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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.

LA Weekly