The Amazing Adventures of Super Mayor

Illustration by Miguel Valenzuela

Los Angeles was bored. The capital of creativity and entertainment, of sunshine and hazy skies, was mired in the doldrums. Antonio Villaraigosa moved through the city incognito, without spark. He proved an unremarkable city councilman. He was a less-than-inspiring mayoral candidate — still handsome and compelling, but he seemed to be missing that special power he once had to wow voters with his own tale of redemption and with stirring words of a city’s great future. He faced off a second time against James K. Hahn in a fight for the mayor’s office, but this time it was an epic battle of lowered expectations. Yes, he promised a host of think-big projects, but they all seemed so far beyond a mayor’s grasp that they failed to get the blood pumping. The essence of his campaign was not completing a rail line or building new housing but the robotic pledge to “roll up my sleeves.” But enough voters remembered the crusader of 2001, or at least were sufficiently repelled by the sleep-inducing politics and persona of Mayor Hahn, that they returned to Antonio on May 17. Few voters went to the polls, but the ones who did voted overwhelmingly for Villaraigosa. It changed everything for him, and perhaps for us. It was as if a mild-mannered business-as-usual politician had ducked into a phone booth to rip off his street clothes and reveal the superhero hiding inside. He wears silk ties instead of a cape, favors Armani instead of tights. But his instantaneous transformation and his stunning performance over the last six weeks have been unmistakable. Antonio Villaraigosa has been quite simply the most successful, accomplished, energetic, downright mayoral mayor-elect Los Angeles has seen. And it’s not just for show. It’s not just that he’s been everywhere, doing everything, raising the public profile of Los Angeles, reminding people here that we deserve a mayor. Throwing out the game ball at Dodger Stadium, opening a new attraction at Universal Studios, pumping the flesh at restaurants and on street corners. It’s not just that he’s brought the international spotlight, landing on the cover of Newsweek, grabbing prime time on CNN, taking calls from Arnold and Hillary and all the other luminaries known instantly by their first names alone. It’s not just that he has instantly taken charge, with vows to run the MTA and take responsibility for the schools. The show and the promises would be enough for a mayor-elect. But Antonio — he, too, is known instantly by his first name alone — has already averted a labor clash that threatened to cripple the city’s major hotels and lock out thousands of housekeepers, bellhops, dishwashers and food servers at the start of the busy summer season. Flashing his trademark grin in front of the Walt Disney Concert Hall on June 16 to announce the end of the 14-month-long labor standoff — due largely to his own all-nighters spent shuttling from room to room to get the two sides to come to terms — Villaraigosa positively glowed with confidence, accomplishment and promise. He was just in from Texas, where he spoke at a conference of Hispanic journalists, right after putting the finishing touches on the first appointments to his top staff here, hosting a party for his Eastside volunteers, speaking to the Los Angeles Press Club, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, the Congress for New Urbanism. He opened a centennial celebration for El Sereno; he presided over a Flag Day ceremony — in Glendale. And now, he ended a hotel labor dispute. “¡Que viva nuestra alcalde!” shouted one cheering hotel worker. Long live our mayor. “¡Si, se puede! Si, se pudo!” everyone chimed in. Yes, we can! Yes, it could be done! Yes, we did it! His arms outstretched, the mayor-elect gently guided lesser dignitaries to their places next to him and behind him on the concert-hall steps. City Council members — technically on this day still Villaraigosa’s colleagues, and many of them a little self-conscious over having endorsed the other guy — crowded around him for a share of the spotlight and a place in the money shot with Villaraigosa and the podium decorated with the official seal of the city of Los Angeles. There was no doubt who was in charge here. Super Mayor. And there next to him, his trusty sidekick, Martin Ludlow. The Boy Wonder. “And he’s not even mayor yet,” someone pointed out. Well, yes and no. Later that day, Villaigosa had himself sworn in by the city clerk, a full two weeks before the first day of his term. Two weeks! No objection was heard from Mayor Hahn, who had been practically invisible for four years and seemed only too happy to pack up and go. And now, finally, Villaraigosa is mayor for real. In Washington, in New York, in Texas, in places where they have histories of vigorous agenda-setting mayors, we’re being hailed for our smarts in electing a leader of the future. Here at home we had some catching up to do. Have we even voted for mayor yet? Who was