By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
All summer, though, Villaraigosa showed few signs of heeding Broad’s advice. During the long July 4 weekend, three days after the mayor threw another staged and fluffy press conference — this one designed to lavish praise upon his nascent Partnership for L.A. Schools program, which will attempt to fix 10 of the city’s lowest-performing schools in LAUSD — Villaraigosa very quietly hopped over to Hawaii.
The trip was not announced; the Weekly learned about it because another Weekly writer was returning from a European vacation that week, and happened to sit on an airplane next to a traveler who had just run into Villaraigosa — in Hawaii. As it turns out, it was yet another ceremonial event, honoring 125 graduate-school students at an exclusive gathering of the Academy of Achievement.
The event took place on the “idyllic beaches of Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii,” the academy’s Web site reports. Political and cultural heavyweights included Nobel Peace Prize recipient Desmond Tutu, Pulitzer Prize winner Frank McCourt, basketball legend Bill Russell, Dell founder Michael S. Dell, actress Sally Field, rockers Chuck Berry and Brian Wilson, Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern and others.
Villaraigosa sat on a panel with two friends, former San Francisco mayor Brown and Chicago mayor Richard Daley, and, according to the academy’s Web site, talked about “the challenges facing the modern city.” He also handed out an award. The entire trip, which Szabo said was privately funded, was blacked out on the mayor’s schedule from Thursday, July 3, to Sunday, July 6.
Ron Kaye, the former editor of the Daily News, has a big problem with Villaraigosa spending far too much time on these kinds of activities, even as L.A.’s troubles with middle-class flight, overbuilding, bad schools and other quality-of-life issues worsen.
“He’s clearly enamored of running with an elite crowd. ... You have this poor kid from L.A., and he’s living the life of a rich celebrity. It’s a narcotic, especially in this town.”
IN FACT, VILLARAIGOSA is not like any mayor in recent Los Angeles history. Mayor James Hahn, although criticized for sometimes keeping banker’s hours and leaving City Hall by 5 p.m., hated traveling with an entourage and tended to avoid glitzy events, focusing his time much more heavily on city business. Mayor Richard Riordan was a hands-on problem solver deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of the city’s sprawling utility, parks, roadways and police departments, many of which he reorganized and reformed during his sometimes-contentious eight years in office.
The last time Los Angeles had a mayor like Villaraigosa, so focused on the glitzy trappings of the job, and so distant from the sometimes dreary work inside City Hall, was when an aging Tom Bradley held the post in the early 1990s. In his final four years in office, Bradley was widely viewed as a political burnout who had overstayed his welcome — he ended up using his position in those final years to attend a seemingly endless series of ribbon-cuttings, awards banquets and dinner parties.
Although Villaraigosa continually makes a big deal of his workload — during the subway ride on June 25, he told reporters he works “18-hour days, seven days a week” — he’s no Michael Bloomberg, the hands-on mayor of New York City, according to Villaraigosa’s ally, billionaire Broad.
“Let’s put it this way,” Broad says. “Would I be more comfortable with a mayor like Richard Daley or Mike Bloomberg? The answer is yes. But Antonio doesn’t rank at the bottom of the list either.”
Yet the 11 percent of Villaraigosa’s time that the Weekly has identified as being spent in L.A. on actual city work — running, fixing or shaping government policies and actions — reveals that he frequently spends that limited time huddling with special-interest groups who have helped him attain higher office.
“In the end,” says critic Kaye, “the big question is, ‘Who’s really using Antonio’s power?’”
If his schedule is any guide, the answer is powerful labor unions, special-interest groups focused heavily on identity politics and race, and, to a lesser degree, business leaders. Labor unions have showered Villaraigosa with money, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into his 2005 campaign, and now jumping in to fatten his 2009 election coffers.
During the 10 weeks reviewed by the Weekly, Villaraigosa virtually shut out the two most active groups representing the broad middle class, which is waging boisterous quality-of-life battles on traffic and overdevelopment: homeowners associations and the city’s 88 neighborhood councils.
Nelson, former chief of staff to Joel Wachs, says the mayor’s self-imposed isolation from such residents is in stark contrast to former mayors Bradley, Riordan and even Hahn. Bradley regularly held “Meet the Mayor” chats, where anyone could show up to talk to him. Riordan regularly appeared at town-hall-style meetings. Of the current mayor, Nelson says, “I don’t remember Villaraigosa ever doing it,” unless it was “once or twice after he got elected.”