Antonio Villaraigosa's Quest for Wall Street, Washington and Wealth
The "vendido" comment on the mayor's collar got painted over. But the slams kept coming.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
After 19 years spent mostly in elected office, where he has gained a reputation as a frenetic promoter of both himself and the city, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was busily working an A-list room once again — this time inside the posh Sunset Tower Hotel at Vanity Fair's Feb. 24 Oscar party, one of the swankiest events on L.A.'s social calendar.
As waiters served In-N-Out burgers and cupcakes to Oscar winners Ben Affleck and Daniel Day-Lewis, and actress Melissa McCarthy sipped on a Stella Artois, Villaraigosa spotted conservative Fox News superstar Bill O'Reilly in the crowd.
He immediately headed O'Reilly's way.
The liberal-to-moderate Democrat Villaraigosa and O'Reilly actually had something in common to chat about. Villaraigosa had been a recent frequent guest on Fox, appearing eight times in the final three months of 2012 on Fox News, Fox Business and Mundo Fox — part of his transformation of the mayor's office into a PR machine hearkening back to the era of inveterate self-promoter Mayor Sam Yorty. Yorty campaigned for governor and president while mayor and was a regular on The Tonight Show, but his pace can't hold a candle to Villaraigosa's, who gave nearly 100 media interviews in the last quarter of 2012 and has been criticized as "the 11 percent mayor" for spending a fraction of his working hours on more pressing mayoral duties.
But this night, Villaraigosa wasn't thinking of a guest spot on Fox News — he was thinking about his search for a job. He had fervently hoped, friends and colleagues say, to land an Obama cabinet post as secretary of transportation. But after hamming it up with Charlie Sheen in Cabo San Lucas in January, he was seen in Washington, D.C., as having too much baggage. In early February, Villaraigosa announced late on a Friday afternoon that he was "flattered" but not interested in the cabinet position.
Three weeks later, he glided past film stars and caught up to O'Reilly, flashing a welcoming grin, according to an Oscar partygoer. Then Villaraigosa loudly asked O'Reilly for help landing an on-camera job. Villaraigosa said he wanted "to speak to [Fox News CEO] Roger Ailes" about "going to work" at the network. O'Reilly appeared genial, but his response could not be heard.
When Villaraigosa's mayoral run ends June 30 due to term limits, he could use not just a job but one that affords him the multimillionaire lifestyle to which he's become accustomed as a flamboyant public servant. His concerned allies have even determined how much Villaraigosa should earn: About $750,000 a year to replicate the life of luxury hotels, nomadic air travel, taxpayer-supplied Getty House mayoral mansion, thousand-dollar seats at sporting and entertainment events, SUV with Los Angeles Police Department security detail attached and innumerable evenings over fine food and wine paid for by wealthy friends and supporters.
"He doesn't have a car to drive," says influential City Hall lobbyist Harvey Englander, "he doesn't have a place to live — and he needs a lot of money."
Close associates and City Hall insiders, on and off the record, concur that Villaraigosa, the second-highest-paid mayor in the country, at $232,735 a year, is broke — and has next to nothing lined up. And the clock is ticking. In five weeks he'll be shown the door at Getty House, the historic mansion in tony Windsor Square, which Villaraigosa surrounded two years ago with a controversial "security wall."
He leaves office with strong support only from L.A.'s Latino voters, and a deeply split view of his abilities among the rest of the electorate. A man of substantial self-regard who believes he faces no boundaries to future success, Villaraigosa has suggested to friends, civic leaders and neighborhood activists that he's the right choice for a Wall Street firm, a think tank, a university seeking a scholar-in-residence or a publisher looking for a hot new memoirist. (He and his staff declined to comment on his job search.)
CityWatchLA.com columnist Jack Humphreville, who has reported on Villaraigosa's personal finances — to the keen interest, he says, of Democratic and Republican members of Congress — says the mayor is frank about his economic woes. "I've heard him say it a couple of times," Humphreville says: " 'I need a job. I don't have any money.' "
Villaraigosa's years of legally required "statements of economic interests" from 2001 through 2012 verify that, aside from a few thousand dollars he annually collects from a modest rental home he owns in Moreno Valley, he has no revenue streams, no financial investments. No stocks. No bonds. (The Weekly could not determine how much public pension Villaraigosa will collect, or when. Through a spokeswoman, Thomas Moutes, head of the Los Angeles City Employees' Retirement System, said LACERS has "no records" regarding this public information.)