that guy in a suit at the beach on the cover of Newsweek? But we’ve been getting up to speed. Having helped put the city to sleep, Antonio Villaraigosa is now trying to wake it up, this time on his own terms. Los Angeles is no longer bored. At least for now. Excited? Let’s not overdo it. Bemused? Curious? Maybe paying a little attention? Open to something new? Perhaps. Because that bumbling guy from the campaign, that half-lost City Council freshman, turns out to be that guy we last saw in 2001, full of spark, energy and aspiration. He can be exhausting just to watch. Will he run out of energy before the first crisis comes? Will Super Mayor turn back into Clark Kent just when we need some superhuman strength? “He’s about to find out,” predicted one high-ranking City Hall official, “why Jim Hahn was so tired all the time.” Or will he instead fly too high, reach too far, and succumb to lust for even greater strength? Villaraigosa has been compelled to summon, as best he can, his reserves of modesty when dismissing suggestions that his charisma, his Latino heritage and his political skills already put him in the running for a vice-presidential nod in 2008. Even before 2008, though, there are this fall’s state-reshaping ballot measures, put up by his party’s master adversary in Sacramento – Arnold Schwarzenegger. More and more, like it or not, Antonio Villaraigosa will be portrayed as some kind of superhero, with a dark underside that infatuates his chroniclers. There will be demands by supporters that he act the part of larger-than-life comic book legend. So far, he almost is. Super Mayor. True, no cape. But the sleeve thing turned out to be true. He rolled them up. Now what? What happens next is anyone’s guess, although during his campaign Antonio Villaraigosa himself sketched out his policy roadmap for the future with three major points targeted at Los Angeles’ historically most intractable problems: fix the schools, fix traffic, get more cops. Make that three and a half points if you include: clean up City Hall. Simple enough, unless you’re an ordinary mortal. Into the spaces between those three and a half points were stuffed several shopping lists of programs and policies demanded by old supporters from the left and from Latino L.A. and new ones from the pragmatic center, from African-Americans, from business and from the Valley. Depending on whom you ask at any given time, you will be told that Antonio promised to take care of port security, air pollution, homelessness, health care, fleeing business, urban sprawl, animal care, water rates, racial discord, labor unrest. Keeping some of those promises necessarily means delaying, or breaking, others, and breaking promises can be political death for a politician — even when the promises were never actually made. Villaraigosa has parlayed his ACLU ties and his labor-organizing background into a political career of championing progressive causes. Unlike others who carry that mantle, though, he has had little trouble hammering out accords with moderates and Republicans. Shortly after his election he tried to share this knack with the Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive gathering in Washington. During his speech, he recalled how some say he was the most progressive Assembly speaker in history. It was a major applause line. But he then called upon his fellow progs to be more politically inclusive, saying his ability to reach across the aisle was a key to his success. Tellingly, most observers instead heard in Villaraigosa’s speech a call to be more ethnically diverse. He has vowed to govern “from the center” and has selected as his chief of staff Robin Kramer, who filled that role for centrist Republican Richard Riordan. His first appointments were a model of care, all well-respected government veterans who, by the way, represented several ethnic groups. There was no opportunity for observers to say, as some did on the campaign trail, “He’s only going to be there for Latinos.” As he moves into his third-floor City Hall office, he is blessed with revenues far more ample and a budget far cushier than anything Hahn ever had to work with. But he has warned city bureaucrats and elected officials that he intends to make cuts. This won’t make him any friends inside the building, but he really doesn’t need any there. He may cross liberals if he slashes programs. But it is part of Antonio’s magic that he can get away with things that other mayors could not. “I will be a mayor who can say no to my friends,” he has said on several occasions, and he is uniquely situated, at this time in history, to do that and carry it off with few negative consequences. Hahn’s power, for example, came from his liberal black South L.A. base and his centrist white San Fernando Valley base. Then he fired African-American police chief Bernard Parks, and he spent much of his political capital on blocking Valley secession. He said no to his friends, and they said no to him. Those two moves were the end of Jim