Antonio Villaraigosa

New Mayor talks his way across Los Angeles’s divides

© The New York Times

May 30, 2005

LOS ANGELES, May 29 – When Antonio Villaraigosa was a teenager, an acquaintance hung the nickname Tony Rapp on him because he never seemed to shut up. A bright but irrepressible boy who was thrown out of one high school and dropped out of another, Antonio had ambitions to match his mouth, telling one disbelieving teacher that he planned to be a lawyer, even as the school shuffled him off to an upholstery class.

The lawyer thing did not work out – he failed the bar exam four times – but in four weeks Mr. Villaraigosa will be sworn in as mayor of Los Angeles.

In large measure, Mr. Villaraigosa’s electoral success – he has been speaker of the state Assembly as well as a member of the Los Angeles City Council – is the product of his ability to talk.

His landslide victory in the May 17 election transcended the lines of race, class, ethnicity and geography that make Los Angeles less a city than a collection of enclaves. It was Mr. Villaraigosa’s ability to keep talking across all of Los Angeles’s divisions that enabled him to put together a coalition that defeated Mayor James K. Hahn by a stunning 17-point margin.

Even before taking office, Mr. Villaraigosa, 52, has been forced to confront a challenge that will test his powers of persuasion, the continuing outbursts of racial violence in the city’s teeming and underperforming public schools. The day after he was elected, scuffles that some parents said were racially inspired broke out at a high school in the San Fernando Valley he was scheduled to visit. Last Friday, he rearranged his schedule to spend three hours at another high school after African-American and Latino students traded blows in the third such incident in recent weeks.

Mr. Villaraigosa, who was born and reared in the largely Latino east side of Los Angeles, knows the potential for such violence to spread to the streets from the schools. While he has called for expansion of the Los Angeles Police Department, he said more aggressive policing was only part of the answer.

“We cannot allow this kind of violence to fester in our schools or in our neighborhoods,” Mr. Villaraigosa said in an interview in his City Council office last week. “Our strength is our incredible diversity: all these Angelenos who come from every corner of the earth. Their vitality and energy and hope for the future is what makes Los Angeles such a dynamic place. We have to make it an absolute priority to foster better understanding across all those lines.”

There is a certain rote, stump-speech cast to Mr. Villaraigosa’s ode-to-the-melting-pot language. But his evident earnestness, contrasted with Mr. Hahn’s detachment and seeming lack of passion, apparently was just what residents of this city were eager to hear. His election coincided with the release of the film “Crash,” which depicts Los Angeles as a seething hell of racial fear, and his message of hope seemed a welcome tonic.

Because of the breadth of his victory, Mr. Villaraigosa will have to deal with the heightened expectations of the electorate after four years under the phlegmatic Mr. Hahn. He is pleading for some time to put his vision into effect.

“Nobody has a magic wand,” he said, sipping hot milk and tea from a huge mug to soothe his damaged vocal cords. “I’m well aware the expectations are high and while some would say beyond what any one individual could accomplish, the people expect you to work every day on their problems and see progress at the end of the time served.”

The election of Mr. Villaraigosa alongside that of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger now gives California two exemplars of immigrant success in top executive posts. For now, relations between the two men are good – the governor was the first public official to call to congratulate the new mayor on election night.

But frictions are inevitable, as the state deals with a budget crisis that has reduced state payments owed to the cities and as illegal immigration continues to be an issue. Mr. Schwarzenegger praised the private group known as the Minutemen that last month set up patrols to stop immigrants along the Arizona-Mexico border and who plan a similar operation in California in August. Mr. Villaraigosa is critical of their efforts, saying that it is a job for sworn law enforcement officers, but he has refused to engage in a debate with the governor.

“I was elected by the people of this city to focus on the many problems facing our city,” the mayor-elect said, choosing his words with care. “From time to time I will weigh in on issues of state and national importance where I think they affect the residents of Los Angeles. But I don’t expect to allow others to draw me into battles that will take me away from those priorities.”

It is inevitable, however, that the handsome and charismatic mayor of the nation’s second-largest city will be seen as a symbol and a spokesman for a variety of causes and a beacon of hope for a Democratic Party seeking to expand its appeal. In his office he has trophy pictures of himself with Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. There is a much smaller picture of him with Senator John Kerry, whose presidential campaign he served as a national co-chairman.

Mr. Villaraigosa describes himself as an unabashed progressive who hopes to govern from the center, with a particular emphasis on the security, housing and transportation needs of Los Angeles’s struggling middle-income workers.

Mr. Kerry awarded him a choice speaking assignment at the Democratic National Convention last summer for his efforts on behalf of the ticket. Mr. Villaraigosa told the tale of being raised by a single mother after his abusive, alcoholic father walked out on the family, of lining his shoes with cardboard and enduring the taunts of his better-off schoolmates for his ragged clothes. He says now that he tried to do what Mr. Kerry failed to accomplish in his presidential campaign: “to speak to the voters’ hearts, not their heads.” Mr. Villaraigosa was born Antonio Villar, and he changed his surname when he married Corina Raigosa, a schoolteacher, in 1987. They have two children. He has two adult daughters from previous relationships.

Mr. Villaraigosa worked his way into politics as an organizer for the Los Angeles teachers’ union, winning a seat in the state Legislature in 1992 and being elected to the speaker’s chair four years later. Term limits forced him out of the Legislature in 2000, and a year later he ran against Mr. Hahn, losing after a bitter campaign. Two years later he won a seat on the City Council, and after initially denying he was interested in running again for the mayor’s office, jumped into the race last fall.

For now, Mr. Villaraigosa is enjoying the honeymoon, the press attention, the constant stream of well-wishers and job seekers. But he knows that politics is a fickle mistress.

“The adulation, if you will, is ephemeral,” Mr. Villaraigosa said. “Ultimately, you have to perform.”