L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

Los Angeles mayor and U.S. Conference of Mayors president discusses his city’s reliance on cars and explains why he feels the national immigration debate is wrongheaded.

Antonio Villaraigosa went from an unstable childhood to becoming the first Latino mayor of his native Los Angeles in over a century. A former labor organizer, he's defied stereotypes and won praise for building bipartisan coalitions. He previously served on the city council and as speaker of the state assembly and was a distinguished fellow at UCLA and USC, where he helped write a policy blueprint for addressing urban center issues. Villaraigosa is a founding member of the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation and was recently elected president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.


Tavis: Antonio Villaraigosa is serving his second term as mayor of Los Angeles, who now also serves as the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. But right about now he might be best known as the guy who convinced an entire city to stay out of their cars over the weekend.

As you no doubt heard, a large stretch of one of this city’s busiest freeways, make that the 405, was shut down this weekend. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, you pulled it off.

Antonio Villaraigosa: We pulled it off.

Tavis: Yeah, we pulled it – yeah.

Villaraigosa: The people of L.A. cooperated and stayed out of their cars and out of the area, and it worked like magic.

Tavis: I was in Canada this weekend, speaking in Toronto, and I was in my hotel room just cracking up at all the news stations in Canada who were talking about “carmageddon,” which became “carmaheaven,” I guess.

Villaraigosa: Or “carmaggedone,” it got done.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter) But I was just cracking up. This became such a huge story in countries around the world. What do you make of that?

Villaraigosa: Well, everybody knows that L.A. is known for its addiction to the single-passenger automobile, the gridlock, the congestion on the freeways. I think people didn’t think that it was possible that we’d have a time out, a day off from that hectic nature of driving throughout the city of Los Angeles, and we did.

It worked, and it worked because the people answered the call. They stepped up to the plate and they hit a home run.

Tavis: I want to phrase this the right way. Does this success this weekend say something to you, something more than the fact that the strategy worked to keep people out of their cars? To your point now that we’re so reliant on the single-passenger vehicle, is there a larger message in here for us?

Villaraigosa: Yes, there is. This was about completing an HOV lane that’ll take you all the way from Orange County to the San Fernando Valley. It is about reducing traffic and congestion, and importantly, with the 30-10 plan and America Fast-Forward, it’s about doubling the size of our rail system and remaking the city, creating transit villages around transit lines, and importantly, getting people out of the single-passenger automobile.

Tavis: Did it work as well as you thought it was going to work, or were you even surprised at how well it worked?

Villaraigosa: It worked better than anybody could have expected, but I’m never surprised with the people of this town. I believe in this town. My grandpa got here a hundred years ago. It’s a city of dream makers and a city where everything and anything is possible.

Tavis: To your point now, and you always open up doors for me to discuss a number of things, and since you are now the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, certainly in cities like L.A., and not even just border towns anymore but around the country, this issue of immigration is taking stronger and stronger hold. There’s a restlessness in your community, as there should be, about this particular issue, whether it’s the DREAM Act or immigration reform.

But since you mentioned your grandfather getting here a hundred years ago, your assessment of this immigration debate in the country right now?

Villaraigosa: Wrong-headed. They missed the point. The fact is this is a great country because we’ve always embraced immigrants. The fact is we have every right to enforce our borders and to protect them, but we also need to provide a pathway for citizenship.

When you talked about the DREAM Act, these are the kids that came here as small babies, in many instances, gone to school here. One point five trillion dollar input to the economy if we give them a pathway to citizenship.

The fact is we ought to be investing in these people and not doing the kinds of things you see getting done with the kind of rhetoric, the divisiveness that you see in the Beltway that really isn’t occurring as much in cities across the country.

Tavis: Who’s the Hispanic community going to hold responsible during the 2012 elections for the lack of action on immigration? President Obama said he was going to work on it his first year, he didn’t quite get to it then.

He came out, to his credit, forcefully, in strong support of the DREAM Act, but nothing, really, has happened. So are they going to publish Republicans for blocking or the president for not being aggressive enough?

Villaraigosa: I think, first of all, the president doesn’t have a vote in the Congress. They’ve got to focus on the Congress. The president has used his bully pulpit. But I think both Democrats and Republicans are going to have to understand that our Social Security system is currently and in future years not going to be funded, in no small part, because our birthrate isn’t growing fast enough.

Immigration can help that. The fact of the matter is these people are working in jobs that the vast majority of us wouldn’t work in. There’s got to be a way out, a middle ground. If you ask the vast majority of Americans, some 70 percent, they believe in a comprehensive solution that’s fair, that honors our traditions and our values, that protects our borders, but gives people a pathway for citizenship.

I know the president believes that and I’m hoping that the Congress will, too, and particularly, as you said, the more conservative element in the Congress. They’ve kind of used this as a piñata, as kind of something to kick around instead of something to promote and invest in.

Tavis: I agree that these immigrants, these undocumented workers, many of them work jobs that we would never want to work. So to demonize and cast aspersion and to bastardize them doesn’t get the job done, number one. But since we’re talking about jobs, there are jobs that Americans do want to work and there aren’t enough of those jobs that Americans do want to work.

I can’t imagine that there’s a single issue more important to mayors, since you’re the president now of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I can’t imagine an issue more important to mayors than jobs.

