Pop Star Mayor

Los Angeles
December 2006

It’s morning assembly at Harrison School in City Terrace. Two hundred kids fidget in the half dark, fascinated by old family photos of the school’s most celebrated alumnus. The boy in the slide show is wearing a necktie and flashing an open smile between wider-open ears. He could be one of them, just another fourth grader striving to learn fractions while inhaling exhaust fumes from the San Bernardino Freeway. When the man who was the boy slips into the rear of the auditorium, heads swivel and a buzz fills the room. Antonio Villaraigosa waves and beams that same smile. “Hi, everybody,” he says. “Where did you get those pictures?”

The mayor of Los Angeles wades through a sea of high fives to reach the microphone up front, then gestures toward the screen. “What do you think they called me when I was a kid? Mickey Mouse.” (Laughter.) “Dumbo.” (More laughter.) “A Volkswagen with the doors open.” (Roar.) Old jokes work when you’re on your home turf. He asks if anyone knows Bonnie Beach Place, the street where he used to live. Hands go up. In Spanish he asks how many students read in English. About half of them raise their hands. “Muy importante,” he says. Keep your Spanish, but master English. “The key, everybody, the key: You’ve got to read every day.” Do this, he tells them, and you could grow up to be mayor, too.

Later, aides try to steer Villaraigosa toward his city-issued black GMC Yukon XL, but abuelas keep materializing, wanting to pose with Antonio and shake his hand. He sizes up each new face, trying to figure out which language to use—he nails it every time. When three shy mothers approach for a final picture, he wraps them in his arms and reveals those whitened teeth. “Quesito.” Then he climbs into the front passenger seat, and the Yukon heads downtown. As he rides away, you’d swear that all of City Terrace is smiling. Call it the Antonio Effect.

Los Angeles is enthralled with the commanding figure that Antonio Villaraigosa has become. He has grown into a larger, more likable presence than many of us expected. He’s not just the termed-out state assembly speaker whose rebound strategy after losing his first bid for mayor was to phone in two years as a councilman. Not so long ago whole segments of the city feared him. He was a labor organizer from East L.A., an ACLU liberal with a cocky ego who carried on an extramarital affair while his wife was battling cancer. There are still some rough edges to smooth, but he has become our proof that someone can change.

Even people who didn’t vote for him last year claim him now. For 18 months the Villaraigosa show has run live and in color all across town. He gives us the sizzle we didn’t know we craved after a dozen years of bland white guys named Dick and Jim. Villaraigosa’s brand of inclusive politics fits right into this metropolis of a thousand cultures, one of them being the cult of celebrity. Villaraigosa possesses the star power to adorn the cover of Newsweek, play himself on George Lopez, and share a joke with Tony Blair. For once we have a leader who is recognized on the Westside, the Eastside, and the East Coast.

No mayor has worked so relentlessly, some might say manically, to win us over. He isn’t doing bar mitzvahs—yet—but he is trying everything else. He puts on cowboy duds to ride trails in Chatsworth, sways to gospel music at churches in South L.A., and speechifies on the banquet circuit several nights a week. His need for adulation brings to mind Roxie Hart, the homicidal gamine in Chicago who sings of her audience: “I love them, and they love me for loving them, and I love them for loving me, and we love each other. And that’s because none of us got enough love in our childhoods.”

Being loved is no little thing. Sheer popularity is the most unbeatable force in politics—just ask Arnold Schwarzenegger. Villaraigosa may not be able to open a movie, but his popularity gives him the political capital to push people around. He can tap millionaires to finance a grab for control of the school district or squeeze the city council to raise the trash collection fee to pay for more cops. No longer do you hear complaints that we are cursed with a weak-mayor system–or a weakling in the job. He has reinvented what it means to be the mayor of Los Angeles and, in so doing, our image of Antonio Villaraigosa.

