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Summer of Power

Midway through Antonio Villaraigosa’s first summer as mayor of Los Angeles, there are so far only two things that can be said for certain about the new regime: Villaraigosa has been busy, and Los Angeles has gotten bigger. The busy part almost goes without saying, as Villaraigosa has been photographed walking up the steps of the Capitol, taking a ride on a street-surfacing machine, chatting with subway riders and doing pretty much anything else you can think of. He’s spoken to think tanks, neighborhood revelers, and family members in mourning. It’s a rare Sunday when he attends only one church service. Since he took the oath of office on July 1, just once has his office released a statement saying he had no public events for the day. That was practically news by itself. As for Los Angeles getting bigger, that can be attributed directly to the mayor’s quest to expand and consolidate his power. In a city that by tradition and under the charter has a weak mayor, Villaraigosa has quickly become the most powerful man in the state by his willingness to take advantage of every opportunity to assert himself. Even officially, he exercises control over an area much larger than the city whose people elected him. The boundaries of Los Angeles remain intact, but Villaraigosa now reaches beyond them by exercising control over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Los Angeles Unified School District.The MTA became his this week, as he chaired his first meeting of the agency’s board. That’s a job former Mayor Richard Riordan loved, but one his successor, Jim Hahn, gladly turned over to a city councilman so that he could focus his energy on city business. Villaraigosa has taken pains to let everyone know he has enough energy to go around and will expend it not only on city business, but on transportation issues that encompass the county’s other 87 cities, the unincorporated areas, and beyond.It’s merely by chance that he gets the opportunity right away to lead the MTA, which rotates its chairmanship yearly among the mayor, the county Board of Supervisors and the association of smaller MTA cities. It’s the mayor’s turn this year, and Villaraigosa said he plans to make the most of it.His agenda now becomes the MTA’s agenda, and if he says the agency is going to look at getting back into the subway-digging business, the wisest thing the staff there could do is say, “Okay, boss.” That doesn’t mean the tunneling will start tomorrow, or at all, especially since most of the county supervisors oppose the idea, but it does mean the subway issue will be where the action is for the foreseeable future. That, and the question of buying buses. Villaraigosa will have the key role this September in deciding whether the MTA is going to buy more buses to comply with a consent decree settling a suit by the Bus Riders’ Union, and whether it is going to gouge the riders by raising their fares to pay for the new purchases.As for the school district, which also reaches beyond the city of Los Angeles to include many other municipalities in the county, don’t be fooled by the mayor’s apparent backtracking on his campaign vow to take ultimate control over the Board of Education. Yes, Villaraigosa was cool to the legislation introduced by state Senator Gloria Romero that would explicitly put the mayor in charge of the LAUSD if schools perform poorly. And yes, he said that the whole issue of mayoral control should wait, and that his first goal is making sure the city is doing everything it can with its current authority to make kids safe and healthy. But that wise bit of politicking merely obscures the fact that Villaraigosa already has taken control just by raising the prospect of a formal takeover. Schools Superintendent Roy Romer saw the unmistakable momentum that was building toward mayoral control, and by the time he sat down with the mayor earlier this month for what both termed “frank” talks, it was clear that Villaraigosa, with a word or a gesture, would have at least as much a role in setting Romer’s agenda as do the seven elected part-time school-board members. As far as securing backing in the City Council, you only have to take a glance at what his adversary-turned-ally, council President Alex Padilla, has done with committee assignments. Nothing big or new, actually, but an interesting jab here and there. Jack Weiss, Villaraigosa’s most vocal City Council backer, wound up in charge of the public-safety committee, one of the council’s most visible posts. Eric Garcetti, who supported the losing incumbent Mayor Jim Hahn, got bounced from the powerful budget committee. Janice Hahn, the ex-mayor’s sister, gave up her chairmanship of the education-and-neighborhoods committee, and the job of vice chair goes to — well, nobody, because it’s assigned to the representative of the 14th council district, which Villaraigosa left empty when he was elected mayor (an election to fill that seat, and the 10th District seat vacated by Martin Ludlow, is scheduled for November 8). Meanwhile, the audits panel that helped focus the ethics spotlight on Jim Hahn is to be chaired by — the empty 14th District. And vice-chaired by the empty 10th District. You can almost hear Padilla saying, “No need for this committee looking into our new mayor’s affairs for a while.” It’s okay to argue that Padilla is his own man. But at stake over the next several months, as the City Council goes about its business, is the very valuable and powerful Villaraigosa endorsement in next year’s state Senate race to succeed Richard Alarcón. Padilla wants it. So does Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez. Forget about the voters in the east Valley making their choice during the 2006 primary. The real primary happens now, as Villaraigosa decides which candidate to back, and whether to join the chorus of Padilla supporters now trying to get Montanez to back out and instead run for Padilla’s council seat when it becomes available. A half-dozen or so other key races in the Legislature are shaking out the same way, as are the races to fill the two empty council seats. With Los Angeles County Federation of Labor kingmaker Miguel Contreras gone, and with the organization crippled by the recent defections from the AFL-CIO, and with Villaraigosa acolyte Martin Ludlow now running the County Fed, it is the mayor who has become the kingmaker. So it is the Summer of Power for Antonio Villaraigosa. It is still far too early to call on him to make good on promises to add police officers, ease traffic or improve schools. That time will come, but for the next month, perhaps two, he will continue to extend his reach.There’s no denying that it’s fun to watch. You could see that earlier this month, as he was ticking off a list of things the city can do to improve the lot of young students. The crowd should have been eating this stuff up, because they were educators and policy wonks. But he knew what they wanted to hear, and he finally gave it to them.“I can tell you, I see greener days ahead,” he said. “Because there’s a new sheriff in town.”They loved it. They cheered. They’ll be cheering all summer.


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