Here again, do you blame the Republicans for blocking everything in Washington or the president for being focused on healthcare and other issues and not having a laser focus on jobs, jobs, jobs?

Villaraigosa: Well, once again, the Democrats and Republicans need to come together. I’ve criticized Democrats for their unwillingness to address entitlement reform and Social Security and Medicare. Republicans, on the other hand, never saw a tax that they liked, even when it meant closing tax loopholes. They don’t want to in any way support any revenue enhancements. They don’t want to cut defense spending.

I tell people, what’s left? If it’s not entitlements, if it’s not closing tax loopholes and increasing revenues, if there’s no cutting of the defense budget what’s left is the complete evisceration of the safety net.

It’s an investment in infrastructure, transportation, ports, airports, our schools, our universities. Mayors want to focus America back on the number one issue – getting people back to work, reinvigorating and strengthening our economy, investing in our ports and our airports and our highway transportation and public transit system.

We want them to stop the dithering, stop the blame game, work together, find a solution that I think the president’s advocated for. It should be a big one. It should be one that addresses the spending cuts that we need to make, but not solely spending cuts.

Also addresses the tax loopholes that we need to close and the tax revenues that we need so that we can fund government, invest in R&D, invest in America’s future again.

Tavis: Does your critique a moment ago of your fellow Democrats in Washington, does that mean that you think that Republicans are raising a legitimate issue now about deficit reduction?

Villaraigosa: Well, first of all, it’s not just Republicans who are focused on debt reduction. So is the president and so have some Democrats. There’s no question we have to focus on that. But the Democrats are right in saying you can’t do it just with cuts. They’re right in blaming the Republicans right now who frankly sometimes feel like they’re on another planet when they don’t want to address tax loopholes, don’t want to make any kinds of investments.

Tavis: But Mayor, who do deficit reduction now? I hear your critique of your Democrats and others who don’t want to address deficit reduction, but why do it now? The record’s pretty clear – in most cases, deficit reduction, as you well know, means cutting social programs, which means a whole bunch of other folk are going to lose jobs.

Deficit reduction does not lead to more jobs, more often than not, so why, with the shaky state of our economy, even focus on deficit reduction? Why even compromise on that at all right now?

Villaraigosa: Well, your point’s a good one. That shouldn’t be our primary focus. Our primary focus has to be creating jobs. Our primary focus has to be getting people back to work; giving them the skills that they need to do that. We still do need to make cuts, but we cannot cut our way out of this problem.

Right now, what’s scary is that particularly the very far right of the Republican Party is saying absolutely no to any tax increases, no to closing tax loopholes, no to cutting defense spending and wanting to focus just on spending. As you said, what that would do is set us back.

If we go into default, our credit rating is going to get worse, obviously, it’ll get lowered. Interest rates will be up, and importantly, we’ll probably go back to something like where we were in 2008. So we’ve got to focus on lifting the debt limit, doing it in a way that’s balanced and fair, but focusing our energies back on putting people back to work.

Tavis: To your point now, I just saw, I was reading a number of stories about the recent National Governors Association meeting, which just ended, and there are a number of governors, Republican and Democrat – O’Malley out of Maryland, Barbour out of Mississippi, Gregoire out of Washington, a number of governors are concerned that no matter what happens with this deficit reduction debate, what it ultimately means is there’s going to be even less money for states, even less money for cities – back to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

So what do you do into the future when you know right now that no matter how this ends up, you’re going to get less money?

Villaraigosa: Well, that’s – you hit it right on the head. Look, cities, the metropolitan areas are 84 percent of the population, 90 percent of the GDP and 94 percent of the new jobs next year, so to the extent that America invests in our cities, we’re going to go a long way to investing in America’s economy.

So as you said it, when you look at what’s going on now with the cuts at the federal level, they’ll impact the state, who then balances its budgets on the backs of cities, counties and school districts.

So the one entity that really is driving the economy is the entity that’s going to be the most hurt with all of this dithering and with a possible default. So as you said, we can’t focus just on debt reduction. We do have to cut this debt, but we can’t do it in a way that completely eviscerates a safety net that undermines the investments in education, transportation, public safety, you name it, that we need right now.

Tavis: I’ve got 30 seconds left, and although we’re a national show, since we sit in L.A., where you and I both live, you’re the mayor of this town, with all the trouble that California’s going through economically, why, if you are, are you hopeful about this city in the coming months and years?

Villaraigosa: Well, this is a city of America’s hope and promise. It’s the city of America’s future. It’s where the world comes together. But the Golden State has lost its luster. We’ve got to change our tax system and how we fund government. We’re going to have to make it easier to create jobs in California, incentivize manufacturing, really put more in the way of investment in our public school system and our institutions of higher learning if we’re going to stay the Golden State and the golden standard.

Tavis: He’s the mayor of the city of Los Angeles, the City of Angels, and right now, the new president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and most importantly, he pulled off a wonderful feat last weekend. I think I speak for most Angelinos, at least those who I know, Mayor – any weekend you want to shut down the freeway and have the streets empty like last weekend, feel free to do that.

Villaraigosa: All right.

Tavis: Come up with some other reasons for it.

Villaraigosa: We win.

Tavis: (Laughter) Come up with some other excuse to shut down the freeways and make people stay home. I love it. Good to have you on.

Villaraigosa: Thank you. Thank you.

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Last modified: July 19, 2011 at 5:58 pm