Photo by Ted Soqui

The kitchen light comes on at 5 a.m. in the house on top of Mount Washington,
as city councilman and mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa scans the morning
paper before stepping out into a light drizzle. Known as a tough East L.A. kid
who grew out of poverty and into activism and politics, Villaraigosa, at age 52,
after a lifetime of battles, illnesses, and a heartbreaking defeat in his last
bid for mayor, in 2001, looks to be in fighting shape.

Each morning he works out in the affluent hills above the 14th council district, where he got elected in 2003 as his first step back toward the center ring of L.A. politics and a rematch with Mayor Jim Hahn. His ritual is as much mental as physical, says Villaraigosa, who aims to survive the March 8 primary and defeat Hahn in a runoff in May. “I’m a firm believer in self-actualization,” he says, as he walks the dark, tree-lined streets on a rainy Thursday. Occasionally he breaks into a sprint up the steep hills of his northeast Los Angeles neighborhood. “I definitely see myself crossing that finish line the winner.”

His decision to run for mayor just 18 months into his council term, after promising he would wait, is classic Villaraigosa. He does what he thinks he has to do, regardless of the disappointment it causes those who thought he would do otherwise. While he prides himself as a consensus builder, there is no consensus when it comes to his reputation.

Loyal followers see an inspiring public servant who never forgot the lessons of his disadvantaged youth, the great Latino hope who finds time to listen to people society has overlooked and who has the vision and strength to bring people together as he leads Los Angeles into the 21st century. Detractors take a darker view. Some see a former labor activist and a lapsed civil libertarian who became a rising star with the Democrats as speaker of the Assembly in Sacramento, a showboat whose status went to his head and who got cozy with wealthy developers and grabbed credit for things he did not do. Most observers agree that Villaraigosa is charismatic and shrewd, a pure politician in a city that has not had one in the Mayor’s Office in decades.

Winding his way through Mount Washington, he talks about what the mayor’s race means to him and his wife, Corina, daughter, Natalia Fe, and son, Antonio Jr. Villaraigosa recounts how he suffered after political advertisements painted him as a friend of drug dealers and sank his upstart campaign in 2001. A longshot recall effort is under way in his council district, based on what some see as a failure to accomplish anything concrete during the last year and a half. He insists he has focused on little things such as putting up stop signs and cleaning up neglected parts of his district, which includes El Sereno and Boyle Heights. He says he never intended to run for mayor so soon after being elected to the council in 2003.

“Almost from the day I was elected to the City Council, people were telling me I should run for mayor,” he says. “I wasn’t anxious to relive the first election. My wife and my kids, my son especially, took it hard.” Rumblings of a pay-to-play scandal in City Hall were not on the front burner at first, he says. But he felt the call of duty for other reasons. “The first time it hit me was during the MTA strike. Jim Hahn just didn’t have the requisite fire in his belly to sit both sides down and get them to talk and listen to one another.”

MTA workers went on strike in October 2003, prompting Villaraigosa and fellow Councilman Martin Ludlow to seek a court order allowing them to negotiate an end to the strike despite their receipt of labor donations. The strike ended in November 2003, and both sides credited Villaraigosa with bringing them to the table. “Hahn just sat there,” he says. “I thought, this guy is not willing to roll up his sleeves and do the hard work. Then, as the news of corruption played out, whispers to run became louder. I talked to my family to see if they were ready to go through another election. If there’s one thing I know,” says Villaraigosa, who warns that he does not intend to be a human punching bag this time around, “it’s that he knows how to run a smear campaign.”

Villaraigosa is known for an unflinching optimism that thrills his admirers and irks some who have watched him up close over the years. “He’s a charming guy who is always sucking up to people who can help him,” says a veteran of state and local politics. “He’s always been willing to compromise on promises he’s made if it serves his own ambitions.” Says Teresa Stark, who worked for Villaraigosa when he was elected to the state Assembly in 1994 and who now serves as chief of staff to state Assemblyman Paul Koretz: “Antonio is the kind of leader who always frames things positively. By convincing people that anything is possible, he inspires and motivates people.”

His positive spirit is ingrained from his youth, says Villaraigosa. Born
Antonio Ramon Villar in Los Angeles to his immigrant father of the same name and
his mother, Natalia Acosta, Villaraigosa was a sickly child who grew up the oldest
of four children in a home marked by domestic violence. His father left when he
was 5. “My father was predisposed to drunken rages,” he says. “I would hide under
the bed. My sister and I were talking just the other day about the terror a drunken
man in a rage can create in a child.”

