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A New Age

The seat assignments moved around right up to the start of the ceremony. Everybody wanted to be close to Antonio. Ninety minutes before Antonio Villaraigosa took the oath as mayor last Friday, while the mayor-elect and his family, friends and assorted dignitaries were still at the pan-religious service up Temple Street at the cathedral, Villaraigosa staffers scurried around the seats in front of the dais, placing and then reshuffling the names on appointed chairs. New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg slowly worked his way to the center, in the company of the two members of Congress he picked up in Washington, Loretta and Linda Sanchez. (That Bloomberg considered the Sanchez sisters to be players in L.A. politics only confirmed that he should stick to his side of the Hudson.) The consular corps, at least 60 of them, got their seats: one for Switzerland, one for Guatemala, one for Germany, one for France, and two and a half rows with little signs on every seat that said, simply, “Mexico.” It was a nativist’s nightmare. It was glorious beyond words. The inaugural ceremony itself was a carefully planned — and occasionally spontaneous — ethnic stew. When the color guard entered, shouts of “Que viva Antonio Villaraigosa!” rose from the peanut gallery, from the volunteers and activists who didn’t get assigned seats but were standing alongside and behind the media risers. But the ceremony proper actually stressed the culture of, if not black L.A. as such, then the official African-American community. The singing came from Natalie Cole and the First A.M.E. Choir, who performed “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” — the black national anthem, to which Jim Hahn, L.A.’s outgoing and one-time honorary black mayor, sung along. There was nothing accidental, of course, about the musical selections. Villaraigosa’s people know that much of the city’s old-line black political elite fears being displaced in the new administration, though some of them are slated for commission appointments. Any displacement may be really the consequence of the rise of a new-line black political elite — such figures as Assemblywoman Karen Bass and incoming labor chief Martin Ludlow — that’s closer to Villaraigosa, and L.A.’s progressive movement, than they are. For progressive L.A. — the network of unionists, enviros, community organizers, policy wonks, lefty clergy and others — Villaraigosa’s inaugural was a seminal and deeply moving event. They’ve been gathering in church basements and university classrooms, nondescript boardrooms, union halls and the occasional big-deal conference — not to mention pounding the pavement all over town — for close to 20 years now, grappling with the problems and speeding the political transformation of a city in mind-boggling transition. Antonio was one of their own, though he belongs to others, too; and his success was theirs — though not only theirs. They know he must be centrist as well as progressive; they want to help him navigate that path. If his inaugural address is any indication, Villaraigosa’s footing is very sure. He repeatedly evoked the Other Los Angeles — the “people who clean homes and offices, who work the night shifts and empty bedpans . . . who sweep the floors and load the freight.” Our goal, he said, must be to bring them into the great civic dream that the city embodies. But the policies he said he’d prioritize were universal policies to fix the whole city, not just its meaner streets. He talked schools and transit and greening and cops. He talked universalistic solutions to particularistic problems, which is both smart politics and just about the only way that progressive programs in this country have ever been enacted. Some of the assembled progressives had been there for the only other remotely comparable moment in L.A.’s civic life: Tom Bradley’s first inaugural in 1973. Rita Walters, a former member of the LAUSD’s Board of Education, remembered “the same sense of excitement that’s here today” and that Bradley had been sworn in by then-Chief Justice Earl Warren. It’s a mark of the problems that Villaraigosa will confront that Bradley was sworn in by the leading liberal on the federal bench while he was sworn in last Friday by just about the last liberal on the federal bench, 9th Circuit Appellate Justice Stephen Reinhardt. When the ceremony was done, L.A.’s progressives circled around for the next couple of hours, in equal measure excited and dazed. Antonio had dazzled, and they were struggling happily with the unaccustomed problems of power and possibility. Discussions, as at all such events, turned to who was in and who was out. Parke Skelton, who’s been Villaraigosa’s consultant since his first race for the State Assembly in 1994, confessed he’d had a nightmare the previous night: that late absentees had finally come in, and Hahn had actually won. But the new reality was in some way stranger than Skelton’s subconscious. The normal trope about Los Angeles is that nobody pays any attention to its government, that power is so fragmented here and glamor so clearly located elsewhere that only the benighted invest interest and hope in our civic affairs. This is a trope much beloved by any number of intellectuals and journalists; it will be difficult to change. But no one who attended Antonio Villaraigosa’s inaugural or who has spent time with him during the transition or his first couple days in office could be insensible to the buzz, which is not simply personal, that the new mayor has created. What people felt at City Hall last Friday was, quite simply, civic excitement — which in Los Angeles may seem profoundly an oxymoron, but whose existence is increasingly difficult to deny. And now Villaraigosa is racing around town, issuing pronouncements, making appointments, turning up everywhere. His mayoral model, New York’s legendary Fiorello LaGuardia, once attended a show at Radio City Music Hall with his aide, Newbold Morris. LaGuardia called Morris’ attention to the auditorium’s organist, busily pumping away on one of the world’s largest organs. “That’s how you govern, Newbold,” he said. “With both hands and both feet, and you never let go!” In what appears to be the same spirit, Antonio has begun.


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