Hahn. But many of Villaraigosa’s friends already have said no to him, however reluctantly. The new mayor owes them nothing. The perfect example is organized labor. When he decided to take on incumbent Nick Pacheco for City Council in 2003, Villaraigosa pledged that he would not run for mayor in 2005. That left his friend and longtime supporter, Los Angeles Federation of Labor executive secretary Miguel Contreras, free to broker whatever kind of deal he felt he had to with Mayor James Hahn. Hahn held up his end by appointing Contreras to the Airport Commission, key labor allies to other boards, Villaraigosa himself and fellow council newcomer Martin Ludlow to the MTA board. Hahn vocally backed the hotel workers and organizing security officers, and came through with a host of pro-labor programs. He expected to be rewarded with the re-election endorsement of the County Fed. And it was pretty much a done deal — until Hahn got into ethics trouble and began to appear vulnerable. That led Richard Alarcón to challenge the mayor, and then Bob Hertzberg and Bernard Parks. Once they were in, Villaraigosa saw the chance for a rematch against a weakened Hahn — and he took it. That put the County Fed in a bind. Go with Hahn, since he had delivered, or go with Villaraigosa, whose heart and soul were more closely aligned with labor? In voting to back Hahn, some union leaders, according to eyewitnesses at the County Fed endorsement meeting, cried. But it was Villaraigosa who had put them in the tough spot. So the County Fed campaigned for Hahn, but rank-and-file members, especially the immigrant and first-generation Latino workers, gave their hearts and their support to Antonio. And then, on the eve of the election, Contreras died suddenly and unexpectedly. Labor was split, then deprived of its leader. The mayor-elect’s longtime aide Martin Ludlow was selected to succeed Contreras. So Villaraigosa got elected without the County Fed’s help, then saw his friend and supporter move over to lead the group. Now between the mayor and the County Fed, who will be more beholden to whom? Labor is reunited —behind Villaraigosa. But the new mayor has credibility from business and centrist forces, whom he courted during the short period of estrangement from the County Fed. For the present, at least, and borne out by his role in the hotel dispute, Villaraigosa can plausibly contend that he has the will, and the ability, to say no to his friends in labor, business or anywhere else. There could be immediate ramifications. A mayoral takeover of the school district was unthinkable under Riordan, a business Republican who earned the contempt of the teachers’ union. But Riordan was a mere mortal. Villaraigosa is a former organizer for the teachers’ union and, well, things could be different. During the campaign, Villaraigosa joined with the other candidates in scoffing at Bob Hertzberg’s plan to dismantle the Los Angeles Unified School District and rejected a mayoral takeover of the school system. With Hertzberg out after the primary, though, candidate Villaraigosa gradually warmed to the idea of mayoral authority over education. By the time he spoke before a Senate hearing in the midst of his preterm as mayor-elect, Villaraigosa was ready to announce his plan to have every school-board member, currently elected by voters, appointed by the mayor of Los Angeles. Incoming United Teachers of Los Angeles president A.J. Duffy has vowed to block any move to put the school board under the mayor’s thumb. But he’s also called himself a friend of Antonio from way back. Strip voters of their power to elect the school board? It would never fly. Unless, of course, voters were beginning to tire, at just about this point in history, of countless, repeated elections for one thing or another. Elect the mayor and make him responsible? No longer unthinkable. As far as opposition from UTLA and the California Teachers Association, Villaraigosa has — just maybe — something to trade. Like leadership in the battle against the Arch-Villain. That weirdly drawn comic book character who threatens unions, threatens Democratic party power, threatens (figuratively — perhaps) life as we know it: The Governator. Arnold Schwarzenegger. That battle is not yet joined. But it will come. Villaraigosa’s special power, if there is such a thing, comes from not just what he does but from how he does it. Hahn famously shrank into the background, avoiding conversation and human contact whenever he could. Before him, Riordan loved to chat, but he did it awkwardly when he was with people other than the wealthy and the powerful. But L.A. has never had a mayor like this. Villaraigosa thrives on human contact and conversation. He’s fond of the big entrance but is not so much into the big exit, lingering instead to chat with the movers and shakers, the service workers, the kids, until his aides finally pull him away to his next appointment. He likes people. He likes contact. Being engaged in conversation with Villaraigosa