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VI. “One of You”
“I‘m here today as one of you,” Antonio Villaraigosa begins his opening statement at the mayoral forum sponsored by the Progressive L.A. Network. “I came out of the civil rights movement. I went to work on the Farm Worker boycott when I was 15. I led the walkouts at the Eastside schools; I’ve worked with Jobs With Peace . . .”
No one questions Villaraigosa‘s progressive pedigree, but it fails to explain why every progressive organization in Los Angeles has thrown itself, to the maximum degree its tax status permits, into his campaign. The key to Villaraigosa’s success is simple: He had a spectacular speakership.
In his two years as speaker of the California Assembly, 1998 through 2000 (which is all that term limits allowed), Villaraigosa accomplished more for Los Angeles than Jim Hahn has in 20 years as a citywide official, or Kathleen Connell in six years as a statewide official, or Becerra in eight years in Congress, or Wachs in 30 years on the City Council. In those two years, Villaraigosa brokered a $9 billion school-construction bond, securing more funding for urban schools than then-Governor Pete Wilson really wanted. (Some Villaraigosa critics complain that the formulas in the initiative still favor suburban cities, but they neglect to factor in Wilson‘s tilt to the burbs.) Again fighting with Wilson, Villaraigosa enacted the Healthy Families program, which extended health care to children in families making up to 250 percent of the poverty line -- a major achievement in a state, and a city, that are the American capital of the medically uninsured. He pushed through legislation, after the repeal of welfare, ensuring that legal immigrants would be eligible for state unemployment insurance, food stamps and SSI. And last year, he brought together rural conservationists and urban activists to produce Proposition 12 -- a $2.1 billion parks-bond measure, half that amount dedicated to creating urban parks, nearly $100 million of which will go to restore the L.A. River.
“Prop. 12 was huge,” says Martin Schlageter, conservation coordinator for the L.A. and Orange County Sierra Club. “It was a big boost for our efforts in Baldwin Hills, on the L.A. River, in making L.A. more livable.” It was one reason why the club’s board voted by a 17-1 margin to support Villaraigosa for mayor.
Despite the large and growing Democratic majorities in the Legislature, Villaraigosa didn‘t ram his agenda down the GOP’s throat. “I‘d say to him, ’We‘ve got the votes; what are you waiting for?’” says Gil Cedillo, Villaraigosa‘s Assembly colleague and boyhood friend. “And he’d say, ‘No, we can get broader support for this.’ He always wanted broader support.”
Indeed, as speaker, Villaraigosa ended an era of bad feelings in the Capitol that had begun four years earlier when Willie Brown clung to power by inducing a Republican member effectively to switch parties. “I worked on bringing civility and bipartisanship, where I could, to the Assembly,” Villaraigosa says. “I gave the Republicans adequate staffs on the committees, the ability to name their own committee members and vice chairs.” At the same time that every left organization in the state was singing his praises, testimonials also poured in from Jim Brulte and other Republican legislative leaders.
When Villaraigosa‘s legislative successes are juxtaposed with his very rocky early life, they call to mind the career of another immigrant’s son: Al Smith, the kid with no more than a grade school education who rose to become governor of New York, the author of the first laws banning child labor and sweatshops, a progenitor, really, of the New Deal. Villaraigosa eventually made it through law school, but it wasn‘t easy going. A self-described “angry and defiant” kid, and a radical one at that, he was expelled from Cathedral High School in 11th grade, and dropped out of Roosevelt High before graduation. (He only went back to get his degree at Cedillo’s insistence.)
By his late teens, he had anchored himself to the movement -- and to the legendary Bert Corona, a radical organizer and proponent of immigrant rights who nonetheless functioned in mainstream politics. (Corona played a key role in Robert Kennedy‘s 1968 presidential campaign.) With Cedillo and Maria Elena Durazo (much later to become president of the L.A. local of the hotel and restaurant workers), Villaraigosa became a full-time organizer at Corona’s Centro de Action Social Autonoma, CASA for short. But his faith in the far-left radical project began to wane when he made his de rigueur pilgrimage to Cuba. “I was completely turned off by the lack of freedom and the cult of personality,” he says today. “You can only find truth in the battle of ideas; and if you can‘t engage in that, you can’t make change.”
Villaraigosa then turned his organizing skills to the union movement. As shop steward for a local representing federal civil rights lawyers, he found an L.A. office where just a quarter of the attorneys were organized, and enrolled nearly 90 percent of them in the union. He soon went on the staff of UTLA, Los Angeles‘ teachers union, and when the union struck the school district in 1989, Villaraigosa was given the difficult task of building strike support in South-Central -- which, through an ambitious program of house meetings, he did. Soon thereafter, Gloria Molina appointed him to the MTA board, where he was the only member to support the demands of the fledgling Bus Riders Union, and where he won support to reduce fares to 50 cents. In 1994, he was elected to the Assembly. A scant four years later, through the miracle of term limits and his own considerable political abilities, he was elected speaker.