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Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa strode in front of a dozen
cameras on Monday to discuss a very personal matter: the collapse of
his marriage to Corina Villaraigosa. So perhaps it was inevitable that
the first question out of a reporter’s mouth brought the whole thing to
a screeching halt.

The question, of course, was this: Did
Villaraigosa have an extramarital affair — KNBC-4’s Laurel Erickson
delicately termed it a romantic relationship — during the course of his
two-year-old mayoral administration? And if so, will such a
relationship come out in the open now that Villaraigosa is
transitioning publicly out of his 20-year marriage?

Anyone
intimately familiar with the mayor has been asking those questions for
months, ever since Villaraigosa confirmed to an unnamed Los Angeles Times
reporter, in a story buried deep, deep within the newspaper, that the
marriage was under strain. When Erickson brought the question out into
the open, he described it as off-limits. “Let me just say that I made
it absolutely clear: This is a private matter,” he tersely replied.
“It’s a matter between me and my family. Those kinds of questions are
inappropriate and I won’t answer them.”

But if the matter is so
private, why summon reporters to City Hall to discuss the marriage in
the first place? After all, the mayor seemed to have gotten away
scot-free on Friday, the day his office put out a terse three-paragraph
press release announcing that he and Corina, a language specialist at
Montebello Unified School District, had decided to live in separate
homes.

With the loony Paris Hilton spectacle drowning out nearly
every other piece of news, TV devoted just a few seconds to the mayor’s
marital matter last week. But Villaraigosa, always eager to address the
cameras, felt obligated to give everyone another bite of the apple,
publicly opening the door to the very issues he then deemed private.
With two television reporters broadcasting live for the 11:30 a.m.
news, Villaraigosa stood at his lectern describing the end of his
marriage as a personal failure. “It has been a stable kind of anchor
for the family,” he declared.

Only a few weeks earlier, former
Mayor Richard Riordan — L.A.’s mayor from 1993 to 2001 — surprised many
insiders with his own written statement saying that he and his longtime
wife, Nancy Daly Riordan, are separating, but citing no reasons. And
four years ago, Mayor James Hahn sent out an equally brief press
release announcing a separation from his wife, Monica Hahn.

In
some ways, Villaraigosa was following in Hahn’s footsteps. Both men put
out statements on their marriages halfway through their four-year
terms, giving the public a full two years for the idea to sink in
before the next election. Hahn, dogged by rumors about his own
marriage, issued his statement in July 2003. Villaraigosa, the subject
of whispered questions for months, settled for early June.

Both
statements reached reporters in the late afternoon, forcing them to
scramble. But Villaraigosa then took a different course, holding a
press conference to declare that he takes responsibility for the demise
of his marriage.

So since he brought it up and all, what is he
taking responsibility for? On Friday, less than an hour after the press
release went out, the Los Angeles Daily News Web site initially
reported that the demands of Villaraigosa’s job had caused the couple
to separate. Villaraigosa’s press staff quickly called the newspaper to
correct the record, saying such an assertion is untrue. If they were
willing to rule out his work as a cause, why not rule out the other
possibilities?

Faced with the question about another romantic
relationship, Villaraigosa shut down. “My family and I have the right
during this difficult time to go through this process free of that kind
of speculation,” he declared. But by refusing to answer the question,
Villaraigosa was in fact fueling that speculation, which began months
ago once eagle-eyed observers of city politics noticed that he’d
stopped wearing his wedding ring. (Villaraigosa said it no longer fit
because he had lost so much weight.)

Here’s why it matters: Four
months ago, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that he had had
his own affair. On its face, the notion of a side romance by a San
Francisco mayor might seem like tame stuff. But Californians suddenly
had a very different perspective on San Francisco’s mayor once they
learned that Newsom had been seeing the wife of his longtime friend. In
short, they got a fuller understanding of the man who represents them.

GOP
presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani had his own messy divorce that
resulted in terrible personal consequences for his family. Neither of
his children are speaking to him, and Giuliani, in fact, did not speak
to his daughter at her own high school graduation. We learned that
because the New York Post reported on that event. Because of
those reports, voters have a clearer understanding of Giuliani, a man
known for freezing out those closest to him.

Villaraigosa’s only publicly known affair, spelled out in new detail in a recent New Yorker
profile, described how, on the morning after his victory in a spring
primary for a state Assembly seat in 1994, he disappeared for a few
days with another woman, leaving his wife in the uncomfortable position
of calling his political allies as she tried to locate her husband.

If
Villaraigosa engaged in another extramarital affair, that relationship
could be utterly mundane. But it could also involve a city commissioner
or a city contractor, a lobbyist or a land-use lawyer, a reporter or a
renters’-rights advocate. And if Villaraigosa has been seeing anyone
whose work intersects with his public duties, then the public deserves
to know.

Villaraigosa isn’t talking, however, leaving the public
with tightly choreographed presentations. Los Angeles City Councilman
Jack Weiss, the mayor’s closest ally at City Hall, called reporters on
Friday to tell them that Villaraigosa and his wife deserve their
privacy. Union leader Maria Elena Durazo, who experienced her own share
of marital difficulties as the wife of the late labor powerhouse Miguel
Contreras, described the couple as loving parents. On Monday,
Villaraigosa aides said reporters would be allowed to ask exactly five
questions.

Here’s what we know: Corina Villaraigosa filed for
divorce in Los Angeles County Superior Court, citing “irreconcilable
differences.” The separation will be the first time that the two will
live apart during his time as mayor, according to Villaraigosa
spokeswoman Janelle Erickson. For the time being, Villaraigosa will
live at his hilltop home in Mount Washington, and his wife and two
children at Getty House, the official mayor’s mansion in Windsor Square.

The
long-term living arrangements haven’t been worked out. But Antonio Jr.
is heading to Princeton University in the fall, while Natalia Fe is
enrolled at the Marlborough School, a private school not far from the
Getty House.

Everything else is, for now, a mystery, with the
mayor portraying his very public persona as a private one. Villaraigosa
is sealing off the details of his personal life, even as he presents
messages about that personal life for public consumption. If nothing
else, the whole thing has a dizzying circularity.

LA Weekly