often means being touched. People standing with him have come to expect the friendly hand-jab to the chest that emphasizes his points, or the occasional gentle finger reaching out to touch your elbow, just to make sure you’re still there, still listening. There’s a hierarchy of hugs — warm embraces, like the bear hug he gave colleague and longtime ally Ludlow at the hotel-labor news conference, or the hand-on-each-shoulder “come here, you” that generally greets Council President Alex Padilla, who campaigned against Villaraigosa last time, stayed neutral during much of this year’s race and finally came around in the final weeks. For Councilman Tony Cardenas, a Villaraigosa adversary who ended up endorsing him just four days before Election Day, there was — at a party for the new mayor’s Eastside volunteers and again at the hotel news conference — a token one-arm-around-the-shoulder squeeze and release. There’s also, when he’s done with you, the characteristic pivot that leaves you staring at his back — a move that has caused some Antonio watchers to call him arrogant. And of course there’s the talk. He loves to talk, endlessly, about policy, about other people, unabashedly about himself. He has a natural love of the story, his own story, especially, and he’s become practiced at telling the tale of misspent youth, broken home, an abusive father, a loving mother, a caring teacher. A turnaround, activism, marriage, betrayal, forgiveness. Achievement. Defeat and victory. Redemption. Always redemption. “Sometimes when I read stories about me I become a little embarrassed because I’ve made a few mistakes in my life,” Villaraigosa told exuberant campaign volunteers at a thank-you party in Lincoln Park. “I’ve fallen a few times. But people have taken a chance, and look at me now!” He inspires passion, both for him and against him. He’s had high-profile breaks with longtime friends in the public eye, like state Senator Gil Cedillo and former Assembly speaker Bob Hertzberg. Cedillo campaigned hard for Hahn, but he still calls Villaraigosa “my brother.” Hertzberg once roomed with Villaraigosa in Sacramento, but the two men squabbled and went months without speaking. They campaigned against each other in the mayoral primary, and when Hertzberg came on strong in the final weeks, intrigue-loving politicos salivated over the prospect of a bitter, mud-slinging Villaraigosa-Hertzberg runoff. But Hertzberg was eliminated in the primary; he endorsed Villaraigosa in the runoff with Hahn, and ended up heading his old roommate’s transition team. Villaraigosa’s style can rub some the wrong way. But he also exhibits a genuine regard for people, a trait that inspires loyalty. “There is an aura around him,” said Lee Kanon Alpert, a former city airport commissioner and Hertzberg backer who now helps advise Villaraigosa. “He has a very compelling and compassionate personality.” Emma Schafer runs a program featuring business movers and shakers called the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum. Schafer recalls a time when Villaraigosa, then Assembly majority leader, was scheduled to be her guest speaker. The invitations were out, the reservations were coming in, but Villaraigosa was asked instead to join Speaker Cruz Bustamante on a legislative trip to Mexico. He called Schafer and asked if missing the lunch would mess her up. It would, Schafer said, but she would deal with it. “‘No,’ Antonio told me,” Schafer recounts. “‘I don’t screw over my friends. Just get me a good audience. I’ll be there.’” That’s part of the “style business” that Hahn held in such contempt during the most recent campaign. “Get things done,” Hahn said. “That’s what makes a difference to me.” The direct implication was that Villaraigosa was all smile and bluster. All hat and no saddle, as they say in Texas. Plenty of style, little substance. But the new mayor’s love of talk and human contact shows that sometimes, with skill and practice, the style becomes the substance. Take the threatened hotel-labor lockout. Hundreds of dishwashers, bellhops, housekeepers and others were facing a loss of work over their demand for better contract terms, and hotels were facing the loss of their staffs. The city was set to suffer from canceled trips and empty hotels during the busy summer season. Villaraigosa wore both sides down in part by his very presence, just being willing to start talking at 10 p.m. Thursday night and not stop until 4 in the morning — and then to come back the next night and do it all over again. Brian Fitzgerald, president of the Hotel Employers’ Council said he was “a little skeptical at first” because of Villaraigosa’s long background with labor and his close friendship with Maria Elena Durazo of Unite Here, the hotel workers’ union. “But he played it right down the middle. He brought the parties together to focus. And he just kept talking. Honestly, I’m encouraged about the future.” Durazo noted that the 14-month conflict was already moving in the hotel workers’ direction, with