THIS ISN’T ABOUT POWER, declared Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa a few days before the state Senate was set to vote on legislation that would put him at the top of the organizational chart of the Los Angeles Unified School District. But if it isn’t, why can’t the mayor and his allies stop bringing it up?

For weeks, Villaraigosa deftly wielded his political talents, driving his public-school steamroller ever closer to the office of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican who promised to sign the bill to overhaul L.A. Unified sight unseen. Using a hefty arsenal of carrots and sticks, Villaraigosa got a reluctant Los Angeles City Council to fall in line, dangling before them the possibility of a third term in office. And in L.A. Unified’s southeast cities, he enticed recalcitrant mayors with the promise of their greater influence over the school district, from veto power over hiring decisions to site selection for new schools.

Yet as he edged closer to victory, Villaraigosa and his allies worked strenuously to downplay the behind-the-scenes horse trading and arm twisting. He pointedly brought up the P-word a week ago, telling the Senate Appropriations Committee that power had nothing to do with his desire to select the next superintendent — and run as many as 50 low-performing schools. Villaraigosa’s close ally, Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, raised the issue as well, telling the committee minutes earlier that the mayor had many things in mind for the school district, but certainly not power. Not that.

Performing a victory lap a day later, Villaraigosa mentioned power yet again — arguing that it played no role in his public-education campaign, an apparatus funded by more than $1 million in contributions from Republican allies like Jerrold “Jerry” Perenchio, an executive at Univision, the Spanish-language station that broadcasts a weekly chat with Villaraigosa titled A Su Lado, or On Your Side in English.

“No matter what you hear, this bill is not about mayoral control, power or politics,” Villaraigosa told reporters at City Hall. “It’s about creating better schools for our kids.”

Yet officials at L.A. Unified — and even a couple of emboldened Democratic legislators — seemed to stray from the script crafted for them by Núñez and Senate President Don Perata, not to mention Schwarzenegger, who is running for reelection and received a pass for an entire summer from the most powerful Democrat in Southern California. Senator Deborah Ortiz blew the whistle the loudest, telling a filled-to-capacity chamber in Sacramento that she had misgivings about the bill but had been instructed by the Democratic leadership to vote for it anyway.

Ortiz bluntly called Villaraigosa’s bill an experiment, saying it creates a new bureaucracy, offers no suggestions on how to improve education and could be struck down in court. The Sacramento Democrat even hinted at the possibility that she could be punished if she votes no on the bill, known as Assembly Bill 1381.

“I understand you’re speaker of the Assembly, and that it’s a very important bill,” Ortiz advised Núñez. “I have some very important bills that I hope you will have an equally open mind about, as I move through the last two weeks of my career. But I have to be honest with you, I’m not convinced this is the solution. I’m prepared to vote for this, but there is a lot at risk.”

Senator Kevin Murray, D-Los Angeles, couldn’t avoid the topic either, but tried to put a friendly face on Villaraigosa’s push for increased mayoral oversight. “In the final analysis, this bill is about power and control,” said Murray, as he name-dropped his roommate experiences with Villaraigosa. “But power not for power’s sake, but power in terms of moving your program along.”

On its face, the mayor’s skillful use of power represents a desire for control. Villaraigosa has left little to chance in his battle with L.A. Unified, which may explain why he chartered three private buses to deliver parents and children to his own education town hall/rally for A.B. 1381 in Lincoln Heights. The moment it looked like U.S. Representative Maxine Waters was unhappy with his school campaign, Villaraigosa hustled over to South L.A., hitting six African-American churches on a single Sunday in an effort to corral his base.

Villaraigosa spent much of the past week trying to swap one P-word for another, telling reporters and policymakers alike that the L.A. Unified bill is about partnership, not power. Partnership, after all, has a warm, cuddly sound to it. But a bid for power? That just sounds crass. Even Villaraigosa’s efforts at teamwork didn’t sound all that collaborative. Only two weeks ago, Villaraigosa in-house counsel Thomas Saenz said that the mayor planned to team up with parents, community leaders and principals to improve 50 low-performing schools. Villaraigosa plans to do that, however, by personally selecting each of the parents, teachers and community representatives who will serve on the eight-member committees responsible for such improvements. So is that partnership? Or power?

L.A. Unified Superintendent Roy Romer, no stranger to hardball politics himself, made the cardinal mistake of calling the game for what it was, telling lawmakers publicly that he viewed passage of the bill as a done deal. Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, took umbrage at such an accusation — especially after Romer compared the bill to the Legislature’s disastrous attempt at electrical deregulation during the 1990s. “I wasn’t sure Governor Romer was here to convince us or insult us,” Florez huffed.

Romer offered an array of warnings about the bill, saying it could be a precursor to breakup, since different sections of L.A. Unified could be offered a chance to make their own hiring decisions. But Romer sounded like King Lear in Sacramento, railing over the district’s political misfortune as lawmakers looked away.

REALITY BRIEFLY INTRUDED on Villaraigosa’s march to Sacramento, forcing him to turn from his school campaign to an annoying municipal matter — a strike by the 7,500-member Engineers and Architects Union. The EAA supported the mayor during the 2005 election, spending $110,000 on radio advertisements and other campaign expenses, only to turn on him viciously once Villaraigosa refused to give them the same salary package as workers at the Department of Water and Power.

Yet despite all the hype surrounding Villaraigosa’s decision to cross a picket line, it was hard to view the EAA strike as serious drama. This was no MTA walkout, with bus drivers crippling the city’s ability to serve its citizens. These were building inspectors, city planners, tech-support workers and public-relations people. Sure they’re important. But will the voters rise up when a second-story home addition can’t get through plan check? Not likely.

Even as the mayor outmaneuvered the EAA, another seasoned pol flexed his considerable political clout. Former mayor Richard Riordan, a backer of Villaraigosa’s plan for L.A. Unified, worked behind the scenes to rewrite portions of the bill, worrying that a judge will strike down the provisions that give the mayor more power while preserving the language that strengthens the hand of the teachers union.

Villaraigosa spokeswoman Janelle Erickson pooh-poohed such efforts, offering a lulu to the Los Angeles Times. “We need to shift the focus away from legislative maneuvering and put it back in the classroom,” she told the newspaper.

The thing is, Villaraigosa’s bill is the naked result of legislative maneuvering, from a closed-door deal with the teachers union to billionaire Eli Broad’s telephone calls to Núñez last spring. That’s because Núñez and Villaraigosa insisted from the beginning that the neutering of the seven-member school board had to be decided in Sacramento — not Los Angeles, where voters spent the past century electing that board. But then, letting the voters make such an important decision would have meant giving up — how else to say it? — power.

LA Weekly