Ten years ago, The Journal ran an article about the young, ambitious speaker of the state Assembly, Antonio Villaraigosa, under the headline, “Born to Raise Hope.”
On Monday, two Journal reporters re-visited Villaraigosa, now ensconced in the spacious mayor’s office in Los Angeles City Hall and on course to be re-elected for a second term on Tuesday.
At 55, Villaraigosa still looks youthful, though his face has added a few more lines during the intervening decade.
But after four years of 18-hour days, the city’s “marathon mayor” has lost none of his intensity and single-mindedness in getting his message across, regardless of his interviewers’ questions or how many VIPs might be cooling their heels in the reception room.
Twice during a 30-minute interview, a secretary entered with printed messages. Waiting outside were Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Ramon Cortines, LAUSD Board President Monica Garcia and uber-philanthropist Eli Broad.
But Villaraigosa was not to be distracted or hurried. An aide passed out copies of the mayor’s 2005 inaugural address to show that Villaraigosa had kept his initial promises to fight crime, fix schools and alleviate traffic.
“I have kept my promises, and I have laid the foundation for the future,” he said.
Without notes and with an astonishing memory for figures, Villaraigosa cited his accomplishments: Fewer homicides, property crimes and potholes; more homeless housing, police officers, recycled trash and planted trees; less graffiti.
His record of success, however, isn’t so clear-cut. Indeed, when Villaraigosa compares himself to his predecessors, which he did frequently in stumping for a second term Monday, he has done much more to green Los Angeles, ease its congestion and reform its schools. But Villaraigosa has yet to live up to the ambitious promises he made four years ago.
He promised 1 million trees, but so far only about 200,000 have been planted. He assured Angelenos of 1,000 additional police officers patrolling city streets but has shown a net gain of only 694. And he pledged to take control of the LAUSD but had to settle for getting three allies elected to the school board and having them install his deputy mayor for education as superintendent.
The subway-to-the-sea project hasn’t moved as fast as he had hoped, but former Mayor Tom Bradley faced the same problem when he tried to take Southern California transportation underground, and with a hoped-for infusion of federal money, the project has been moving forward. Additionally, the Orange Line to Canoga Park has been a success, and the groundwork for Expo Line has been laid, as well as expansion of the Gold Line.
“In the next four years, the economy is going to be a bigger part of our agenda,” Villaraigosa said. “We are going to make economic development a priority in our next administration. I think I’ve laid the foundation to improve the quality of life in this city.
“If you look at that inaugural address, I have kept the promises I made. But I want to say one last thing: I recognized, in a city as diverse as this, with communities that often times don’t talk to one another, it was important to do this in a way that brought people together.”
“I work with the City Council. I work with the Legislature. I work with our congressional delegation. Howard Berman, Henry Waxman, Brad Sherman and I are like this,” he said, crossing three fingers on his right hand when referring to his relationship with three of Los Angeles’ Jewish congressmen.
How does the mayor see the political power balance 10 years down the road between an increasing Latino population and a proportionally smaller Jewish community?
Villaraigosa didn’t answer directly, but the question gave him a chance to show his sophisticated grasp of the nuances within Jewish communal life and his acquaintance with just about every Jewish politician and Israeli diplomat.
“Even my children know the difference between ‘Shabbos’ and ‘Shabbat,’” he said proudly. He also remembered that in his first mayoral run in 2001, when he was defeated by James Hahn, “I lost the Orthodox vote, but in 2005, I got it.”
The mayor agreed that the L.A. public school system must find ways to lure back middle-class white, including Jewish, students, who now go to private schools, by expanding public charter and magnet schools and special academies.
Asked about unexpected challenges he had encountered during the last four years, Villaraigosa said he hadn’t anticipated that emergency management and homeland security would evolve into such high priorities.
The mayor laughed heartily when asked to give The Journal an exclusive on whether he would run for governor.
The question remains why Villaraigosa is running so hard in what supporters and strategists consider a no-contest election. While there are nine other mayoral candidates on the ballot, they have little name recognition and less campaign money.
But there is the consideration that Villaraigosa is hardly as popular now as he was when he appeared on the cover of Newsweek in May 2005 as the poster boy for “Latino power.”
For instance, at the UCLA basketball game last weekend, Villaraigosa, watching his alma mater, appeared on the big screen in Pauley Pavilion. The crowd started booing.
Who knows what provoked the boos, but such an audience reaction would have been almost unthinkable two years ago.
“There are a lot of people who like me or don’t like me, but I don’t think there is a serious conversation about whether or not I work hard,” Villaraigosa said. “If I am in the Westside or the Valley, we get six-to-one, ‘I like what you’re doing.’”
“Look at the record, not the boos of a group of people, but at the record, and make your own evaluation,” the mayor added. “If you do, you will see we work hard, and we have been very successful at laying a foundation. But I’m running for re-election because we’ve got work to do.”
Tom Tugend is Jewish Journal contributing editor; Brad A. Greenberg is senior writer.