fiercely contested mayoral race in decades and came at a time of rapid change in Los Angeles, with its burgeoning Hispanic population.
The nation's second-largest city lost 15 percent of its black population over the past decade while its Hispanic population rose 24 percent. With nearly 4 million residents, Los Angeles is now 11.2 percent black and 46.5 percent Hispanic.
"This is a city that is in transition. This election is a gut check," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William Velasquez Institute. "Is L.A. ready to let new leadership assert itself, that happens to be Latino, that happens to represent the majority of the population?"
Villaraigosa, 48, is a former speaker of the state Assembly and a one-time labor organizer. The son of a Mexican immigrant, he grew up on the rough streets of East Los Angeles.
Hahn, 50, the city attorney since 1985, is the son of a famous Los Angeles political figure with an ardent following in the city's black community.
Villaraigosa emerged from the crowded April 10 primary five points ahead of Hahn. It was an outcome political observers did not predict a year ago, when Hahn was considered the candidate to beat and other contenders were seen as stronger than Villaraigosa.
But after the primary, Hahn attacked Villaraigosa relentlessly on public safety issues and tried to portray him as too liberal. A Los Angeles Times poll one week before the election gave Hahn a seven-point lead.
By 7 p.m. Tuesday, an hour before polls closed, turnout among the city's 1.5 million registered voters had reached 29.2 percent, the city clerk's office said. In the primary, Latino turnout was a record 21.7 percent and experts said that would have to increase for Villaraigosa to win the runoff.