On the campaign trail, Villaraigosa invokes his mother, a secretary who worked her way up to be a human resources manager, as a source of strength. He has not seen his father since his mother died, in 1991. “I don’t judge him,” he says. “I got to grow up with a mother who taught me to believe in me.” His mother, who moved the family from Boyle Heights to City Terrace after her husband left, never owned a home, always rode the bus and read Shakespeare to her children. “The only time she stopped working was when I was in the hospital.” When he was 6 weeks old, he was hospitalized with bronchitis and forced to live under a tent. When he was 7, after a tonsillectomy, he started hemorrhaging and was taken to the hospital in a taxi. “I had emergency surgery for tumors on my spine as a teenager. After the last mayor’s race, I had another surgery, for tumors on my spine affecting nerves in my lower body.”

A co-founder of the Black Student Union at Cathedral High School, Villaraigosa credits his upbringing as a key to his role as a coalition builder. To win, political analysts say, he will need to piece together a coalition from Latinos on the Eastside, African-Americans in South Los Angeles and moderates in the Valley to go along with his traditional base of progressives and Westside liberals. “My mother would have gay couples over to dinner, and blacks, Jews and Asians,” he says. “She was always preaching tolerance.”

Villaraigosa graduated from UCLA in 1977 and the People’s College of Law in 1985, his activist roots fueling his political development. He earned a reputation as a forceful negotiator for the United Teachers of Los Angeles in the late 1980s and the Bus Riders Union in the early 1990s. Recently, he has been forced to confront his failure to get the endorsement of the County Federation of Labor and other major labor organizations that once backed him but this time are backing Hahn. He says that he voted against LAX expansion and development of Playa Vista, knowing that the building-trades unions would go against him. He takes pride in being strong enough to say no to his friends. “Look, I’m a grown-up, I know people do things out of self-interest and opportunism,” he says of big labor’s decision to go with the incumbent. “I’m going to have to work with people who weren’t with me. I’ll always be passionate about the rights of labor. You should see the reception I got on Martin Luther King Day at the County Fed. At my kickoff on the Eastside, I had all these janitors and hotel workers. They’re coming out. They just are.”

Villaraigosa’s campaign message is seemingly about everything, and yet
about nothing in particular. He is known for his ability to tirelessly work a
room, and his good looks and enthusiasm are his major assets. His speeches are
often choppy and interrupted with “um” and “you know” — signs that he is not such
a great orator. At a fund-raiser at the home of a developer in Brentwood recently,
after being introduced by actress Valerie Harper, who was effusive in her praise
for “his energy and his vision,” he began by telling people that his campaign
is about character, not charisma. “I want to restore faith in City Hall,” he said,
offering a comparison he uses frequently, between Mayor Hahn and a notorious mayor
from the 1930s whose administration was plagued by scandal. “Jim Hahn leads the
most investigated administration since Frank Shaw,” Villaraigosa said. After offering
a laundry list of goals, he conceded, “I’m starting to sound like a politician.
I hate that.”

That night, he spoke of education, public safety, housing and transportation as components of an ever-shifting platform. At one point he shared a wildly ambitious plan for expanding the Red Line subway to the Pacific Ocean, along with improved light-rail service across the Valley and expansion of the Green Line to LAX — all in conjunction with bus-only lanes down Wilshire Boulevard and in the Valley. “How are you going to pay for all of that?” one of his campaign contributors wanted to know. “You wanted vision, my friend,” Villaraigosa replied. “That’s what I’m giving you. Don’t worry about the money. I’ll go to Washington, D.C., and to Sacramento to get the money. When you have a vision, it inspires people to help you reach it.”

The image of the populist mayor with a grand vision has drawn comparisons between Villaraigosa and former Mayor Tom Bradley. The potential for a runoff with Hahn has provided additional fodder. Villaraigosa mentions Bradley in most of his speeches. He revels in the notion of defeating Hahn as payback for the bitter defeat Hahn handed him in 2001 — just as Bradley did to incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty in 1973. The first Bradley-Yorty contest, in 1969, ended in defeat for Bradley, who had pulled ahead in the polls going down the stretch, after a surprisingly strong showing in the primary. Yorty waged a dirty campaign, however, redbaiting and race baiting Bradley until voters were scared off. Four years later, after Bradley had served on the City Council, he defeated Yorty and went on to lead the city for the next 20 years.

Sipping a chai latte on a recent Saturday at the Coffee Table, in Eagle Rock, Villaraigosa gives mixed signals about the Bradley analogy, first suggested by his longtime friend, columnist and L.A. Weekly political editor at large Harold Meyerson. “I would never compare myself to Tom Bradley,” says Villaraigosa. “But he ran when the city was divided and we needed someone to unite us; I’m running at a time when we need a consensus builder, someone who is comfortable in every community. His campaign was a campaign of hope, and so is mine, so I guess you could make that comparison.”