two of the nine hotels that made up the employers’ council having already bowed out. But a lockout was still possible, and Durazo said Villaraigosa did not want to begin his watch as mayor with a lockout in effect. “He has the skills to say to both sides, ‘Enough is enough,’” Durazo said. “He wouldn’t stop. The rest of us were dragging.” More than personal style, of course, makes up the Villaraigosa phenomenon. Unlike any mayor Los Angeles has had before, there are new, and strong, claims on him from outside the city. In 1973, Tom Bradley attracted nationwide press as the first African-American elected mayor of a large U.S. city, but his appeal never moved beyond the symbolic. He never became a national figure, or a rallying symbol for blacks or for Democrats. Villaraigosa is different. Even before last year, when he became national co-chair of the John Kerry presidential campaign, Villaraigosa made his presence felt in Washington and New York as a rising star from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. As state Assembly speaker in the 1990s, he secured a base and made powerful connections with Democrats nationwide. It’s easy to forget how unusual it is for Los Angeles to have a mayor with national or even state party connections, so it’s easy to lose sight of the possible benefits, and pitfalls, of those connections. Bradley was a Democrat, of course, but L.A. elections are officially nonpartisan, and Bradley’s only previous campaign experience was as a (nonpartisan) city councilman. Running for mayor, he immersed himself in the politics and mechanics of nonpartisan campaigning, and had no experience with the favor trading and back scratching peculiar to party politicking. He owed little to the party but was owed little in return, and was out of his depth when he twice ran, as a Democrat, for governor. The same can be said of his successor, Richard Riordan, a Republican who handily captured the mayor’s office in two nonpartisan races but, despite his long history of fund-raising, was never really accepted by Republicans statewide as a gubernatorial candidate. James Hahn, like Bradley and Riordan, had no experience as a candidate for partisan office, even though he was steeped in decades of fund-raising for Democratic stalwarts like Dianne Feinstein. On the national scene, even in Sacramento, Hahn was a cipher. Not since former Congressman Sam Yorty, in fact, has Los Angeles had a mayor with partisan political experience, though Yorty, a Democrat, hardly counts because he was far outside his party’s mainstream and ended his career as a Republican. It’s always been that way in Los Angeles. It was the nation’s third, and is now its second, largest and most influential city, but in politics it’s been just a curious enclave unto itself. Until now. Villaraigosa was elected three times to the state Assembly as a Democrat and led that body as speaker. He knows and is a product of his party’s political machinery and has instant recognition and credibility in Sacramento and in Washington. That, together with a Latino heritage that makes him stand out from the pack and, of course, his compelling style and personality, make the new mayor of Los Angeles an immediate presence on the national stage. It’s no accident his toothy grin landed on the cover of Newsweek. It’s no surprise — outside of L.A., at least — that the newspapers in places like Madison, Wisconsin, predict he’ll be in the running for the next Democratic vice-presidential nomination. It’s perhaps alien to us here, but it makes sense that USA Today, for example, runs the words “Hispanic Democrat” with his photo. The words categorize him in a national context in which his power and presence have more import than whether he takes over the school board or makes traffic flow more freely. What does that mean for Los Angeles? Villaraigosa is sharp enough to know that he must quickly dispel any creeping notion that he’s in his new job for the short haul, just until something bigger or better comes along. It would be a natural concern, given the two years (only half a term) he spent as city councilman and his promise to voters in 2003 that he would not do exactly what he ended up doing — running for mayor this year. He reminds voters here, and interviewers at network studios, that he’s wanted to be mayor of Los Angeles for a very long time. “I’m going to focus on Los Angeles, make no mistake about that,” Villaraigosa told a CNN interviewer less than a week after his election. “I want to be mayor of this city. I want to focus on the specific challenges we face here in Los Angeles.” But the national prominence, unique for a Los Angeles mayor, may help bring some needed attention — and money — to the city. When Villaraigosa comes calling in Sacramento or Washington, pols and policymakers will know they have to listen. That means that Los Angeles will have a presence in the halls of power that until now has never matched the city’s actual importance. It might not be so bad if