Of course, popularity like his can’t last forever. There are too many hazards out there. Freeway traffic isn’t getting any better. Crime stats are troubling. But Villaraigosa has given us enough to stay with him, at least until we decide whether this relationship is going to last. Eventually we will want to know if he and his team can guide Los Angeles through a more crowded and more urban future. It helps that he seems so desperate to be liked. It’s charming, even if it does make you wonder: Who is the real Antonio? What makes him run so hard?

After he beat Jim Hahn, Villaraigosa didn’t wait 24 hours before taking charge. As mayor-elect he tried to calm racial tensions at a Valley high school and used his labor connections to avert a crippling hotel workers lockout. The message was clear: The era of passive stewardship was over. On inauguration day he took a symbolic walk through downtown with his wife, Corina, their children, his grandchildren, and a couple thousand friends. If that wasn’t un-Hahn-like enough, he also shushed protesters heckling Governor Schwarzenegger at the swearing-in ceremony. “Angelenos, excuse me,” he interrupted sternly. “There will be civility today.”

Imagine that—a mayor presuming to speak for his city. It helps that, in the way that Rudy Giuliani could stand up for New York, Villaraigosa has the bona fides to represent Los Angeles. He’s never lived anywhere else, except for a few years spent in Sacramento. Tony Villar, his given name, became the man of his house at a young age. His abusive, alcoholic father left when he was five, remarried, and had another son named Antonio—a devastating emotional hit. His mother, who also remarried, worked downtown as a secretary for Caltrans and served, he says, as “my mother, my father, my grandfather, my aunt, my uncle. She was everything to me.” They were not quite poor, but as a boy he rode the bus across the river to shine shoes on Broadway and hawk La Opinión outside boxing matches at the Olympic Auditorium. He idolized Sandy Koufax and cruised Whittier Boulevard in a Chevy Malibu.

Talk-show shouters and xenophobic bloggers label him an ex-gangbanger or an Aztlán nationalist. That’s a hilarious misreading to friends and to Villaraigosa—“My mother would have killed me!” Look a little closer and you will see an L.A. baby boomer, Eastside variety, not so different from the Valley kids who revved their Malibus on Van Nuys Boulevard and wasted a semester at Pierce College figuring out what they should do with their lives.

Villaraigosa’s high school years, which coincided with the Chicano protests of the ’60s, were famously tumultuous. As a sophomore at Cathedral High, a parochial school near downtown, he became an angry young man when he was paralyzed by a spinal tumor. Surgery relieved that crisis, but his grades suffered and he was kicked out of school after a football game brawl. He enrolled at Roosevelt High, a public school in Boyle Heights, but dropped out after being dumped into remedial classes. Villaraigosa was anything but dim. He drove a younger friend—Gil Cedillo, now a state senator—to a summer program at UCLA and spent days reading in the library. Eventually he returned to Roosevelt and earned his diploma. After a year at East Los Angeles College, he joined Cedillo in Westwood and received a degree in history. He graduated from the nontraditional People’s College of Law but could never pass the bar exam.

The fluent Spanish that Villaraigosa brandishes at press conferences? He struggled to pick it up as an adult. (French was his high school foreign language.) He still tries to perfect his Spanish syntax by listening to ballads downloaded on his iPod. He carries a BlackBerry, takes his wife to shows at the ArcLight, and enjoys a fine cabernet sauvignon with the occasional meal at Water Grill or Patina. At 53, he is fit enough for any red carpet, and like many boomers he slaves to maintain his physique. Villaraigosa claims to do an hour of abdominal crunches, push-ups, and cardio each morning, starting most days at 5:15. Moussed hair, silk ties, and expensive suits complete the look. During last year’s campaign, he greeted a young mother at the Farmers Market with an innocent “Have we met before?” Her eyes sparkled. “Only in my dreams,” she replied. Who wouldn’t enjoy that, or being listed as one of People en Español magazine’s 50 most beautiful Latinos? “You know the NBA ad campaign ‘I live for this’?” asks Jack Weiss, the mayor’s closest ally on the city council. “That’s Antonio. He lives for this.”

