RAY SUAREZ: Two weeks ago, Antonio Villaraigosa was celebrating with family, friends and supporters. The people of Los Angeles had just elected him mayor, the city's first Latino mayor in more than a century.
But Villaraigosa downplayed that historical aspect of his victory. Instead, he promised to unite all of the city's communities and cultures into one vibrant Los Angeles.
ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: Our purpose is to bring this great city together. Our purpose is to draw fully and equally on the rich diversity of all our communities and neighborhoods.
RAY SUAREZ: Villaraigosa is 52 years old, a former union organizer, one-time speaker of the California assembly and now leaving a seat on the Los Angeles City Council to become mayor. He'll take office July 1.
RAY SUAREZ: I talked with him during his visit to Washington today. At the end of the classic political movie "The Candidate," newly elected Robert Redford turns to one of his aides and says, "What do we do now?" What do you do now? You're going to be sworn in a couple of weeks.
ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: That's a scene that gets played out in probably every candidate's mind. I said on election night the easy part is the victory, that the hard part is leading. I believe that no challenge in the city of Los Angeles is too great, that the people of the great city of Los Angeles can't overcome.
One of the things that people have said early on is that they're looking for restoring trust and confidence in city hall again, in our city leaders, and I'm going to work to do that. I'm going to take off every lobbyist from our commissions, ensure that our general managers and top management staff sign an affidavit, an ethics pledge, if you will, that says, "I'm committed to clean government."
We're going to focus on the issues the people care about. The people of Los Angeles have said they want to do something about the fact that more kids are dropping out in Los Angeles than are graduating. They want to do something about the fact that LA has schools that are among the worst of any big city in the nation.
They want to do something to address the lack of economic development in some communities in the city, address the issue of traffic and pollution and homelessness and poverty. There are many issues that we face.
The people have said they want us to address the issue of public safety and what we do to put the cops that we need to make neighborhoods safer, but also the prevention and intervention programs that we need to create a safety net for young people to get them out of gangs and avoid that culture of negativity.
People are looking for, you know someone to move on some of those issues, and I'm looking forward to doing that.
RAY SUAREZ: You had a very low turnout for the final portion of the race against Mayor Hahn, and then you beat him by 18 points, so an incumbent beat by a heavy margin but with a small turnout, does that tell you that that's a pretty disaffected electorate out there?
ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: Sure, it does. You have to be concerned by the lack of participation. Let's be clear, though: This record of lack of participation has been over some 30 years in Los Angeles.
The number 30, 35 percent, or sometimes 40 percent has been a constant over the last few decades. One of the things I've said is it's not about electing a mayor. It's about engaging people. It's about all of us understanding that we have a responsibility.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, is that in fact a large part of the job of mayor of Los Angeles? You have what's called a "weak mayor, strong council" system. Can you even make on your own a lot of the changes that you are talking about needing to be made?
ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: Look, somebody has got to do it. I've said that, you know, a weak mayoral system, you need a strong leader. I've been speaker of the California State Assembly.
I brought Democrats and Republicans together, talked to the largest initiative to rebuild our schools in U.S. history, a $9 billion effort to rebuild schools, the biggest effort for parks and open space in the United States, a $2.1 billion effort.
The largest expansion of healthcare, the Healthy Families Program; 700,000 children have health care as a result of my efforts. The toughest weapons assault weapons ban in the nation, an assault weapons ban that has been used as a model for the rest of the country.
It is about bringing people together and engaging them. It is about creating common ground, developing an agenda that people can support. It's about saying to people, "You're part of the problem, and you're part of the solution." It's not just about voting for a leader. It's about all of us caring enough to make the kinds of investments and sacrifices that you need to make change, to improve your neighborhood and your city.
RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned schools a couple of times, and whether it's Mayor Bloomberg in New York or Mayor Daley in Chicago, some of the biggest urban school systems have a fight pretty much like L.A.'s fight. Can you succeed where other cities have failed? What does it take to turn around public schools?
ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: Actually, New York and Chicago are good examples of mayors who have said, "I think it's time for one person to be responsible and accountable for the quality of our education, for achievement in our schools, for moving to improve the quality of our schools for our children."
I've said that I'm ready to take on that challenge, that it's unacceptable that so many kids are dropping out, that we have violence in our schools, that there is not the kind of achievement that we need and deserve for our children. I've said that I believe the mayor and the city should be a collaborator with the school district.
I've also said that you don't do it by executive fiat or public pronouncement. You do it by building trust. You do it by empowering people. When you look at successful schools, successful schools have parents and teachers who are empowered to make decisions. Successful schools have well-compensated and well-trained teachers that have high expectations for our children, where parents are involved.
Successful schools are usually smaller schools with smaller classrooms. We've got to make those kinds of changes if we're going to improve the quality of our schools. And, yes, I am ready to make the case for that kind of leadership and that kind of collaboration.
RAY SUAREZ: Is it going to take a lot of money?
ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: It's going to take an investment. You know, I remember when I went to school in the 1960s, and when I went to school in the 1960s we had the best schools in the nation, and we were also in the top five in per-pupil spending.
Don't let anyone tell you that there's not a correlation between the investment in our schools, the funding for our students and our teachers and our classrooms and success. You know, the idea that you can get great quality schools on the cheap is just not an accurate reflection of what you have to do to make our schools better.
On the other hand, it's not just money, it's also participation. As I said, it's parents caring enough to hold their kids responsible and accountable for their education. It's parents working with their kids to help them do their homework and do the kinds of things that they need to do to support them for a successful education.
It's teachers who have a high expectation. It's principals who are leaders of a school community. It's all of those things. It's investments and sacrifice at the end of the day.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, there was the Newsweek cover, "Latino Power," headlines in papers all around the country, making a lot of the fact that you're the first Mexican-American mayor in Los Angeles in over a century. Yet, you yourself haven't made a lot of the fact. You haven't ducked it, but you have downplayed it a little bit. Why?
ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: I'm an American, an American of Mexican descent. I'm proud to be American. This country has been good to me. I've said to people, "Yes, I'm the first, but I'm not going to be the last."
The role of the first is to demonstrate for the rest what leadership in a diverse city like Los Angeles should be like. I don't wear my ethnic origins on my sleeve. I'm proud of who I am. Of course, I can speak two languages, but I also know that this city is looking for a uniter.
It's looking for common ground. Our city is looking for someone that is comfortable in all of the communities that make up a diverse Los Angeles. And so what I've said is, you know, for the future, if you want to be a leader of a city as diverse as Los Angeles, if you want to aspire to be a governor of a great state or even the President of the United States, you have to be able to represent all of us.
You have to be a mayor and a leader for all of the people. I think that kind of coalition politics is where the country's going. And it's -- you know what I've believed in since I was a young boy. People are looking for leadership that can engage us, that can inspire us, that can get us to get involved. I think that's-- there's no secret or magic, rather, to this victory. It was about connecting one of us or all of us to a common agenda.
RAY SUAREZ: Mayor-Elect Antonio Villaraigosa, thanks for being with us.
ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: Thank you for having me.