By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The conventional wisdom on Villaraigosa's prospects is, as they say, mixed. On the one hand, a number of critics -- most recently, Times columnist Frank del Olmo -- despair of his ill-considered remarks, in particular his contention that President Zedillo of Mexico was in large part responsible for convincing Governor Davis to pull the plug on Proposition 187. On the other hand, many longtime observers, some of them supporters of other candidates, commend Villaraigosa as really the only figure on the local political landscape who's going about the task of assembling a latter-day version of the Bradley coalition. Almost despite themselves, they voice admiration: "Antonio has one of the best abilities to reach across lines of race and class," says one. "What he did with the Valley Vote folks [key secession supporters] was very good. He's made good appointments to the Coastal Commission, and he's worked well with business leaders, too."
Among his centrist admirers, there seems almost a tone of surprise that anyone with Villaraigosa's background could reach out beyond the left. Certainly, the speaker's pedigree is four-square progressive. Raised not in but adjacent to the projects of East L.A., Villaraigosa went through a succession of movement jobs and positions, including those of an organizer for United Teachers of Los Angeles, president of a local of the American Federation of Government Employees and president of the Southern California ACLU board, before being elected to the Assembly in '94 and then, in a meteoric rise characteristic of life under term limits, to the speakership in '97. He is, as few politicians are, at home on the left -- as became clear during a "meet-and-greet" with Venice-area progressives last month.
In an elegant garden in the darkening twilight, Villaraigosa talks with the 50 assembled activists, in the course of which he restates his support for single-payer health insurance, and details his differences with the governor over his own incremental but ambitious plans to expand health coverage. He talks about his $2.2 billion bond measure to buy parkland and coastal preserves (and how the governor, again, wants to scale it back), and says the schools won't come back so long as they are "just for the children of the working poor."
"Whether it's affordable housing, transportation, the segregation of the city itself, the city is simply not talking to itself," he tells the crowd. "We're on the threshold of greatness -- of making Los Angeles the city of the 21st century, as New York was of the 20th, as London was of the 19th -- but only if we can bring ourselves together." In this crowd, at least, there's little doubt that Villaraigosa is the man for the job.
But assembling a majority coalition may prove a tougher challenge for Villaraigosa than it was for Tom Bradley three decades ago. It's not just that the Latino vote now is smaller than the black vote then: Bradley also had Sam Yorty to run against -- a polarizing demagogue who infuriated so many disparate groups across the city that he needs to be given more credit for building the Bradley coalition. Villaraigosa has no such luxury; he is scrambling all the harder to broaden his base.
"There are times when my old friends will say, 'What's he doing?'" Villaraigosa tells me over a late July lunch. "I won't go around saying the answer to crime is all prevention and early intervention. It's more than that: It's also more cops. Some progressives say they're for community-based policing, but oppose all efforts to build a bigger police force. Well, community-based policing requires more cops."
At one point in our discussion, I mention to the speaker the challenge of building a progressive coalition, and he interrupts me:
"Not just progressive -- progressive-populist," he insists. "It's against the arrogance of government" -- and disabused of the kind of faith in governmental technicians that characterized the progressives of old. The speaker illustrates his point with an account of the battle of Van Nuys home owners, on whose behalf he intervened, for noise-abatement regulations at the Van Nuys Airport. But then, I had seen him illustrate the point just the day previous, when I accompanied Villaraigosa to the Dana Strand Housing Project in Wilmington. The federal government had offered funds to make the project nicer, newer -- and smaller (the number of units would drop from 384 to 200).
Understandably, the tenants were bitterly divided into those who'd get the new units and those who'd get Section 8 vouchers to try their luck in the L.A. housing market, and Villaraigosa heard an earful (in Spanish) from both sides. Belatedly, the suits from the Housing Authority showed up, translator in tow, to reassure Villaraigosa that all was actually well. When they blandly and repeatedly pooh-poohed his suggestion to bring in an outside mediator to help the tenants reach some accord on whether to accept the feds' offer, however, the speaker blew up -- vowing to monitor both the controversy and the Housing Authority's willingness to resolve it.
It's hard to think of any other local political leader who would have felt so at home in the projects (when Villaraigosa was shown the vintage 1942 wooden floors in one unit, his response was to say, "Where I grew up, the floors were concrete. My sister once fell and split her head open on the floor") -- much less become the tenants' tribune. I was reminded of another mayor: New York's Fiorello La Guardia, who raged against the Tammany bureaucrats on behalf of that city's minorities, and changed the municipal balance of power in the process.