Villaraigosa is an avid nonfiction reader. He seems to draw on influences that suit the image he wishes to project. “Usually I read four or five books at a time,” he says. “Right now I’m reading this book on George Washington, and this new one, The Eight Habits of Highly Successful People to greatness or something. I’m also reading a book on Fiorello La Guardia, and the Bill Clinton book. I’m hyper.

“This book on La Guardia is phenomenal,” Villaraigosa continues, excited about the legendary New York mayor. “He was an amazing guy. He was a bridge builder, too. He was a big thinker. And he was a doer. He spoke like seven languages, man, in New York at that time. He was a coalition builder. You know who gave me the idea? It was Harold Meyerson. One day he compared me to him. I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ ”

Villaraigosa’s rise in the state Assembly was stunning. Veteran Sacramento
lobbyist Paul Gerowitz recalls working for the Public Safety Committee when Villaraigosa
arrived in Sacramento as a freshman assemblyman in 1994. “It was the beginning
of term limits, and the Democratic leadership was looking for new talent,” says
Gerowitz. “Antonio is a charismatic, good-looking guy, and he was tagged as a
potential leader early on.” One day, Gerowitz says, Villaraigosa walked into the
Public Safety Committee, which he chaired almost on arrival, clutching a newspaper
article that suggested he was destined to be speaker of the Assembly. “He was
clearly pleased with the attention,” says Gerowitz. “And if it weren’t for term
limits, he might still be running the Assembly today and doing a good job of it.”

His six years in Sacramento, from 1994 to 2000, are a source of controversy for Villaraigosa. Capitol staffers recall with some disdain his demands that the door be held for him and that his entrance to a room always be announced. “That’s absolutely ridiculous,” replies Villaraigosa. “There’s nobody that can substantiate that.” He became known as an adept politician unconcerned with the details of policy and lawmaking. In speeches he touts accomplishments such as passing a landmark $2 billion parks bond and a? $9.1 billion? school-construction bond. Insiders say he leveraged his power as speaker to take credit for the parks initiative, largely developed by former Assemblyman Fred Keeley. And to appease billionaire Eli Broad, sources say, he removed a requirement from the school bond that developers provide land or build new schools. Sources say Villaraigosa took credit for the statewide Healthy Families program developed by State Senator Martha Escutia. When he was termed out of the Assembly in 2000, sources say, he retained the largest staff in Sacramento history for an outgoing member and held on to his seat until after his term was supposed to expire.

His supporters say that he properly wielded his authority to pass legislation, and that by reaching out to business, he exhibited strength in the art of compromise. Of his major accomplishments in Sacramento, Villaraigosa replies: “They have my name on them. The proof is in the pudding. I played a leading role.” Concerns about transition etiquette notwithstanding, sources say, Villaraigosa alienated members of the Latino Caucus when he broke his promise to promote a member of the caucus for the speaker’s post. Rather, he supported his friend, roommate at the time and current candidate for mayor, Bob Hertzberg. However, the two eventually clashed over Villaraigosa’s hesitancy to hand over the reins of power, and his claim to a sizable pool of campaign funds that he later used to finance his failed bid for mayor in 2001. Complications related to Villaraigosa’s extramarital affair while in Sacramento also could have put a strain on the relationship between the former roommates. “I don’t have a rift with Bob,” Villaraigosa says, declining to comment further on his extramarital affair.

“I don’t want to zetz the guy,” says Hertzberg, in response to questions about how he and Villaraigosa differ as politicians. “But my commitment to public service has nothing to do with running for office or throwing elbows and grabbing credit or attention. An Antonio Villaraigosa speech might make you feel better, but Bob Hertzberg goes into the backroom and gets the job done.” Replies Villaraigosa, “Go ahead and do a Nexis search and compare our records.”

In spite of the backbiting nature of politics, Villaraigosa is fixed in the minds of many as one of the most sensitive people they have ever worked with. Veteran political consultant Larry Levine remembers being branded a racist after running a particularly rough campaign against City Councilman Tony Cardenas when Cardenas ran for Assembly. Villaraigosa was speaker. “Antonio took the time to sit down and talk with me for hours about the situation, which was very personal and hurtful to me,” Levine says. “He was virtually the only one to do that. He told me he could see how people were upset, but that he didn’t see it the same way. He helped me understand the nature of the wound to the Latino Caucus, and how it wasn’t purely political. In essence he was my therapist.”