Villaraigosa has been paid a total of $1,682,937 as mayor, a serious chunk of which, for the past several years, has gone to his ex-wife and children in alimony and child support. He has risen to the 1 percent, in practice if not in fact, by relying heavily on other people's money. Taxpayers, private groups and foundations have footed huge travel bills, as Villaraigosa spent fully 42 percent of his official city working hours, according to his own calendar, out of town between Sept. 1 and Dec. 16 last year. His personal schedule also reflects, on the eve of his departure, a onetime man of the people who regularly sits down with billionaires such as Eli Broad and Forever 21 founder Do Won Chang — but rarely with activists or ordinary people who know firsthand what's happening in L.A.'s communities.
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.
On Sept. 20, 2012, the mayor dined with Democratic strategist Garry South at Celestino Drago's downtown Drago Centro, across from the landmark Central Library, where South suggested Villaraigosa would be an excellent candidate for governor. "We're going to have a Latino governor sooner rather than later," South tells the Weekly. "It's inevitable. It's just a matter of who it's going to be."
South says Villaraigosa probably wants to "make some money. ... He's been living on an elected official's salary since 1994."
Many in the city's political class think that Villaraigosa, who torpedoed his marriage by carrying on a secret affair with TV journalist Mirthala Salinas, has been constrained by his public pay. California state senator and former L.A. City Council president Alex Padilla, who hopes to become L.A. mayor one day, says, "He deserves to be [financially] comfortable, to focus on himself and to be concerned about retirement and taking care of his family."
Villaraigosa lives far better than Gov. Jerry Brown, and more showily than any modern L.A. mayor, including multimillionaire Richard Riordan. The Weekly's 2008 investigation revealed that Villaraigosa left L.A. 10 times in a 10-week period, flying to London, Hawaii, Israel and Miami, and attending the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver with a "security" detail — and a personal photographer. In his first four years as mayor, he hobnobbed with billionaire pals like grocery-store magnate Ron Burkle, pursued his taste for fine wines, expensive suits and attractive women, and generally had a romp in office.
Now, four years later, a close look at 15 weeks of his personal calendar from late 2012 reveals that Villaraigosa leaves town far more frequently than in 2008 and spends 15 percent of his workday on core mayoral duties such as dealing with policy, departmental and fiscal problems.
From Sept. 1 to Dec. 16, Villaraigosa traveled to 18 destinations, including Charlotte, Houston and San Francisco, and stayed at the luxury Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C., and the Andaz boutique hotel in New York. He took a 10-day trade mission to South America, where he was photographed at the glitzy Forever 21 fashion show at the upscale Titan Plaza mall in Bogotá, Colombia.
Whether at home or on the road, others were there to cover the mayor's restaurant bills, air travel and hotels. The Willie Brown Jr. Institute paid $1,188 for one of his trips to San Francisco; the Academy of Achievement paid $4,573 for one of his stay-overs in Washington, D.C.; the Center for American Progress paid $2,937 for another of his D.C. visits; and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, of which Villaraigosa served as president from June 2011 to June 2012, spent $34,227 on his "airfare, lodging, ground transportation, plus reasonable and necessary expenses."
In the last three months of 2012, the L.A. County Democratic Party treated Villaraigosa to $391 in meals; Zenith Insurance picked up a tab for $414; the Breeder's Cup gave him $420 in tickets to its ball and other events; and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block gave him $154 in football tickets. President Bill Clinton even paid a bill — for $55. The personal and professional acquaintance who has known Villaraigosa for two decades says, "I'm told he has lived like a president for eight years, always driven everywhere. Which is pretty unusual even in this town of billionaires."
Good-government advocate Bob Stern expects Villaraigosa to be jarred when the flow of gifts, liquor, meals and VIP freebies slows, saying, "It's going to be a real letdown for him in July."
On Dec. 3, a couple of days before City Attorney Carmen Trutanich gave Villaraigosa a $50 lamp, the mayor got bad news about the Democratic National Committee job: Obama wrote on his Twitter account that he'd asked "Debbie Wasserman Schultz to continue her excellent work as chair of the DNC."
To many, this was no surprise. Villaraigosa had never gotten the hang of accepted chief-executive practices, such as holding department-head meetings to get a grip on key policy initiatives that, during Villaraigosa's reign, often went awry. People who attended the very infrequent meetings say Villaraigosa might spend an hour reminiscing about his own up-from-rags story. Remembers one official, "Then, with a few minutes to go, he turns to we gathered department heads and says, 'OK now. What would you like to say about your departments — how's it going?' "
Villaraigosa badly wanted an executive post in Washington. He'd traveled there repeatedly to sell Congress on his interesting 30/10 plan — an "infrastructure bank" that would loan Metro billions of dollars against future county sales taxes to build the Westside subway in 10 years instead of 30. When his 30/10 idea died, it was rebranded as America Fast Forward, and Congress finally provided limited funds for large metro areas. L.A. County is getting $1 billion. But Villaraigosa's dream — slashing by 20 years the epic time needed to construct the subway to Westwood by securing billions in upfront federal help — went down to defeat.
