Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's recent handling of protests by pro-illegal immigration crowds showed a man awkwardly straddling opposing sides of a political chasm that divides Angelenos who have all supported him. And his lack of deftness leaves doubt about whether he can bridge this gap as well as whether he can keep some of his most fundamental and important promises.
One year ago, Villaraigosa was busy wooing the business community to back him for mayor. At the time, he told me -- and other journalists -- that he intended to be a mayor who "pays attention to the middle class."
His pledge made sense on a pragmatic level, since the ability to fight Los Angeles' drift toward unlivability relies almost entirely on wooing those who buy the homes, rebuild the business strips and invest in the schools.
It also made good political sense to pay attention to the middle class, because Villaraigosa trounced incumbent Mayor James Hahn after Hahn largely abandoned his middle- and business-class base, spending too much time wooing labor unions and identity politics groups Hahn believed could assure his re-election.
And for months after his election, Villaraigosa appeared to be as advertised. He said the right things about municipal belt-tightening, appeared in person to calm parental fears about race trouble in the schools, and recently jumped into the high-stakes business battle to win NFL football back to Los Angeles.
But lately, Villaraigosa has stumbled in the face of pressure to take sides over a proposed guest worker program for illegal immigrants now before Congress.
First, he gave a troubling speech -- one that I will always remember as his "us versus them" moment -- using jarringly divisive language before a cheering, pro-illegal immigrant crowd to declare that "... we clean your toilets."
Villaraigosa could not have handed his critics more powerful evidence for them to argue that his loyalties are not with Los Angeles' middle class core at all. The negative reaction was so intense that one talk radio station caused a sell-out of cheap toilet-bowl brushes on eBay, after directing angry Los Angeles residents to buy a brush and mail it to Villaraigosa to show their anger toward his divisive language.
But a poor choice of words from Villaraigosa is not all that's putting the middle class on edge. The city has pursued a fat increase in trash pickup fees aimed directly at middle-class homeowners, even as media outlets publish seemingly endless stories on excessive overtime or excessive workers compensation paid to spoiled city workers.
Voters, business owners and middle-class families -- the core city taxpayers -- have also been unsettled by a nasty criminal trial in which private PR agents working for the Department of Water and Power stand accused of grossly padding their DWP billings -- without anybody at City Hall even noticing.
The PR scandal predates Villaraigosa's election, and was used by Villaraigosa to devastating effect against Hahn. But the trial acts as a constant reminder that you can allegedly bilk a Los Angeles City department for hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet nobody even spots the waste.
Further putting out the middle-class, Villaraigosa's recent State of the City speech came freighted with all the verbal precursors to calling for more tax increases on the middle class.
Then, this week, Villaraigosa reminded us through his words and actions that he is very awkwardly straddling his labor union/minority rights past and his pro-business/mayor-for-the-middle future.
In a hurriedly explained change of plans during the final two days of April, Villaraigosa abruptly cancelled his May 1 NFL meeting out of state, telling one print journalist that he was concerned that violence or other troubles could erupt at the big May 1 protests demanding amnesty for illegal immigrants.
While some media outlets seemed unaware of his change in plans, and continued to report on Monday that Villaraigosa was out of town to meet with the NFL, I heard him interviewed by KFWB news radio that morning, during which he confirmed that he had suddenly delayed his NFL meeting.
The KFWB reporter had done his homework, and asked the mayor -- who had been insisting he opposed the boycotts and rallies -- if it was true he had already told the Spanish-language media that he intended to give a speech at the afternoon protest.
What followed was the sort of strained spin, too frequently heard in politics, that almost makes you uncomfortable. Yes, Villaraigosa admitted, he had told Spanish-language journalists he would be speaking at the afternoon rally -- but, he offered, his only concern was to ensure the safety of the citizenry.
Suddenly, the job of mayor, less than a year into his tenure, isn't looking so easy.
Later that day, a different radio station reported that, as Villaraigosa prepared to give his speech to the massive afternoon protest crowd, he waited until after his aides managed to find for him "a big enough American flag" to wave onstage.
Appearances are important in politics. Once he made the decision to speak at a rally he previously claimed to oppose, I don't begrudge him wanting to have the star-and-stripes at his side.
But promises are even more important than appearances. Former Mayor Hahn, who broke several of his promises to the city's middle- and business-class in his fight to woo the powerful labor unions, can attest to that.
Villaraigosa promised to be a mayor for the entire city. That includes illegal immigrants, as well as everybody else. But he also promised to make a special effort to shore up, retain and attract middle-class families, without whom the city cannot remain livable.
Yet in recent weeks, that is not what we have seen. With new middle-class taxes probably on the way, with his divisive us-versus-them language, and with his strained explanation for wanting to appear at a rally he said he opposed, Villaraigosa is making the fundamental promise of his mayoralty look extremely difficult to keep.
Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at www.jillstewart.net.
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