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Jewish Journal

Born to Raise Hopes

By Tom Tugend,

by Tom Tugend

September 10, 1998 | 8:00 pm

The counselor at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles took one look at Antonio Villar's surname, skin color and attendance record and knew just where to place him.

"You'll never go to college," the counselor assured the future UCLA grad and assigned him to upholstery and remedial reading classes.

The common race prejudice of the time aside, the counselor's assessment seemed justified by the boy's background and past behavior.

The son of Mexican immigrants, Antonio was kicked out of parochial school, dropped out of public high school for a year, had a brush with the police, and sported a tattoo that boasted "Born to Raise Hell."

Today, as Antonio Villaraigosa and speaker of the California state Assembly, he is, at 46, the third-most powerful public official and the most influential Latino politician in California.

What turned the rebellious dropout into a legislator with a seemingly unlimited future, one that might well include a shot at becoming the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles?

Villaraigosa credits "my two heroes -- my mom and Herman Katz." Mom was Natalia Delgado, a single parent who raised Antonio and three younger siblings. She was also a civic activist and voracious reader who never doubted that her oldest son would make it one day.

Herman Katz, a Jewish teacher at Roosevelt High School, plucked the boy out of a remedial English class, goaded him into preparing for college, and paid for his Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) when Antonio couldn't come up with the money himself.

"At a pivotal time in my life, Herman Katz made the difference," Villaraigosa says during an interview in his district office in downtown Los Angeles.

Villaraigosa's fond recollection of his Jewish mentor is of more than anecdotal interest at a time when demographic shifts in Los Angeles and California point toward the growing influence of an increasingly activist Latino community -- possibly at the expense of a well-established but proportionately diminishing Jewish sector.

The recent primary race for the state Senate's 20th District seat, between Richard Katz and Richard Alarcon, was a possible preview of confrontations between the two groups. Other conceivable flash points include the race for sheriff between Lee Baca and Sherman Block, expansion of the Los Angeles City Council -- which would dilute Jewish representation -- and even heated arguments whether gardeners, predominantly Latino, can continue using noisy leaf blowers in mainly white/Jewish residential neighborhoods.

As a former organizer for the teachers' union, veteran civil rights activist, past regional ACLU president and lifelong liberal -- he prefers the term "progressive" -- Villaraigosa has worked closely and comfortably with Jews.

The comfort level goes back to his 1950s and 1960s childhood in City Terrace, whose ethnic spectrum ranged from Latinos and African-Americans to Jews and Japanese. His mother made Jewish friends in the neighborhood child-care co-op, and Antonio regularly dropped in at the original Canter's Deli on Brooklyn Avenue in neighboring Boyle Heights.

"Looking back, I think that the key people in my life, of the non-Latinos, were Jewish," he says.

His strongest political ally and close personal friend is fellow Los Angeles Democrat and Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, who says, "Antonio has been in more temples than I have."

The two men share a Sacramento apartment when the legislature is in session and run a mutual admiration society.

"Bob Hertzberg -- I call him Bobby Hugsberg because nobody hugs like he does -- is one of the most talented people in the legislature," says Villaraigosa. "I'm not kidding; this guy is awesome."

Personal affections aside, Villaraigosa is enough of a realist to know that some ethnic tensions are inevitable as the country's largest and most diverse state becomes ever more so.

In percentage terms, Asian-Americans are now the fastest-growing segment of the state's population, and Latinos are expanding most rapidly in absolute numbers, he says. According to current projections, Latinos will become a majority in Los Angeles by the year 2025 or 2030.

"There is no question that all changes carry the potential for conflict and some pain," Villaraigosa says. "Indeed, the present level of ethnocentrism in Los Angeles and California politics makes me very uncomfortable."

The tensions are not just ethnic, but are also based on geography, socioeconomic class, and "the Old World against the New World," he says. "Too much of our housing and school system are still de facto segregated."

But the pragmatic idealist in Villaraigosa quickly switches to a more optimistic tone. "I am convinced that the people are tired of ethnic politics," he says. "It is the role of leadership to mitigate, and not exacerbate, ethnic tensions.

"It is the challenge to the next century's leaders to inspire us to be bigger than ourselves," he says. "The diversity of its people can be California's greatest asset as we stand on the threshold of the Pacific Rim century."

Warming to his subject, he sees California as a microcosm of the world and endorses the prediction that, "in 75 years, America will look like California today, and, in 150 years, so will the world."

Villaraigosa's tribute to the virtues of diversity may sound like standard political fare, but he practices what he preaches.

The California Journal has characterized him as foremost an "ethnic conciliator." Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky described Villaraigosa as the consummate inter-ethnic coalition builder, a skill that both men will need should they face each other as mayoral candidates.

"We'd better get along," says Villaraigosa. "After all, we're all here to stay; we're not going anywhere else."

Villaraigosa's family life serves as an illustration of his character and maturation. He acknowledges that, before he was 25, he had fathered two daughters with two different girlfriends. What the papers don't report, he protests, is that he assumed joint custody over the girls and supported them financially.

When he first ran for the Assembly, in 1994, his opponent hired a private investigator to dig up some dirt.

"This guy went to one of the moms and asked if I had met all my child-support payments," Villaraigosa says. She thought for a while and then told him that one month, about eight years ago, when Villaraigosa was out of town, the payment came a few days late.

"When I heard that," says Villaraigosa, all but shouting with glee, "I told them, go ahead, PRINT THAT."

When the union official, still named Antonio Villar, married Corina Raigosa, he proposed that they merge their last names, and the Villaraigosa clan was founded. The couple has two small children.

Villaraigosa is also a grandfather, through one of his older daughters, though his trim figure, short-cropped wavy black hair and unlined face belie the appellation.

As his career advances, Villaraigosa has burnished his Jewish ties. Last week, his bill, appropriating $2.5 million to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, passed the Assembly unanimously. The state grant will provide matching funds for the housing and creation of a Museum for Children on Tolerance and the Holocaust, says Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center's founder.

Villaraigosa has authorized a sensitivity program on ethnic and religious diversity for all Assembly legislators and staffers. Starting in January, the program will be conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, under its "A World of Difference" program.

Last fall, Villaraigosa joined the Jewish Federation's 50th anniversary mission to Israel. His deepest recollection, he says, his voice dropping to an awed whisper, was "Shabbat at the Western Wall. It left me with the most phenomenal sense of spirituality." Legislators Will Discuss Relations

Two prominent California state legislators, Antonio Villaraigosa and Robert Hertzberg, will probe "The State of Latino-Jewish Relations" on Thursday evening, Sept. 17, at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills.

The program starts at 7 p.m., and admission is $7, which includes a dessert buffet.

With well-established Jewish politicians facing challenges from an increasingly activist Latino community, the two groups will have to decide whether to become competitors or allies in the political arena.

As Speaker of the Assembly, Villaraigosa is the most influential Latino legislator in California, and a rising star on the local and national political scene.

Hertzberg chairs the Assembly's prestigious Rules Committee, is a key coalition builder, and chairs the Deans' Council of the Hebrew Union College. The two Los Angeles Democrats are close personal and professional friends.

The event is sponsored by the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance Jewish Community Relations Committee. Admission is $7 and reservations are advised by phoning (818) 464-3219. -- Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

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