Ya think Antonio Villaraigosa likes being mayor? The morning after voters anointed him, Mr. Exuberance nudged aside the Reluctant One and never looked back. He thanked Jim Hahn for his past service, then drove out to Woodland Hills to help calm racial tensions at Taft High School. "I’ve been thinking about this job for a long time," he said that day. "I want to be a leader."
Weeks ahead of his July 1 inauguration, Villaraigosa had christened an attraction at Universal Studios, thrown a pitch at Dodger Stadium, averted a hotel workers lockout, demanded new powers to reform education, ridden in the West Hollywood gay pride parade, opened an international gathering of urbanists, met with the city’s lobbyists in Washington, and beamed his whitened smile from the cover of Newsweek. He also had his name mangled by Jay Leno. (And others. At the mayor-elect’s first press conference, John Mack of the Urban League introduced him as "Veela-ga-rosa.")
That’s okay. Pretty soon everybody will know how to say it: Veeya-ray-gosa.
In the simplified lens of the national media, the defining Villaraigosa trait is that he is the son of Mexican American immigrants—a biographical detail rightfully laden with emotional symbolism, especially for those who share his ethnic lineage. He is the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles since before the pueblo streets were paved. Around the city, you can feel the pride as well as the sense of relief that a threshold has finally been crossed. But don’t forget, he purposely didn’t campaign as “the Latino.” He ran as the mayor who would shake things up, give Los Angeles a jump start, and bring new minds and voices to City Hall. With term limits giving him eight years if he’s lucky, four if (like Hahn) he’s not, that makes him a man in a hurry.
Whenever the third-floor suite at City Hall gets a new occupant, lots of things change. Power relationships morph all over town. Lawyers and lobbyists who had the clout to cut in line at LAX, or to get friends a rich contract, don’t get their calls answered—or even an invitation to the swearing-in ceremony. The centrifugal force of politics spins the old insiders out to the edges, while a new class of BlackBerry carriers joins the breakfast regulars at the Pacific Dining Car.
Access is power, and trying to spot who has it is sport. Players of the game speculate about the fortunes of Bill Wardlaw, the elite-level Democratic macher who guided Richard Riordan’s mayoralty from behind the scenes and chaired Hahn’s winning campaign in 2001 (and this year’s lost cause). Although Wardlaw probably won’t get to handpick any more commissioners for a while, it’s a safe bet the mayor will take his calls—and may place some the other way. When I talked to Wardlaw last year, he shrewdly volunteered, even then, how much he socialized with and liked the Villaraigosas.
The new mayor has no analogue to Wardlaw, no single fixer whose national influence can quietly match the elected’s power. Instead, after preparing for this role for many years, Villaraigosa stands at the head of a parade of friends, advisers, and recent allies who are now on the inside. Some of them he has known since childhood, others since his student-activist days at UCLA and his early career as a labor organizer. Some made their connection with him when he was the speaker of the assembly or—the real newbies—after he joined the city council two years ago.
Some have been insiders before. Robin Kramer, the new mayor’s chief of staff, performed the same function for Riordan. Since then, she has directed the California Community Foundation and the Broad Foundation, and she says she had intended to stay in the nonprofit sector. Villaraigosa’s charisma proved more persuasive than Eli Broad’s wealth.
You don’t need a private office at City Hall and a title to qualify for the inner circle. Officially, Wardlaw never worked for Riordan or Hahn. What counts is that these confidants have the boss’s trust and probably his cell phone number. In the best case, they have the foresight to steer their guy away from trouble. In the worst case, they become the trouble. Wardlaw didn’t do Riordan any favors by pushing to bring in Webster Hubbell, the controversial former Bill Clinton adviser, as a highly paid consultant at LAX. Hahn’s ties to abrasive lawyer and fund-raiser Ted Stein and to public relations agency Fleishman-Hillard turned into political lead weights.
Spend enough time around the Villaraigosa camp and you’ll keep hearing the same names being mentioned. The catalog that follows is in no particular order and doesn’t hope to be comprehensive. The insiders who are coming to power with the new mayor fall into these categories:
The sudden death just before the election of Miguel Contreras, secretary-treasurer of the County Federation of Labor, cost Villaraigosa a potential collaborator. It also set off an intensely political chain reaction of private talks and backroom deals. The upshot is that a Villaraigosa protégé, Martin Ludlow, was nominated to run the powerful Fed. Ludlow worked for Villaraigosa in the assembly. They joined the city council together, Villaraigosa from the Eastside’s 14th District and Ludlow, an African American, the Mid City 10th District. Ludlow will be more valuable to the mayor shaping the Fed’s endorsements and helping him smooth out labor skirmishes before they erupt into unpopular strikes.