Nevertheless, Villaraigosa's frequent visits and energetic salesmanship gave him a high profile in Washington. He told L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce president Gary L. Toebben that he wanted a career there. "He was clearly going for the secretary of transportation," says one longtime Latino campaign consultant.
Last November, Politico.com, which has more than once promoted the mayor's dreams, published a rumor that Obama might pick Villaraigosa for transportation. The two-decade personal friend and colleague of the mayor's says Villaraigosa was the first one who "floated it, but then it became real" as officials in Washington engaged in "serious discussion about nominating him — quite serious."
That's when staffers for congressional Democrats and Republicans called the surprised CityWatchLA columnist, Humphreville. He had wondered in one of his columns how it was that Villaraigosa, on a $232,735 salary, could "afford $100,000 to $150,000 of fine wines a year, dine at the best restaurants in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and [Los Angeles] and dress like a peacock when he has to pay taxes, send his two children to exclusive schools with an after-tax sticker price of over $80,000 a year, and support the mother of his two children?"
Humphreville says staffers for the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate called him seeking more details. "One Democratic staffer was concerned that there would be a shit storm," Humphreville says, "and he didn't want a shit storm."
Congressional Republicans also were avidly interested — and might have revived Villaraigosa's history of cheating on his wife, Corina, which destroyed his 20-year marriage in 2007 and paved the way for Jerry Brown's run for governor instead of Villaraigosa's. Republicans would have had a red-letter day, too, over the mayor's 1-percenter life, particularly his "Ticketgate" controversy. Ticketgate erupted in 2010, when media outlets reported that Villaraigosa had violated state and city ethics laws both by taking and by failing to report that he'd taken between $50,000 and $100,000 worth of tickets to 80 sporting, celebrity, concert and other events, often from entities doing business with the city. He eventually agreed to pay a $42,000 fine.
If that wasn't enough dynamite for Republicans, there was Villaraigosa's posing with troubled actor Sheen in Mexico, an incident tweeted around the world in January. Villaraigosa insisted he'd hung out with Sheen for just minutes. Sheen said it was more like a few hours, then released another statement slightly backing away from that assertion.
According to Villaraigosa's personal and professional ally of two decades, the Cabo/Sheen scandal was "the straw that broke the camel's back. It showed extreme bad judgment and was the end for Antonio going to Washington." The Obama administration "did not want to put up a candidate who couldn't pass or might not pass the vetting process. And the Republicans were also watching, were going to go after him over his scandals, his personal life and his judgment. He got the word, and the president allowed him to bow out."
Villaraigosa's Washington dreams had crashed and burned. Not one to sulk for long, however, he's charging ahead with other career ideas. His plan doesn't appear focused — which reminds some of his scattershot approach to governing.
"He didn't focus and he didn't push for his city agenda," says Jay Handal, chairman of the West L.A. Neighborhood Council. "He spent a huge amount of time trying to get people elected president. That's good if you want another job, but we were a city in crisis."
Last month, on the outside patio of the Chamber of Commerce headquarters downtown, Villaraigosa enjoyed the skyline view and the company of top business figures. They were there to throw him a farewell party — and to contribute $1,000 or $2,000 apiece to the mayor's "officeholder account," legal slush funds that L.A. politicians can spend on almost anything personal or public.
Villaraigosa told the gathering of 30 at the two-hour April 10 soiree that he had contacts with Wall Street firms and other financial organizations and was looking on Wall Street for work. "He's very interested in the private sector," Toebben later told the Weekly.
The concept — Villaraigosa on Wall Street — might draw howls of protest from his detractors, but Villaraigosa sees himself as capable of tremendous career stretches. "At the end of the day," state senator Padilla says, "Antonio is a very good strategist and dealmaker."
Villaraigosa has been trying out his various options with different people and groups. Fernando J. Guerra, Loyola Marymount University political science professor and director of the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles, says Villaraigosa "gave me very generic answers" when he dined with the mayor at a downtown Mexican restaurant in September. Villaraigosa, the professor recalls, said he wanted to "decompress" and "affiliate" himself with a university. Guerra, a fan of the mayor's, took that as a sign that "he doesn't want to appear as if there's a conflict of interest."
Gil Cedillo, a former state legislator who considers Villaraigosa "family," has heard that Villaraigosa wants to be a scholar-in-residence at UCLA or USC. Cedillo says, "I don't know how much time he'll spend in a classroom with chalk in his hand. ... He's not a guy who would limit himself."
At a Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates meeting a few weeks ago, Handal says, Villaraigosa told the neighborhood leaders he wants to "hook up with a think tank" — a seemingly noble option to trot out with fiscal watchdogs such as the budget advocates, who often are at odds with the mayor.
