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In 2009, displeased commenters in East Hollywood splashed red paint across a new mural of Villaraigosa looking sharp in a suit and tie. Then someone added the spray-painted word "Vendido" — the Spanish equivalent of "Uncle Tom" — on his lapel. In the end, the mural had to be painted over.
People close to him say Villaraigosa believes he is destined to become governor of California. Yet with Gov. Jerry Brown in the way — many believe Brown will run in 2014 to become one of the oldest governors in U.S. history — Villaraigosa may not get his shot until 2018.
To stay politically relevant for the next five years, he'll need money and a public platform.
"He threw in his lot with the powerful, monied downtown interests," says one critic, Episcopal Rev. Alice Callaghan, a former Catholic nun who has long run a child care clinic and charter school in Skid Row for children of mostly Mexican immigrants. "He didn't improve the lot of the poor. ... I don't care what he does [after he leaves office], as long as he's gone. ... I wouldn't vote for him for dogcatcher."
That's a fairly common view of Villaraigosa in divided Los Angeles. Another comes from his many fans, such as Denny Zane, executive director of Move L.A., a mass-transit advocacy group. "I expect [Villaraigosa's next job] will be a high-profile thing," Zane says. "I expect and hope it will allow him to ponder about running for governor."
Zane, architect of the 2008 Measure R transit tax, is so devoted to Villaraigosa that he engages in fairly bold historic revisionism, frequently crediting Villaraigosa's support for pushing Measure R over the top. Even the Los Angeles Times has occasionally stated this as fact. In truth, the tax hike squeaked through with less than a 1 percent margin, thanks entirely to 2008's crush of young Obama voters. But Zane sees a wholly different mayor than does Callaghan.
"He's been extraordinarily effective," Zane says.
On a windy Sunday in 2012 at the exclusive Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, lobbyist Harvey Englander stood in the clubhouse overlooking the dramatic 18th hole as Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley battled in the Northern Trust Open, ultimately won by Bill Haas. It was mid-February and Villaraigosa, joining Englander in the VIP area, was already thinking about his post-mayoral future.
"We had a nice conversation about life," Englander recalls.
Rumors were swirling that winter that Villaraigosa might be chosen by President Barack Obama as secretary of commerce. According to a campaign professional who has advised Villaraigosa many times, it was "friends and allies" of Villaraigosa's who spread that long-shot possibility.
Another ally — a member of a large circle who've known Villaraigosa for more than two decades, who spends both personal and work time with the mayor — says, "The commerce secretary [job] was a bullshit rumor. I don't know who started it, but people in D.C. assure me it was bullshit. [Villaraigosa] was never on any short list. Honestly, commerce for Antonio?"
Villaraigosa faced big hurdles if he was ever to get to Washington. He was hurt by a 2008 L.A. Weekly investigative article, "The All-About-Me Mayor," which found that he spent 89 percent of his working hours as mayor giving media interviews, attending banquets and ceremonies and traveling — while devoting only 11 percent of his workdays to fiscal, policy and departmental problems unfolding at City Hall. Seven months later, Los Angeles magazine followed with an iconic cover shot of Villaraigosa in a designer suit, with "Failure" slapped across his chest.
A fresh peek by the Weekly at his recent personal calendar, encompassing a 15-week period from Sept. 1-Dec. 16, 2012, reveals a politician still overwhelmingly focused on photo ops, ribbon cuttings and travel. (For details, please see "How Villaraigosa Spent His 12-Hour Days in 2012.")
When Villaraigosa insisted to Englander at Riviera Country Club that he had "no interest" in Obama's commerce post, Englander suggested Villaraigosa try to get hired as chairman of the Democratic National Committee — an idea that surfaced publicly much later that year, in a rousing story about the mayor on Politico.com.