the mayor spends his time jetting out of town to political conclaves if he remembers to bring back something for us in his suitcase — new transit money, perhaps, or legislation that restores Section 8 funding for low-cost housing. It also means the mayor of Los Angeles will be at the center of every political battle. This November, for example, Schwarzenegger is sponsoring several measures on the statewide ballot, most of which are opposed by labor unions and Democrats. Only in theory will his biggest opponents be Assembly speaker Fabian Nuñez, or declared Democratic gubernatorial candidates Phil Angelides and Steve Westly. None of them has had his face on the cover of Newsweek, and none has a name or an image so instantly recognizable as Antonio Villaraigosa's. If Schwarzenegger is to be stopped, it will be Villaraigosa who must take the lead in stopping him, by articulating for voters the reasons to reject the panoply of initiatives, and by raising money — around the nation — to counter the governor’s spending. New York Times writer John M. Broder goofed when he wrote several weeks ago that Schwarzenegger and the third-generation Angeleno Villaraigosa are “two exemplars of immigrant success in top executive posts.” But he was right to position the two men counter to each other. A Schwarzenegger victory in November would deliver a setback to Villaraigosa’s statewide stature. A Schwarzenegger defeat would put Villaraigosa in the driver’s seat, helping to decide, through fund-raising and campaigning, which Democratic candidate will become the front-runner in 2006. That presents the prospect of a Democratic governor who is beholden to the mayor of Los Angeles. Of course, Villaraigosa is essentially untried. All cape, figuratively speaking. He’s never held a post like this one before, and his success as Assembly speaker came at a time of unprecedented economic abundance and Democratic resurgence in California. And, despite his success with a sweeping parks bond and health and education bills, not everyone agrees with Villaraigosa’s self-assessment that his tenure as speaker was the state’s most progressive and successful. The Sacramento Bee recently labeled his performance as speaker “lackluster.” As a councilman, Villaraigosa didn’t stick around long enough for his constituents to start calling him to account for what he did, or didn’t, do. In his district, voters turned out in record numbers to elevate their representative into the mayor’s office. At the volunteer party in Lincoln Park, hundreds of Eastsiders cheered their new mayor, then stood in line for some one-on-one time, to be hugged, to be prodded gently in the chest, grabbed by the elbow, by Antonio Villaraigosa. Only twice in history have so many volunteers come out to work for a Los Angeles mayoral candidate, Villaraigosa told them. Once, more than 30 years ago, to elect Tom Bradley. And again this year. “I’m not just talking,” he said. “This was not about me. It was about you. I know this community, and I’m so blessed to represent you.” Then he talked about what he wanted to bring to the city. Light rail in the Valley. A subway to the ocean. Reinvented schools. Better health care. An end to gun violence. Can he do it? Just maybe. By saying no to his friends, by talking competing interests into submission, by leveraging his fund-raising and political skills and by calling in favors from pols in Sacramento and Washington, he may just be able to get Los Angeles some long-needed support. Or he could blow it, answering his ambition and his ego by moving on to the national scene before the city, like his 14th Council District, begins to get mad that he’s not delivering. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is solidly in the new mayor’s camp — until you bring up Villaraigosa’s vow to extend the Red Line subway to the ocean. “Antonio said a lot of things,” Yaroslavsky said. “A subway to Sylmar. A subway to the sea. All these things are campaign statements. He was painting a vision and a dream. Now he’s been elected and he’s woken up.” But Villaraigosa has friends, like Congressman Henry Waxman, who could reverse his decision to block federal money for subway construction, and then Villaraigosa could do it. Right? “Antonio can test it,” Yaroslavsky retorted. “He can go out and get an initiative on the ballot and see how well people like it. Extending from Western to Fairfax would be a billion dollars. And that’s in today’s dollars.” But if Villaraigosa moves on and still leaves mostly happy people in his wake, that’s just part of his magic. If Los Angeles gets nothing — the same old failing schools, no new cops, no new traffic-calming transit lines, no new cleaned-up and ethical City Hall — we'll have to deal with this question: Does it really matter, if we love our mayor for making us feel good about ourselves?

To read Harold Meyerson's article about Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles click here.


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