WHEN MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA grabbed an oversize American flag and waved it exuberantly at the thousands of immigrants who completed their march down Wilshire Boulevard, it looked like the most spontaneous of acts. With the nation’s lawmakers scapegoating illegal immigrants for months, Villaraigosa suddenly offered the nation a stunning visual contrast — a politician who offered gratitude, not scorn, to the sea of humanity that made its way from MacArthur Park carrying signs and banners, a leader who honored their patriotism and peaceful protest.

“We come here for the same reason,” Villaraigosa proclaimed, as the crowd roared its approval. “We come to work. We come for a better life. We come to participate in the American dream.”

Yet Villaraigosa’s journey to the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and La Brea Avenue had been far more circuitous than the one traveled by the marchers, and much less of a certainty than it appeared during the live feed of the Great American Boycott of 2006. For days, the mayor had planned to miss Monday’s marches, opting instead to fly to a meeting in Texas to woo the NFL back to Los Angeles. Even after he reversed course and decided to delay his departure, Villaraigosa and his communications team vacillated between a strategy of presence and absence at Monday’s immigrant marches.

Villaraigosa, an adept politician, knows full well that immigration — and his role as the mayor of Los Angeles, where immigrant labor is so much a part of daily life — offers him an instantaneous national platform, the opportunity for one-on-one interviews with Wolf Blitzer and sound bites on Good Morning America. Yet immigration is also a mine field, one so treacherous that Villaraigosa has stayed almost robotically on message with his support for — we can all say it together by now — “fair and sensible, comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform.”

In other words, Villaraigosa spent 48 hours looking like he was running toward the issue and away from it at the same time. On the one hand, he did not venture out of his third-floor office to greet the thousands of marchers who had gathered around the City Hall south lawn, an event organized by the activists who had promoted the much-debated, one-day boycott. On the other hand, Villaraigosa went on CNN to defend illegal immigrants, providing a momentary counterpoint to the increasingly toxic Lou Dobbs.

So it went for 48 hours. First Villaraigosa would demand a “pathway to citizenship,” something long sought by the estimated 11 million undocumented workers throughout the nation. Then he would give a nod to the red states, insisting that marchers carry the Stars and Stripes — not the symbols of Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala — up the protest routes.

Villaraigosa had been out of town during the media buildup for the Great American Boycott, as the English-language news agencies, determined not to get caught napping a second time, hyped the event for days. The mayor missed the opportunity to weigh in, appearing instead before African-American mayors in Memphis and at the White House correspondents dinner with CNN analyst William Schneider.

Back in town on Sunday, Villaraigosa called a hastily arranged news conference, promising in a two-sentence news release that he would address the two great issues of the day — the coming protest marches and the Spanish-language national anthem, a red herring greeted by red-meat conservatives as the biggest thing since the War on Christmas.

With no fewer than 12 television cameras aimed his way, Villaraigosa said he would stay in Los Angeles for much of Monday. The decision had been greeted with relief by the mayor’s allies at City Hall, who still remember the drubbing former Mayor James Hahn received when he was grounded in Washington, D.C., after the September 11 attacks, allowing then–Council President Alex Padilla to steal the spotlight. Villaraigosa attributed his change in plans not to the marches but to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s changing schedule at the NFL meeting.

“It looks like he’s getting [to Dallas] much later than I thought, so, given that, the urgency to get there earlier in the evening is not as prevalent as it was before,” he declared.

Then it was on to the silly “Nuestro Himno.” Villaraigosa labeled it “offensive” in a one-on-one with Fox News Channel’s Geraldo Rivera, and looked almost gleeful when CNN brought the issue up again the following day. “I was absolutely offended. I was offended because to me, the national anthem is something I personally believe deserves respect,” the mayor said. “I think that without question the vast majority of people in the United States of America were offended as well.”

Moments later, CNN turned the microphone to Dobbs, who praised Villaraigosa for urging students to avoid the boycott and then used the mayor’s words on L.A. Unified against him. “More than half of the Hispanic students there are dropping out of high school, and the reason that is happening in large measure is the huge influx of illegal aliens into that community,” he said.

When Monday’s first march — a crowd estimated at 250,000 — arrived at the steps of City Hall, Villaraigosa went literally underground, staging a noon photo-op and press conference in the Emergency Operations Center, an underground bunker where city leaders can track events on multiple television screens. Reporters spent a half-hour pressing their noses against the glass partition of the EOC, watching the mayor chat up Police Chief William Bratton behind a second, more distant pane of glass.

WHEN VILLARAIGOSA EMERGED, he revealed that he would not address the demonstration being staged outside City Hall, saying his primary responsibility is the public’s safety. With the bigger march only three hours away, Villaraigosa would not guarantee an appearance at that event either, reminding listeners that he had another responsibility — a 7:05 p.m. flight to Dallas to secure a football team.

“It’s going to depend on how long it takes for [the marchers] to get from MacArthur Park to the La Brea tar pits,” he said. “We were originally told they would be there at 5:30, now we’re told it’s 6:30 and that may be a bit problematic.”

An hour later, mayoral aides said they still did not know what Villaraigosa planned to do. They remained equally uncertain as Villaraigosa left for a 3:15 p.m. helicopter ride with Bratton over the city. Villaraigosa remained coy all the way up into the beginning of the late-afternoon march — the one blessed by establishment figures such as Cardinal Roger Mahony and Big Labor.

The hesitancy wasn’t entirely surprising. If marches were enveloped in violence, would any mayor — regardless of one with long-term political aspirations — want to be identified with a disaster? After all, we want our mayors, and our politicians in general, to be strategic. Who wants a dim bulb incapable of thinking two or three steps ahead?

Yet strategy can also seem cold and calculating, and the boycott of 2006 briefly placed Villaraigosa in a different kind of political danger — appearing as though his own fortunes were being weighed against the people who had so bravely stepped into the streets. Villaraigosa arrived, of course, welcoming the crowd of roughly 400,000 that had walked for miles. In that moment, he fulfilled his promise — as he put it in his own words onstage — to be a mayor “for all of us.”

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