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L.A. Mayor Represents Growing Latino Political Clout

June 14, 2007 at 6:25 PM EST
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JEFFREY KAYE, Reporter, KCET: In a city more used to movie stars than elected officials basking in the spotlight, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is an anomaly: a celebrity-politician.

Charismatic, telegenic, and widely viewed as having ambitions for higher office, the 54-year-old mayor keeps attention focused on himself and his agenda by appearing at a merry-go-round of press conferences, public ceremonies, and groundbreakings. The swirl of activity makes it seem like Villaraigosa is on a perpetual political campaign.

In an interview, the mayor discussed his leadership style.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA, Mayor, Los Angeles: I’ve said from the beginning that I’ve been blessed with this opportunity to be the mayor of the city I was born and raised in. And the best way to demonstrate that you feel gratitude is to work your tail off, to work hard every day, from your first day to your last. And that’s what I’m doing.

JEFFREY KAYE: Elected in 2005 as the first Mexican-American mayor of L.A. in over 130 years, Villaraigosa has earned a national reputation as a symbol of growing Latino political clout in the U.S. That’s why it was good news for Senator Hillary Clinton when the mayor decided to endorse her for president last month.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: She’s the one candidate who’s been there, and she has my vote for president of the United States of America.

JEFFREY KAYE: Senator Clinton named Villaraigosa one of four national chairpersons of her presidential campaign.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: I am both honored and delighted to have the mayor’s endorsement. I find that he is an honest optimist and a practical visionary.

Villaraigosa's Los Angeles Roots

Antonio Villaraigosa
Mayor of Los Angeles
I've always felt that my connection with a broader group of people has been the driving force for what I'm about and for who I am.

JEFFREY KAYE: As he crisscrosses the city, Villaraigosa frequently relates autobiographical details. They are hallmarks of his political identity.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: Well, I've been in Los Angeles for 54 years, lived here my whole life. My mother was born here; my grandpa got here 100 years ago.

When you grew up in the way that I did, in the kind of neighborhood that I did, when you weren't born with a silver spoon, you feel an opportunity and a responsibility, I think probably better put -- you feel a responsibility to others.

JEFFREY KAYE: Villaraigosa was one of four children raised by a single mother on L.A.'s largely Latino and working-class East Side. After attending UCLA, where he was a student activist involved in Mexican-American civil rights issues, he graduated from a small law school dedicated to social change, but he failed to pass the bar.

After gaining a reputation as a savvy labor and community organizer, he won election to California's state legislature in 1994. Four years later, he rose to the position of speaker of the Assembly.

Villaraigosa's name is made up, a combination of the last name he was born with, "Villar," and his wife, Corina's, maiden name, "Raigosa." The couple is in the process of divorcing. They have two children, and Villaraigosa has two children from previous relationships in his 20s.

As mayor, Villaraigosa's goals include: cracking on gang violence and hiring hundreds of more police officers; improving public education and reducing school dropout rates; expanding the city's mass transit system and finding solutions to worsening traffic congestion; and getting more of L.A.'s power from alternative energy sources.

Although Villaraigosa speaks fluent Spanish and is one of the highest-profile Latino politicians in the country, he refuses to be pigeonholed as an ethnic politician.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: I'm proud of who I am, but it's not what drives me. It's not what, you know, makes who I am. I've always felt that my connection with a broader group of people has been the driving force for what I'm about and for who I am.

Triumphs in Los Angeles

Antonio Villaraigosa
Mayor of Los Angeles
I tell people, from the beginning of time in politics, people have tried to win the middle. The role of leadership is to redefine the middle, is to broaden the middle, is to create a middle that is more inclusive.

JEFFREY KAYE: But on the streets of East L.A., where pride in the mayor is high, people such as restaurant owner Felix Munoz view Villaraigosa as a political trailblazer.

FELIX MUNOZ, Los Angeles Restaurant Owner: He's one of the examples of a Latino -- if he goes in the right way, in the right direction, he can become whatever he wants in this country.

JEFFREY KAYE: Villaraigosa considers himself a progressive, but says he tries to govern from the pragmatic center. Liberals have liked his stance on such issues as affordable housing and calling attention to urban poverty. The business community has applauded him for supporting downtown development and tightening city hall spending.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: I tell people, from the beginning of time in politics, people have tried to win the middle. The role of leadership is to redefine the middle, is to broaden the middle, is to create a middle that is more inclusive.

JEFFREY KAYE: But Villaraigosa has experienced a series of defeats and setbacks in recent weeks. He championed a bid to have Los Angeles host the 2016 Olympic Games, but lost to Chicago. He opposed sharp increases in public transit fares, but the regional transportation authority approved them anyway.

On May 1st, during an immigrant rights march, L.A. police officers clubbed and fired rubber bullets at largely peaceful protesters and at journalists covering the event. The incident fueled criticism that the LAPD was hostile towards immigrants and prompted some to call for the police chief's resignation.

The mayor's challenges

Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Community Activist
I think the unfortunate thing with Mayor Villaraigosa is he's gotten into -- maybe even trapped himself -- into almost a style of governing that's mandated on public appearances...

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: The issue is no longer whether we need fundamental change in our public schools. The question is, how?

JEFFREY KAYE: But his biggest setback of all was the failure of an ambitious plan to gain greater direct personal control over Los Angeles-area public schools. Critics saw it as a power grab, because in Los Angeles the mayor has no formal authority over education. The courts ruled the mayor's plan unconstitutional.

EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON, Commentator and Activist: When a mayor meddles in education, brings politics and politicizes the education process, we're in trouble.

JEFFREY KAYE: Los Angeles political commentator and activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson says Villaraigosa's accomplishments have not kept pace with his rhetoric.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: From the beginning, I've said this isn't about my career, this isn't about me.

JEFFREY KAYE: Hutchinson argues the mayor pays too much attention to his image and not enough to the nitty-gritty details of governing.

EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON: I think the unfortunate thing with Mayor Villaraigosa is he's gotten into -- maybe even trapped himself -- into almost a style of governing that's mandated on public appearances, going before TV cameras, making flowery statements, a lot of promises, and always keeping the maximum exposure, always media exposure, on yourself.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: That's not a staff decision. That's my decision.

Looking ahead to education

Antonio Villaraigosa
Mayor of Los Angeles
But the older you get, the wiser you get, and the more you realize that things don't happen that way.

JEFFREY KAYE: Villaraigosa acknowledges he is sometimes impatient with the pace of local government.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: The biggest frustration I've felt from time to time is the frustration that comes with just kind of, you know, working a little bit at a time to make the change that you want.

JEFFREY KAYE: You want to make it happen right there?

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: Yes, of course you do. But the older you get, the wiser you get, and the more you realize that things don't happen that way.

You're kicking back, getting some sun?

JEFFREY KAYE: But Villaraigosa hasn't lost his touch for using his charisma and affinity for attention to his political advantage. Although the courts denied him his goal of taking control of Los Angeles public schools, the mayor campaigned and raised money for candidates elected in May to the L.A. School Board. His allies now comprise the majority on the school board.

And days after the LAPD assault on immigrant rights protesters, Villaraigosa helped to deflect further criticism by addressing a cheering crowd of activists.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: We acknowledge that what happened on May 1st is wrong, that we've got to get to the bottom of it, that we've got to investigate, we've got to have an open and transparent investigation that ensures -- that ensures that justice will be realized.

JEFFREY KAYE: Looking ahead, political insiders chatter about the possibility that Villaraigosa will run for governor of California or get a plum position in Washington if a Democrat retakes the White House. Villaraigosa dismisses talk about his ambitions, saying his priority is running Los Angeles.