As much as he revels in such moments, Villaraigosa wants to show that he is more than a telegenic figurehead. “I didn’t get elected to take up space,” he says one morning in his wood-paneled private office. “I got elected to do something.” Under Hahn, he believes, the city was stagnant on important issues such as expanding the LAPD and improving the schools. What looks like 24/7 energy is more accurately urgency. “I feel like in order to do big things, I have to push hard all the time,” he says. “Otherwise the bureaucracy, the inertia, that comes with tackling structural problems—it just kills you.”

Unlike Hahn, Villaraigosa is using the power given to the mayor by City Charter reforms in the late 1990s. He can, if he chooses, actually run city hall. So far, he chooses. Ten days into his term he convened department general managers and told them he knew what they were thinking: He hadn’t been a very conscientious councilman. He had been a union organizer and president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. They had doubts about him as a mayor. He assured them that he was on their side and asked only that they lead their departments with creativity. The good news for them was that they met with Villaraigosa at all. The city’s managers had never before been invited to sit down together with a mayor. Some of them ended up not making the cut or choosing not to stick around. Villaraigosa has picked his own heads of city planning, transportation, airports, the Port of Los Angeles, cultural affairs, and neighborhood empowerment—in some cases installing better managers or people he trusted more.

He also has revived talk of a Wilshire Boulevard subway to the beach and banned lobbyists from serving on city commissions. Other initiatives include the planting of a million trees, cleaning up the environment at the port, and stopping street repairs during rush hour. “Villaraigosa Plan 2005–2009”—a colored sheet displayed under the desk glass of the mayoral staff—lays out a more sweeping agenda: Fix the transportation system. Reduce crime and deter terrorism. Transform Los Angeles into “the greenest big city in the world.” Boost the economy to increase the number of jobs.

It’s a long-range vision, and Villaraigosa’s administration is already behind schedule. By this point Hahn had ousted Bernard Parks as head of the LAPD and replaced him with William J. Bratton, made peace with the Police Protective League by caving in to demands for a compressed workweek, and beaten back the threatened secession of almost half the city. Villaraigosa’s fans and even some of his aides had expected more boldface accomplishments to boast about, when it comes to aiding the homeless and requiring developers to include affordable housing in new projects.

Power must be used to be effective. Villaraigosa learned this as a community activist and as an assembly speaker in charge of a fiercely partisan caucus. Against the advice of some staffers, the new mayor tried to hit a home run right away by taking over the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The move was part power grab, part political theater, and part settling of a personal score. The LAUSD’s giant bureaucracy had nearly failed him when he was a teenager. He likes to say that only a kind-hearted teacher at Roosevelt saved a young Mexican American with weak grades from succumbing to the pressure to enter the vocational track. Herman Katz helped Villaraigosa apply to college and offered to pay his SAT fee. “It was a public school that gave me a second chance, and a public school teacher that made the difference,” the mayor has repeated as if it were a mantra

Kids like him are still out there, lost in the system or worse, dropouts. Villaraigosa calls bad schools “the fundamental moral and economic challenge of our time.… If you can’t read and write, you can’t apply for a job.” Such beliefs were solidified while he was working for United Teachers of Los Angeles, the district’s most influential union. Although many see unions as a big part of the LAUSD’s woes, Villaraigosa criticizes a top-heavy administration and what he calls a lack of dedication to helping students overcome problems posed by poverty, language barriers, and gangs.

In his 2001 campaign for mayor, Villaraigosa used his debut speech at Town Hall Los Angeles to blast L.A. Unified. Four years later he espoused a broader agenda, but schools soon became a central issue because of another candidate, Robert Hertzberg, who connected with voters in the primary by suggesting that the district be broken into pieces. In the runoff, with Hertzberg out of the picture, Hahn proposed letting the next mayor appoint three members of the seven-member board of education. It was a radical suggestion, since the city had no jurisdiction over the schools.

