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The Faint Endorsement 

Antonio and Phil kiss and make up, but how deep is their love?

Wednesday, Sep 6 2006
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“AIN’T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH” was the song that a grade-school marching band used this week to greet Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as he went to South Los Angeles to do what had been demanded of him by impatient Democrats for so many months: endorse Phil Angelides, the party’s candidate for governor, a lackluster political presence who had been lagging in the polls.

Forced to wait an hour for the mayor to show up, one young saxophone player at Foshay Learning Center kept playing a different tune — the infectious intro to “Promiscuous,” the monster R&B hit that had dominated radio the entire summer. And that was certainly the more appropriate musical selection, given that Villaraigosa had just engaged in a summer fling with Angelides’ opponent — Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But that’s what the end of summer is really about, isn’t it? No more summer flings. No more dangerous dalliances. Villaraigosa, who had flirted with a Republican governor all summer long, settled down on the first day of school by pairing himself off with Angelides, the bookish-looking guy with the spectacles who, like so many nerds on campus, is very much the underdog in the upcoming fight with the governor.

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School is, in fact, what kept Villaraigosa and Angelides apart for the previous three months, as the mayor devoted his considerable political energies to a legislative plan for gaining power at the L.A. Unified School District. To succeed in Sacramento, he exacted a promise from Schwarzenegger to sign, sight unseen, the bill to remake L.A. Unified — details be damned.

Villaraigosa, whose 2001 campaign received massive financial support from the Democratic Party, played coy about his political intentions as early as June, declining to endorse Angelides even as he appeared with him at a rally on Crenshaw Boulevard. He posed for the cameras with Schwarzenegger in July at the La Raza conference and stood with him weeks later at a rally supporting Israel during its conflict with Lebanon. And he did little to discourage talk of his own 2010 bid for governor, one that would hinge on Angelides’ defeat this year and the departure of Schwarzenegger courtesy of term limits.

Angelides, for his part, showed no hard feelings during his visit to South Los Angeles with Villaraigosa, gamely playing along with the idea that he had been waiting for months to get hitched to the most popular Democrat in Southern California. “We wanted to plan ?a big wedding,” Angelides declared. “And a big wedding should take time.”

Villaraigosa and Angelides agreed that the mayor did the right thing by focusing his political capital in recent weeks not on the Democratic Party standard bearer, but on his bid for power at L.A. Unified, a proposal that now sits on the governor’s desk. Villaraigosa also insisted he never cut a deal with Schwarzenegger that would keep Angelides at arm’s length for three months — during a period when the well-financed Schwarzenegger unleashed a barrage of attack ads on the Democratic nominee, sending his poll numbers steadily downward.

“Two months ago, Phil Angelides and I talked about launching this campaign the day after Labor Day,” Villaraigosa said. “We knew it was important to hit the ground running and that’s what we’re doing.”

Even the mayor’s allies weren’t buying it, saying they were certain Villaraigosa’s reticence was, more than anything, tied to his need for the governor’s signature. “The mayor clearly needed the governor’s support, so he held off on this,” said United Teachers Los Angeles vice president Josh Pechthalt, one of several union leaders attending the Foshay event. “[Schwarzenegger’s signature] now seems to be a fait accompli, so now he steps out and endorses. That’s a maneuver, and I think a lot of this is political jockeying. Maybe that’s an unfortunate reality, but that’s the way it is.”

Democratic Party activist Lois Jean Hill wasn’t quite so Zen about the whole thing, saying she hasn’t been happy with the mayor’s school bill or his reluctance to get onboard with his party. “African-Americans weren’t even involved in this decision to go to Sacramento to get this bill passed, so we totally feel left out of the loop,” said Hill, a retired teacher and union president, as she offered Angelides lapel stickers to audience members at Foshay.

Angelides found himself peppered with questions about the damage done to him by Villaraigosa’s three-month delay. But other events at Foshay Learning Center seemed to conspire against him as well. Minutes after Angelides went to the microphone to give his acceptance speech, one of the students strategically placed behind him onstage fainted — her knees buckling after an hour of onstage long-windedness. Villaraigosa gallantly rushed to the little girl’s side, scooping her up in his arms and dramatically carrying her out a side exit to the paramedics, upstaging Angelides at the very moment that was supposed to be his. Maria Elena Durazo, the recently elected head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, worked valiantly to convince members of the audience to stay long enough for Angelides to return to the podium.

The mayor was somewhat less chivalrous after the event, when reporters asked him why so many public-school children had been whisked away from their lessons to watch an inherently political event — one featuring a cast of elected officials, union leaders and a banner with the words “Middle Class Tax Cut” printed on it 26 times. Villaraigosa argued that the endorsement gave students a handy civics lesson, even as he threw the school’s administrators under the proverbial bus by saying he played no role in denying the students instructional time.

“I didn’t choose to take the kids out of class. The school did,” he declared.

Officials at L.A. Unified were deeply unhappy with that explanation, saying they themselves learned about the endorsement event late Friday from Foshay principal Veronique Wills, who in turn told them that she had been contacted by Michael Trujillo, a member of the mayor’s privately funded school-reform-campaign team, who assured her that use of the campus had already been cleared by the district. “The request for students was not made by the district or the school,” district spokeswoman Lucy Okumu said curtly. Trujillo confirmed that he called Wills, but insisted he gave no orders. Either way, Foshay administrators drew the line at the midday request by the Angelides camp for even more kids to fill the auditorium.

None of L.A. Unified’s seven school-board members turned up for the endorsement rally, largely because they spent the afternoon discussing their own strategy for suing the state once Schwarzenegger signs the mayor’s education bill. The board voted 6 to 1 to file the lawsuit, but may have to rely on groups like the PTA and the California School Boards Association to pursue it to its conclusion. After all, Villaraigosa needs to elect only three more school-board members friendly to his cause to convince the district to drop the litigation altogether, a reasonable possibility given his track record at pushing the candidates whom he endorses.

Still, Villaraigosa may have trouble remaining faithful to the candidate he is currently pushing. Even as he stood next to Angelides, Villaraigosa said he intends to hit the campaign trail on behalf of Schwarzenegger’s $19.9 billion transportation bond, a possible source of funding for the mayor’s long-promised subway to the sea. Can an appearance on the stump with Schwarzenegger be far behind?

The mayor would not rule out the possibility of campaigning with the Terminator, saying, “I’ll campaign with whoever I have to campaign with to get that initiative passed.” But that strategy could very well confuse voters trying to figure out who Villaraigosa truly favors. And if voters become confused, Angelides may do well to remember the other song the Foshay student band couldn’t stop playing this week, a hit made popular by the Jackson 5: “I Want You Back.”

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