He hasn’t always been such a therapist, as shown by an intriguing anecdote from veteran investigative journalist Gary Webb, who recently committed suicide. In 1999, Webb worked as a researcher for the Assembly Task Force on Government Oversight. He had just completed a potentially explosive report on the California Highway Patrol’s drug-interdiction program, in which he found evidence of racial profiling. In an e-mail to the Weekly before his death, Webb describes the reaction from Villaraigosa, a former director of the ACLU, who at the time chaired the task force and authorized the investigation. “He said he was going to be running for mayor of L.A. and couldn’t afford to alienate the Highway Patrol and the police,” wrote Webb, who quotes Villaraigosa as saying, “ ‘You know I used to head the ACLU. They’re always hanging that around my neck, like a fucking albatross.’ ”

According to Webb, Villaraigosa tried to kill the report, but the ACLU filed a legislative open-records request and forced it out in the open. Villaraigosa says he does not recall the incident. In a highly unusual move, however, the report was released with a cover letter discrediting its findings. The letter, signed by Lynn Montgomery, director of member services and Villaraigosa’s then chief of staff, read, “The methodology of the report is based on major assumptions supported by limited anecdotal information. It should not be construed as being completely factual.”

In his e-mail, Webb claimed that Villaraigosa’s “brain trust in L.A.” wrote the letter and forced Montgomery to sign it. “She told me it was politics and not to take it personally,” Webb wrote. “Shortly afterward, I was informed by a Senate committee staff member that the Highway Patrolmen’s Association had made a sizable contribution to Villaraigosa’s mayoral campaign.” Montgomery, who has served as chief of staff for five Assembly speakers, recalls signing the letter but does not recall writing it. She declined to comment on Webb’s accusations. Another veteran of Sacramento politics, who insisted on anonymity, says, “Antonio was trying to cover his ass and protect an endorsement from law enforcers — typical of what happens up here.” Villaraigosa takes exception to the concerns that he undermined the report in exchange for contributions.

Villaraigosa was a surprising front-runner in the 2001 mayoral election
until the infamous crack-pipe ads, based on his letter in support of clemency
for convicted drug dealer Carlos Vignali, sullied him in the waning days of the
race. Angry and defeated, Villaraigosa had some soul-searching to do. Meantime,
Eli Broad recruited him to help relocate a juvenile-justice facility to make way
for a biomedical-research facility near County-USC Medical Center. His decision
to run for the 14th District council seat held by incumbent Nick Pacheco resulted
in another tough campaign, which showed Villaraigosa once again fighting for his
political life. Since he took the council seat away from Pacheco, his time in
the City Council has produced mixed reviews.

In his 30-page report to his constituents, Villaraigosa lists numerous accomplishments that his detractors — including Pacheco supporters — say are still works in progress or merely finishing touches on work Pacheco started. “The vast majority of my constituents know full well my accomplishments,” Villaraigosa says. Yet he also has drawn criticism from his colleagues for making political speeches in City Council. Recently his refusal to support a decision to take over operations at Orange County’s troubled El Toro Airport drew a rebuke from Tony Cardenas, a former ally, who urged Villaraigosa to check his mayoral ambitions at the door and focus on the business at hand. A couple of weeks ago, after supporting an alternative measure to a proposed tax hike to raise money for more police, he sat sphinxlike as council members indulged in speeches aimed at rationalizing their vote in support of the tax hike. “Sometimes you can have the greatest effect when you say nothing at all,” he said after the hearing.

It seems that no matter where he goes, Villaraigosa makes his presence felt, and always draws a reaction. Of Cardenas’ recent outburst he says, “I tried to say [the vote on El Toro Airport] is about the mayor’s lack of leadership, but when I saw [Cardenas] engage in a [soliloquy], I said, I’m not engaging in that. I learned a long time ago, do not make it personal. As a kid I learned karate and I grew up in a tough neighborhood, but I learned to walk away. A strong man walks away whenever he can.”

Standing in the light rain in front of his house, with daylight beginning to break, Villaraigosa acknowledges that 18 months may not be enough to satisfy some people that he has paid his dues as a councilman. But four years has been enough to heal old wounds, he says, and the city needs his leadership now. “I know more about the city, having been a councilman,” he says. “I feel wiser, and more balanced as a person. I’ve grown a lot closer to my family, to my faith in God, and I feel a stronger sense of what’s important in life.” Which is? “My family.”

Anticipating attacks on his character, particularly if he makes a runoff with Hahn, he says he intends to stay positive in his campaign — though he constantly reminds the public of the cloud of suspicion hanging over the Hahn administration. “Some people will do anything and say anything to get elected,” he says.

Of the inevitable criticism he faces, whether as mayor or as a councilman who aspired and lost — again — he says, “It comes with the turf. My son can’t stand to see me criticized. But I tell him, if you want a big job, people are going to question you.”

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