Villaraigosa went further. He said the mayor should oversee the district, even though it serves 25 other cities and has its own elected board. Mayoral control was a borrowed idea—it had been all the rage among big-city Democratic officials. Villaraigosa argued that giving a high-visibility politician ultimate responsibility would force failing schools to become more accountable. His campaign ads noted that his wife was a public school teacher. (She works for the Montebello district.) There was no mention that their two teenage children attend Catholic schools.

After Villaraigosa took office, the fight over schools became his main focus. Aides began softening up the district with body blows, repeating a claim that half of the district’s high school students fail to graduate. Superintendent Roy Romer, a former governor of Colorado and a rugged political infighter, pleaded with reporters to press for details, calling the figure overstated. Test scores and the dropout rate were improving, he said. “This is not a failing district,” Romer told anyone who would listen. Not many did.

“I don’t care what statistics you cite,” Villaraigosa shot back. “We are failing too many of our children.”

City Controller Laura Chick, an ally of the mayor, pressured L.A. Unified to let her audit the books. Romer declined. In public Villaraigosa called for a collegial partnership. Behind the scenes there was only rancor. Board of education president Marlene Canter accused Villaraigosa of overreaching ambition. Romer paid a visit to ask the mayor’s intentions and came away bitter; soon after, he revealed plans to retire. A.J. Duffy, then UTLA’s president-elect, pledged to fight mayoral control “with every breath I have” because it would dilute the union’s influence with the school board.

The proposed changes provoked many complicated questions. How would Los Angeles satisfy the district’s other cities? What would become of the elected board members? Perhaps hardest to answer: How would having Villaraigosa in charge actually help kids?

While aides solicited expert advice on the last question, lawyers researched ways to invent a legal basis for the takeover. Villaraigosa could have asked voters to approve a merging of powers, but that could get messy. A loss would stain his entire first term, and private polls showed that residents, especially African Americans, were not sure what mayoral control would accomplish. So he did what he enjoys best. He played hardball. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chicago’s Richard Daley were tapped to endorse the program. Villaraigosa set up a private fund-raising committee to accept donations from supporters and corporations happy to help out the new mayor. More than $1 million came in, enough to hire full-time consultants and rent buses to ferry students and parents to rallies.

Villaraigosa shifted the battle to Sacramento, where he held the advantage over Romer and Canter. Mayors are usually outsiders in the capitol, but Villaraigosa had friends in the legislature from his days as speaker. Besides, he was the new power boss of L.A. Deals could be cut, pressure exerted in private. He lined up the support of current speaker Fabian Núñez—who is thought to have ambitions to succeed Villaraigosa—and senate president pro tem Don Perata. Schwarzenegger pledged to back any reform of the LAUSD, sight unseen. Villaraigosa held back details of his bill because, he said, once he revealed them, “it’s going to be a piñata. Everybody is going to hit it.”

He was right. AB 1381 encountered a wall of objections from Republicans and some friendly Democrats, who were hearing from Romer and the unions. Many lawmakers were reluctant to give the mayor such broad power, fearing that it would set a precedent for other school districts or backfire if he didn’t know what he was doing. The California Teachers Association had spent more than $500,000 to get Villaraigosa elected the year before, but it thought the bill took too much authority away from instructors.

Villaraigosa flew up to Sacramento to negotiate details—and ended up making a fateful call. To win the support of the CTA and UTLA he compromised. Out went full mayoral control. He would get a limited role in the hiring of a superintendent through a council of mayors from all of the district’s cities, and a substantial bully pulpit to make noise about education. Teachers would get more discretion in running their classrooms.

Advocates of revamping the LAUSD screamed. Editorials in the Los Angeles Times blasted the deal, saying Villaraigosa had blinked. Eli Broad, a key player in education reform, pulled his support of the bill.

The unions’ endorsement gave Villaraigosa an important edge, however. He realized he had to do more—he needed every vote he could get to avoid a defeat. His committee organized rallies to give the sense that momentum was building. He got the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the Central City Association, influential groups that had endorsed Hahn, to sign on. Villaraigosa met privately with members of the city council to ensure they would give him a symbolic unanimous endorsement. Many believe his support for Measure R—the November proposition allowing council members to serve a third term—became a bargaining chip. The mayor denies this. “He reached out in a very personal way that made people say, ‘Okay, I trust this guy,’ ” says city council president Eric Garcetti. “At the end of the day, the decision to support the plan has less to do with the particulars than with it being Antonio Villaraigosa.”

