By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
In all the campaigns of recent years to bring or keep Los Angeles workers out of poverty, Villaraigosa has taken a leading role. He prompted management to come to the table during last year’s epochal janitors strike and got the state legislation enacted that enabled the city’s 74,000 home-care workers to unionize. Indeed, it’s the breakthroughs he achieved during his two-year, term-limited speakership that have made him the clear choice of virtually every L.A. progressive institution — the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, NOW, the Democratic Party, the Stonewall Democratic Club . . . the list goes on and on. Not since Jesse Unruh teamed with Pat Brown has an Assembly speaker run up an equivalent string of successes.
During his first year as speaker — alternately opposing, pushing and prodding then-Governor Pete Wilson — Villaraigosa steered to enactment the Healthy Families Program, which extended health coverage to children in families earning up to 250 percent of the poverty level. In the wake of welfare reform that cut legal immigrants off from all federal assistance, he assured that in California those immigrants would be eligible for unemployment insurance, Medi-Cal and SSI. He won approval for a $9 billion school-construction bond measure, and created a $500 million state fund for low-income housing. After Gray Davis became governor, he authored a $2.1 billion bond measure for parks, fully half that money earmarked for urban parks, nearly $100 million of which will go to restoring the L.A. River.
Villaraigosa’s legislative leadership was also notable for his success in reaching out to Republicans. Despite his avowedly liberal politics, GOP leaders credit him with restoring a sense of comity and fairness long missing from Sacramento. This is one key reason his supporters in the mayor’s race include such megabucks centrists as Eli Broad and Ron Burkle. For them, Villaraigosa is a ä pragmatic progressive who personifies the future of the city and has a proven record of finding common ground across the city’s often treacherous lines of race. In the mid-’80s, Villaraigosa co-chaired, with Mark Ridley-Thomas, the Black-Latino Roundtable to develop common agendas for communities increasingly at odds. Two years ago, he defended from charges of anti-Latino bigotry school-board members who voted to remove Ruben Zacarias as school superintendent; his utter antipathy to playing the race card is a keystone of his career.
The former speaker’s career has its share of questionable judgment calls and outright mistakes. The state education bond measure he crafted could have been tilted even more toward urban districts, though Villaraigosa did have to deal with suburban Republicans to get it through the Capitol. His involvement in the campaign to win a pardon for drug dealer Carlos Vignali — a campaign that seems to have swept up half the pols on the Eastside — was a classic case of an elected official accommodating a powerful backer who merited no such accommodation.
These lapses, though, are the exception to the rule. What’s more distinctive about Villaraigosa is his commitment to nonracial progressivism. He supports mandating major employers who receive city assistance to pay living wages and provide health insurance to their employees. He favors requiring big-time developers to set aside funds for affordable housing and to include such housing in their residential projects. As Villaraigosa sees it, businesses that receive city funds should also pledge not to oppose the efforts of their employees to join or form unions. In this city that’s home to the nation’s most dynamic union movement, Villaraigosa, a onetime union organizer himself, views unions as the surest and quickest way to upgrade low-wage service-sector jobs to decent-paying jobs. He has vowed to be “a union mayor” in this, the capital of low-wage work.
In a sense, what sets Villaraigosa’s campaign apart from those of his rivals is that he is really posing a variant of Hillel’s first question: If we are not for ourselves, who shall be for us? By tradition, it’s governments in D.C. or Sacramento that are responsible for health care, labor relations, housing policy, fair wages and the like. Listen to Villaraigosa’s tradition-bound competitors, and you’ll hear that that’s where this responsibility should remain. L.A. may have more working poor, more medically uninsured, more people crammed into homes and apartments, than any other major American city, they say, but these are problems the city itself cannot address.
Of course, these are problems the federal government doesn’t want to address, or they wouldn’t have reached the magnitude they have. As a former Assembly speaker, Villaraigosa is acutely aware of what a city can and cannot do, and of what’s better done in distant capitals. He knows Richard Riordan has fluffed the chance to secure federal and state funds for housing, for instance; and he knows, as do his fellow candidates, how to access those funds. But he also knows that, at times, solutions must begin at home, that a local experiment can produce good results — witness our living-wage ordinance — and in time prod a state or a nation to follow suit.
When Villaraigosa talks about funding our own affordable housing, then, or expanding the scope of the living wage and promoting the rights of our workers to organize, he’s actually harking back to the last time a great American city felt compelled to strike out by itself in this matter. In the early years of the last century, New York — home, as L.A. is now, to a huge wave of immigrants; home, as L.A. is now, to poverty, sweatshops and overcrowding — passed the first laws banning child labor, setting workplace conditions and establishing minimum wages. Widely derided at the time, these measures later became the basis for much of the New Deal.
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