Ludlow and Villaraigosa are also close to Maria Elena Durazo, Contreras’s widow and the president of Unite HERE! Local 11. She and the mayor go way back and she should have his ear on numerous issues. So will Larry Frank, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education. He is a labor lifer who began organizing for César Chávez and the United Farm Workers in 1976 and works with the National Lawyers Guild. He played an active role on the mayor’s transition team and has known Villaraigosa for 23 years.
In his first speech outside the city after the election, Villaraigosa told a national convention of activists in Washington, "I’m an unabashed progressive." He generally supports the hopes of the Progressive Los Angeles Network, which is housed at Occidental College, and its agenda promoting economic justice, low-income housing, living-wage laws, and other favorite issues of the local left. Professor-organizers Robert Gottlieb and Peter Dreier have counseled Villaraigosa through the years, and along with L.A. Weekly political editor Harold Meyerson, perhaps the mayor’s most reliable media friend, they champion the cause.
They won’t get everything they want. Villaraigosa has said he plans to work closely with the chamber of commerce and other groups interested in economic development. In the assembly he had the reputation of embracing Republicans. In a pre-inauguration piece in The Nation, Dreier noted, "Villaraigosa understands that to be an effective mayor of America’s second-largest city, he needs not only to help progressive forces expand and mobilize their base but also to strengthen his support among a significant segment of the city’s suburban moderates and the enlightened wing of the business community." But when access matters, they will be there.
These are a more pragmatic, less ideological bunch. For them, insider status would offer potential benefits—certainly political, possibly personal and financial. Bob Hertzberg, who followed Villaraigosa as speaker of the assembly, put aside a personal rift with his ex-roommate to offer his high-profile endorsement during the runoff campaign. Hertzberg served as chair of the transition team, a prominent spot that is sure to bring in some business as he rebuilds his law practice. Jimmy Blackman, who worked for Villaraigosa in the assembly as a young USC graduate, rose through the ranks to become the chief of staff in the councilman’s office. He has been slotted as one of two deputy chiefs of staff, directly under Kramer. Don’t be surprised if he emerges as the mayor’s political consigliere. "Antonio trusts Jimmy and feels very comfortable with him," says a member of the transition team.
Among the advisers are two figures whose presence is viewed by some Villaraigosa loyalists as a risk to the mayor’s media image. Keith Brackpool is the head of Santa Monica–based Cadiz Inc., which for a decade has been trying to extract and sell groundwater from beneath the Mojave Desert. Brackpool’s service as an adviser on water issues to Governor Gray Davis provoked criticism. He is described by Villaraigosa aides as a trusted friend—and by the L.A. Times as "urbane and well-tailored…[with] the engaging wit of an after-dinner raconteur." Villaraigosa worked as a consultant for Cadiz after leaving the assembly, which makes some of the mayor’s pro-environment supporters wary.
Longtime Democratic Party fund-raiser Ari Swiller helped stock the Villaraigosa campaign’s bank accounts, especially with contributions from out-of-state donors. Swiller’s desire to gain a major role in the new administration raises the specter of Troy Edwards, the fund-raiser and deputy mayor who resigned under a cloud and whose name was invoked throughout the last campaign to bash Hahn over ethics questions.
His years in Sacramento and in Democratic politics have given Villaraigosa a deep bench of advisers, including Richard Katz, the former Valley secession leader who helped advise Governor Davis on the electricity crisis and other issues, and Nick Patsouras, a former member of the MTA board whose specialty is transportation.
Villaraigosa has long been close to the current Assembly Speaker, Fabian Nuñez, and county supervisor Gloria Molina. He received highly visible endorsements from former Hahn backers such as Representative Maxine Waters and Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. In the milieu that will matter most to the mayor’s day-to-day work—City Hall—a few friends stand out. After Villaraigosa, the election’s biggest winner was Jack Weiss, and he wasn’t even on any ballot. Weiss was the first city council member to endorse Villaraigosa, they campaigned together, and at the ebullient election-night party outside the L.A. Center Studios downtown, Weiss introduced him to the crowd. His relationship with Villaraigosa will be useful if Weiss, a former federal prosecutor who is beginning his second and final council term, decides to run for city attorney or district attorney.
Villaraigosa’s other close pal in the building is Controller Laura Chick, who campaigned for him and now will be watched to see if her office’s audits are easier on him than they were on Hahn. Her chief of staff, Marcus Allen, has moved down the hall to join Villaraigosa as a senior deputy. Councilman Bernard Parks also bonded with Villaraigosa during the campaign, holding off any pointed criticism during the primary in which both were candidates, then delivering his endorsement in the runoff. Parks is chair of the budget and finance committee, so he could prove helpful.
©Kevin Roderick 2005