It came down to a final showdown in late August. Romer and Canter worked the capitol hallways. The mayor flew to Sacramento for every committee and floor vote, a subtle intimidation tactic. “It’s nice when you’re present and they see you watching,” he said. Villaraigosa worried about the end of the legislative session, when horse-trading for votes is most flagrant—and least predictable. As a final bone to holdouts, a sunset provision was added that would allow everything to be reversed in 2013, not coincidentally the end of Villaraigosa’s theoretical second term. Lobbying was intense, with the Democratic leadership making clear that members should contemplate their future before voting no. “There were private meetings elevating the comfort level of various people,” acknowledges Councilman Herb Wesson, who acted as a whip for the mayor. The bill passed, 42 to 20, with one aye vote to spare.

Sacramento insiders were stunned by the raw display of power. “This is the most politically leveraged bill I’ve ever seen,” said Democratic senator Deborah Ortiz of Sacramento. The success added to Villaraigosa’s mystique, showing that an L.A. mayor could get things done in Sacramento.

It was not a clean triumph. While the school board will lose a lot of its clout, Villaraigosa didn’t actually gain much authority to influence the direction of L.A. Unified. He will oversee just three high schools and their feeder campuses. Most schools will be run by the superintendent, who has been given more power and who needs to listen to the mayor only on certain issues. Villaraigosa’s role will not be much more than that of a responsible voice—and he had that already. “I would have liked more, but this was far-reaching legislation that the legislature was not prepared to support unless I scaled it back a bit,” Villaraigosa says. Even so, he could lose whatever he has accomplished if the district wins its lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the plan.

Villaraigosa’s clearest victory was gaining veto power over the board’s selection of a superintendent—until Romer and Canter played one last hand. While the mayor was in Asia on a trade mission in October, the board named retired navy vice admiral David L. Brewer to succeed Romer. Despite his lack of experience in education, he impressed board members with his leadership résumé and skills. His arrival in town nudged Villaraigosa out of top billing on the schools issue and also presented the mayor with a quandary. Any show of disrespect to Brewer, who is African American, would risk alienating black community leaders. So far, Brewer has handled things just right, promising to be a happy partner of the mayor’s. At their first meeting they matched each other smile for smile. Now it’s up to Villaraigosa to make this partnership work.


When Villaraigosa ran for mayor the second time, he was a different man. The defeat in 2001 hit him hard personally and politically. He entered the rematch with Hahn more poised and practiced, the sprinter transformed into a long-distance runner. As mayor he is not pursuing the active progressive agenda that his base had expected—or hoped for. The new Antonio favors consensus and has been a surprise friend to Republican Schwarzenegger, at the expense of Democratic sacrificial shlub Phil Angelides. By creating an almost centrist aura, Villaraigosa and his advisers are planing the extremes off his reputation. It’s the smart thing to do to refine his image as a national leader and likely candidate for higher office.

The Villaraigosa administration includes a mix of allies from his activist days and more moderate policy wonks. Progressives are happy that adviser-at-large Torie Osborn, the former director of the Liberty Hill Foundation, has an office near the mayor’s. The Community Redevelopment Agency board includes Madeline Janis, who led the living-wage campaign a few years ago; its CEO is Cecilia Estolano, who as a deputy city attorney wrote the law regulating big-box stores. Villaraigosa is also close to María Elena Durazo, the head of the County Federation of Labor.

