Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa doesn’t do modest. When it comes to public transit, he’s ambitious, pursuing a $5 billion subway to the sea. When it comes to L.A. Unified, he’s unyielding, promising to take 750 public schools by storm, whether teachers like it or not. And when it comes to the mayor’s popularity, well, Villaraigosa himself put it best a few weeks back — the poll numbers are off the charts.

Somehow, Los Angeles seemed ready to rise up and meet the mayor’s outsized dreams. Half a million immigrants stood up for themselves and demanded more, right on the mayor’s doorstep, without apology. Environmentalists pushed for cleaner fuels at the nation’s busiest harbor, secured a promise of 1 million trees and even established a beachhead at the Department of Water and Power. The city’s most desperate, intractable problems — Skid Row, anyone? — suddenly seemed on the verge of a breakthrough. Was it the mayor? Was it Los Angeles? Weren’t they one and the same?

To the rest of the nation, there was no question. Villaraigosa was the city. The mayor leapt off the cover of Newsweek, fulfilling a long-deferred, if cliché, promise about Southern California’s sleeping giant. He donned an earpiece to answer CNN’s questions about immigration and homeland security. There were sit-downs with NPR and photo-ops with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, talking in a Texas twang about the never-ending gang problems of Watts.

Everyone expects more from Villaraigosa, but what? Will it be the governor’s mansion? The U.S. Senate? Perhaps the ultimate ride — joining the Democratic Party ticket, alongside Hillary, in just two years. Villaraigosa has no intention of dampening the buzz, making damn sure that he, and the city, stay in the spotlight.

The day may soon come when City Hall reverts to its more mundane routine, where mayors bicker with the City Council, elicit indignant outbursts from the San Fernando Valley and bring the expectations of the populace crashing down to earth. But in 2006, at least, the sky is the limit for Los Angeles and its rock-star mayor.

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