Handal, for example, complains, "Are you better off today in this city than eight years ago? The answer is no."
West Adams Neighborhood Council treasurer Ana McBride calls Villaraigosa's annual budget meeting with neighborhood council leaders "a joke," adding, "things have gotten worse" in her neighborhood.
In an April 28 web interview with ABC News, Villaraigosa cast a wide net, leaving open the possibility he'll run for office again. His supporters would like to see that happen. LMU professor Guerra says, "I'm convinced Antonio Villaraigosa is going to go down as one of the best mayors in the history of Los Angeles."
Responding to ABC viewers who queried him via Facebook and Twitter, Villaraigosa said he'd probably, "ride into the sunset for a bit. I think I'll work in the private sector, maybe join a speakers bureau, if you will. Write a book. Affiliate with a think tank. And get ready. ... I love public service, it's an honor. It's been a real honor to be mayor of the city that my grandpa came to a hundred years ago. I want to continue to serve, but a little time for reflection is always good."
If, during his reflection time, Villaraigosa asks L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina what he should do, she may suggest TV punditry. In a statement to the Weekly, Molina backhandedly offered: "He should become the Anderson Cooper of the Latino community. He is telegenic and bilingual."
According to the campaign professional who has advised the mayor, Villaraigosa is seriously considering writing a memoir, and he expects a big payday. Lobbyist Englander says, "He has a terrific life story." Literary agents contacted by the Weekly say a book advance could bring in up to $1 million — and, according to one agent, Villaraigosa is talking with a major agency.
One of the few ideas Villaraigosa is not talking up is a rumor that he's toying with running for L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's seat in the 3rd District and is looking to rent or buy a place there. Yaroslavsky, who many hoped would run for mayor of L.A. this year, is termed out in 2014. He represents a vast district that covers such wealthy communities as Malibu, Santa Monica, Bel Air, West Hollywood and Hancock Park — areas whose affluent residents act as Obama's ATM card when the president hops into town to fund-raise.
The 3rd District seat could make a great launching pad for governor.
Former state legislator and gay-rights icon Sheila Kuehl long ago launched plans to win Yaroslavsky's seat, and has been widely viewed as a shoo-in. But Villaraigosa can't afford to fade away entirely if he hopes to run for governor or U.S. Senate (another rumor). Political analyst Jaime Regalado says the Board of Supervisors seat is an "interesting" possibility for Villaraigosa: "It would keep him in the public eye, it would keep him politically relevant, and it would keep him in the press."
Yaroslavsky has not talked with Villaraigosa about it and isn't sure the post would be a good fit for him. "Knowing him," says Yaroslavsky, who has served with, and clashed with, Villaraigosa on the powerful regional Metro board, "he's been a chief executive for eight years. He probably won't want to work within a group of five."
Kuehl says the Villaraigosa rumor is "absolutely not true" and declined further comment. But if Villaraigosa jumps in, he'll be the immediate and clear front-runner. "People of that prominence always land somewhere," neighborhood council activist Handal says with a huff.
Well-known L.A. environmentalist Marcia Hanscom says Villaraigosa has dramatically changed since he was California Assembly speaker and worked closely with everyday people like her — such as when Villaraigosa helped the Wetlands Action Network coalition of more than 100 groups save hundreds of acres of riparian habitat, meadows and wetlands at the Ballona Wetlands on the densely packed Westside.
Now, she can't even get him on the phone. "For some reason," Hanscom says, "Antonio's hands-on style went away. I feel he's been very distant with the public."
Callaghan, from her classrooms on Skid Row, says Villaraigosa over the past eight years used his "oversized ambition" to improve his station in life rather than the lives of city residents. "He's always been out for himself," she says. "What I'm surprised at is that people have supported him for so long."
Villaraigosa's backers see an entirely different person — a man who will go far, baggage or not, and who deserves it.
"He's got a lot of talent," Gil Cedillo says. "He's a man with a sense of urgency."
Garry South calls him a "national figure" and a "prized possession" for any corporation seeking a celebrity name to add to its letterhead.
There is every chance that Villaraigosa, a politician who is both deeply resourceful and wildly flawed, will land on his feet, giving new grist to his enemies and new hope to his friends.
And there's always this: Roger Ailes might call.
Additional reporting by Jill Stewart.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Note: Ninth paragraph updated and corrected Friday, May 24, 10:45 a.m.]
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.
- Film Students Arrested After Display of Prop Guns Shuts Down 101 Frwy
Wed., Dec. 2, 7:30pm
Thu., Dec. 3, 6:00pm
Fri., Dec. 4, 7:00pm
Sat., Dec. 5, 1:00pm
- What Does Hamburg Know About the Olympics That Los Angeles Doesn't?
- Why Charter School Teachers Are Split on Unionization