The Asian trade mission reflected the mayor’s belief that he can get more done by opening up his circle. The traveling party included Durazo as well as the president of the chamber of commerce, the publisher of the Los Angeles Business Journal, and San Fernando Valley civic leader David Fleming. Beyond this, Villaraigosa’s commission appointments have been the most diverse of any recent mayor’s. All that is fine with most of his old friends, who realize that his power comes from appealing to white liberals and moderates, blacks and Latinos, and business leaders who like his positions on development and economic growth. “You can’t load up an entire progressive agenda the first year,” says Peter Dreier, an Occidental College professor and an informal adviser to the mayor. “He’s clearly the most progressive mayor in the country.”

Villaraigosa knows part of his popularity relies on deftly managing the everyday affairs of the city—street sweeping, public safety. So he talks up Bratton and the police department and is a convert to the cause of homeland security. He attends police academy graduations and station roll calls—which has helped him salve over controversies like his appointment of John Mack, a frequent critic of police shootings, to head the commission that oversees the LAPD. Villaraigosa has good relations with the city council and was able to persuade reluctant members to impose a trash collection fee to pay for a thousand police officers. Hahn had tried to obtain funds for more cops but came up empty.

“His aspiration is to make the middle bigger,” says Robin Kramer, the mayor’s chief of staff. Kramer was one of the few top aides who wanted Villaraigosa to go for it on schools, but she usually serves as the moderating force on the team. A Democrat, she was chief of staff for Richard Riordan, the city’s last Republican mayor, and before returning to city hall ran billionaire Broad’s foundation. She helps keep Villaraigosa focused on reducing crime and on the other laudable but safe goals that have been carefully worked out in long staff sessions with management consultants.

Last summer Villaraigosa surprised some friends in labor by facing down the Engineers and Architects Association over what he saw as unreasonable pay demands. On the day that members hit the street, Villaraigosa came to work in a dark mood. Union guys, even ones who wear Armani, don’t disregard picket lines lightly. “I want to be fair with them. But, man, we’ve got to live within our means,” he told reporters. “I’m the chief executive. My responsibility is to balance out all the competing interests.” The two-day strike ended with hard feelings on all sides and no agreement in sight, but it gave the mayor’s image a new edge. “He’s just a tougher person,” says Garcetti. “He’s tougher about life in general, and he’s willing to show people that he’s tougher.”

Others, though, fume that “Antonio has changed,” and they talk of betrayal. They complain that he has become more aloof and gotten caught up in the trappings of the office. Some who knew Villaraigosa before he became a big shot snickered loudest when the L.A. Times printed a staff memo that spelled out how aides should greet the mayor in the field—with hand sanitizers, room-temperature bottled water, green tea prepared just so, and a supply of Listerine breath strips. The story also described Villaraigosa ordering foie gras at a downtown restaurant and commenting that one $140 bottle of wine was a good value. “Not too many metrosexuals came out of Boyle Heights,” a longtime acquaintance quips. Culture Clash parodied the mayor’s image in its recent play Water & Power with lines like “Under those fancy suits he’s still just a cholo who got kicked out of Cathedral High.”

That Villaraigosa’s personal style would evolve—and irk some past friends—is not so surprising. Of course he’s harder to reach on the phone. He’s the mayor now. He’s also somewhat paranoid about loyalty, careful about whom he lets close. He needles reporters about critical stories and has a penchant for showing off. Before taking the field to become the first mayor to play in the annual celebrity softball game at Dodger Stadium, he bragged about doing 600 crunches in the clubhouse gym. During the Asia trip, Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez bristled when Villaraigosa came down from the Great Wall crowing about being recognized—and about how fit he was. “I’ve done my cardio, baby,” Villaraigosa said. “When I get back to the hotel, I’m going to lift some weights.” A big ego isn’t necessarily bad in a politician, Rodriguez wrote, since it takes a healthy sense of self to believe you can change the world. With Villaraigosa, “His honor’s need for attention begets the charm that is a source of much of his charisma. But it’s not difficult to imagine that it could also lead to his unraveling.”

