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Mayor of the Future

“Our polling said [my margin of victory] would be somewhere in the vicinity of 15 points, but I always believed it would be less than that,” said Antonio Villaraigosa last Friday afternoon, trying to come to grips with his landslide 17-point victory over Jim Hahn three days before.

“Did you see those people on election night?” he continued, marveling at the meaning of those numbers. “We had thousands of people.”

It was always clear that Antonio Villaraigosa’s election as mayor of Los Angeles would be a big deal, and it was. Front-page news in the national papers. The cover of a national news magazine. Phone calls from national and international leaders. The civic life subjected, in big things and small, to a greater scrutiny than he’s ever experienced, or than a garden-variety mayor of L.A. normally receives. During the interview, an aide popped in to remind him he’d be leaving for Dodger Stadium soon to throw out the first pitch for the Dodgers-Angels series. Villaraigosa was nervous: “Ninety feet,” he moaned. I reminded him that from the mound to the plate was just 60, but he was only somewhat reassured.

He faces bigger tests than that, he knows, and none bigger than taking over the school district. “I’d like to see the mayor be responsible for the schools, as [the mayors] are in New York and Chicago,” he said. “You don’t get that done by public pronouncements; you have to sell the stakeholders on it. You have to convince parents, teachers, business — and a lot of business is already there — that the district needs serious change. I don’t think anybody is accountable over there. [The schools have] more dropouts than graduates; something is very wrong.”

The mayor-elect knows that there’s a Nixon-to-China aspect to a Villaraigosa takeover of the schools. The group with the greatest vested interest in the school district is the teachers, whose union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), has helped elect virtually every member of the board of education — not to mention Villaraigosa himself. Villaraigosa was, of course, a UTLA organizer for eight years. And now he’s talking takeover? “They may not like it,” he said, “but they do trust me.”

Villaraigosa is on sound political ground in seeking control of the schools. Fully 50 percent of the people who voted for him, according to the L.A. Times exit poll, cited education as the most important issue in determining their vote — far more than those who cited any other issue (jobs and the economy placed second, with 29 percent mentioning it). Every poll of Latino voters, who backed Villaraigosa at an 84 percent rate, shows that education is the issue that matters most to them. Even with control of the district, there would be very real limits on what any mayor could do about the schools. Still, there’s a great deal a mayor could do even now to speed the construction of new schools — and, in line with the conventional wisdom, Villaraigosa has a particular kind of school in mind. “We need smaller schools,” he said. “Schools with 5,000 or 6,000 students don’t work; we know that. And,” he added, “we need to give schools more power over spending their money; we need more school-based management.”

For the onetime UTLA organizer, though, this doesn’t mean all-power-to-the-principal. “Parents and teachers need to decide how to spend the money,” he said.

Villaraigosa has a keen sense of what he can and can’t do in the first phase of his term as mayor. (No way, for instance, will his first trip be to Mexico.) On increasing the size of the police force, he said, “the voters told us in Measure A that we need to look into our existing budget first. We did that, and we came up with 359 new officers. Then, at some point, we’ll need to educate the public on the need to develop a separate funding stream for more officers.” “Separate funding stream,” of course, is pol-speak for another attempt to get county voters to pass a half-cent sales tax to expand the police department.

Similarly, Villaraigosa supports both inclusionary zoning (requiring developers to build affordable housing as part of their projects) and increasing the funding for the city’s affordable-housing trust fund, an idea he stumped for in the 2001 mayoral campaign that Hahn then embraced as his own. But mindful of his reputation with business, Villaraigosa observed that he “can’t do inclusionary zoning and linkage fees [assessing developers for the trust fund] at the same time.” On Friday, he was plainly walking a tightrope between commitment and caution. On inclusionary zoning, he was still searching for some elusive middle ground where both developers and housing activists would be happy. For the affordable-housing trust fund, he was looking for alternative sources of revenue: selling or leasing surplus city properties, working with state Treasurer Phil Angelides to get more pension funds invested in L.A. affordable housing, leaning harder on local banks to provide home loans to low-income Angelenos. At the same time, he is well aware that he won the support of two-thirds of those voters with yearly family incomes under $60,000, a group almost entirely priced out of the housing market in Los Angeles. Villaraigosa won all income levels last week, but his support was 10 points higher among Angelenos in those families making under $60,000 than among those making over $60,000. The working class has a special claim on him, and he knows it.

Another group with a special claim on him is the young. Among voters aged 18 to 29, Villaraigosa won a phenomenal 77 percent support — higher than any other group in the Times exit poll except Latinos. He carried all voters under 45 at a 72 percent rate. (In his failed effort against Hahn four years ago, he carried voters under 45 at a 57 percent rate — a good sign for a candidate contemplating a rematch.) Thus the widely noted divide between older and younger black voters (he carried 59 percent of black voters under 45 and just 43 percent of those over) is just a part of a larger divide that separates younger and older voters in Los Angeles. Villaraigosa carried voters over 45 with 52 percent — that is, by 20 points less than his total among the under-45s.

What does this yawning age gap mean? Part of it is a refraction of racial differences — younger voters were disproportionately Latino, older voters disproportionately white. Some part of it — but nowhere near so much as Joel Kotkin has argued — reflects that fact that Villaraigosa was cool and Hahn was simply cold. And some of the gap, I daresay, is due to the fact that large numbers of younger Angelenos feel very much at home in a multicultural city, and part of Villaraigosa’s gift is that he, too, seems very much the multicultural man, and now, the multicultural mayor.



For now, the breadth of his victory gives him the boost that the campaign proper did not. Villaraigosa’s vote soared in swing constituencies he lost four years ago, and, despite the campaign’s uninspiring nature, his totals also rose within such core constituencies as liberals (up 13 points) and union members (up 12 points, despite the County Federation of Labor’s endorsement of, if not whole-hearted participation for, Hahn).

Hizzoner campaigned almost entirely as the candidate of fear, declining to run a single positive ad about his own achievements as mayor. It makes perfect sense, then, that when Hahn voters were asked what they liked most about their preferred candidate, a plurality of them answered “None” — that is, they identified none of Hahn’s positive attributes that the Times’ pollsters read to them. (When Villaraigosa voters were asked the same question, the two answers most commonly given were “Understands multicultural L.A.” and “Can bring people together.”)

So now the city has a new mayor, and while he carried all its quadrants, he is particularly the mayor of the young, the working class, the Latinos, the multicultis. More than just about any elected official in America today, that is, he is the pol of the future. He must walk the tightrope that all progressives must walk today: delivering for his constituents in an era of mobile capital that doesn’t particularly want to deliver for anybody but itself. Between the demands of the streets and the suites, he must strike a balance and find unexpected harmonies. He’s been bridging gaps all his life; we’ll see how he does with this one.

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