A more threatening political danger for Villaraigosa is posed by the subject of immigration. He wants to be seen as a national leader on Latino issues without being pigeonholed or viewed as being soft on illegal border crossers. It’s a delicate dance. When rallying cries by Spanish-language radio DJs and immigrant rights organizers filled the Civic Center with workers last March, he appeared with the marchers but tried to avoid being identified with the Mexican flags they waved. “He’s terrified of being seen as the mayor of East L.A.,” says an Eastside supporter of many years. After the march, some students protested on the City Hall lawn. Villaraigosa’s first reflex was to rap with them. Then students began dashing onto freeways. The mayor went back out to the lawn and told the youngsters to return to their campuses, but he was shouted down. “Somebody’s got to be a grown-up,” he says.

For the massive May 1 march down Wilshire Boulevard, Villaraigosa had time to ponder a response. He joined Cardinal Roger Mahony and other civic leaders in asking that the main demonstration be postponed until after school hours. Even then he waffled about whether to stay in town or fly to Dallas to discuss bringing a National Football League team to L.A. He did catch his plane—but not before standing onstage at the march’s terminus waving a giant American flag in an obviously made-for-TV moment.

Villaraigosa prefers to be viewed as the mature and moderate leader who cochaired John Kerry’s campaign for president. He praises immigrants’ contributions to society and calls for compassionate reforms that will put many of the undocumented on a path to citizenship. He also came out in favor of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants but did so standing next to Bratton as both called it a traffic safety necessity. After the May 1 march, he appeared on TV with Geraldo Rivera and made a point of denouncing a move to translate “The Star-Spangled Banner” into Spanish, saying the idea was “absolutely ridiculous.” It all seemed calculated to help him build immunity against the old photos floating around anti-immigrant Web sites of a long-haired MEChA protester named Tony Villar at a UCLA rally in the early 1970s.

Villaraigosa is an easy target for talk-radio demagogues, even though his grandfather came to Los Angeles from Mexico in 1903. John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, KFI’s afternoon provocateurs, have been the most insidious, all but calling him a wetback. “A lot of people look at Villaraigosa and they see an illegal alien. There’s no end to how much we’ll milk this,” Kobylt told The Wall Street Journal. Villaraigosa mostly lets such insults slide but finally struck back in the summer. “These guys are purveyors of hate,” he said of John and Ken. “It’s ugly stuff. How do you wake up in the morning so angry?”


Villaraigosa points to slight bags under his eyes. “I didn’t use to have these,” he says. Five hours of sleep a night and seven-day weeks take a toll. He doesn’t see as much of Corina as he would like, though they talk by cell phone during the day. (Villaraigosa is a blend of Villar and her family name, Raigosa.) He takes 17-year-old Antonio on weekend appearances and escorted 13-year-old Natalia Fe to the Emmys—his attempts to remain connected. Such is the price of urgency.

“If you just sit on your political capital, it’s going to waste away no matter what,” Villaraigosa says. “The death of a thousand cuts.” He feels the burden of needing to make an impact while he can, of living up to expectations. Not only is he L.A.’s first Latino mayor in modern times, and the first ever from City Terrace, but he arrived in office armed with more clout than many of his predecessors. He wants it all to add up to something, but he does ask for a little slack. “I’m going to make a lot of mistakes,” he says, framing it as the inevitable result of taking risks.

We’ll give him that. He’s earned our patience—up to a point—by working frantically and making us feel good. It’s hard not to wonder, however, whether his ardor for this relationship ultimately will wane. Although he calls being mayor of Los Angeles the best political job in the country, most who know Villaraigosa believe that a piece of his heart always belongs to the next office. California’s Schwarzenegger experiment ends in 2010, and so many people assume that Villaraigosa will run for governor that he is ready to deflect the question: He’s grown enough as a person, he says, that he could be satisfied serving as mayor for eight years, then walk away. That’s not exactly a denial.

Notice the presumption—he’s not halfway through his first term—that reelection is in the bag. He’s probably right. His confidence, call it arrogance if you like, is a good sign. Ambition has always been a driving force for Antonio Villaraigosa, his defense against those who say he can’t do something. The only time we should be afraid is if he loses that edge.

©Kevin Roderick 2006