Antonio Villaraigosa: is he still destined to be California’s governor?

Listen to this article

At 8:18 am on a Saturday morning, Charlie Sheen tweeted a snapshot of himself and a slightly disheveled but no less dapper celebrity from the grand opening of Sheenz Epic Bar in Baja California. Sheen captioned the photograph: “From Boyle Heights 2 Mayor of LA … ! … Antonio Villaraigosa knows how to party!”

Yes, that dapper man was indeed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, enjoying his last full year as the leader of Los Angeles.

The mayor later told NBC 4 L.A. that he spent no more than three minutes chatting with Sheen. But the actor told a different story to TMZ: “We hung out for the better part of two hours,” he contended, “discussing his L.A. roots, his poignant bullet campaign as well as his 3 AM lawn-watering tactics …. He’s a terrific guy, a great Mayor and he can drink with the best of ’em: Me. Quite a memorable night indeed.”

Charlie Sheen’s mouth has put him in many a troublesome position over the years, and luckily for the mayor its facts and fictions are as mixed as a Sheenz cocktail. So, though no one was taking what Charlie Sheen said seriously in late 2012, it is possible the mayor wished to put distance between himself and the verbose actor because he really didn’t need the extra publicity. He had enough already.

How much it affected his candidacy for Secretary of Transportation, we’ll never know for sure.

Villaraigosa has always courted the camera with a smile, looking nothing near his sixty-plus years and happy to cultivate acclaim and scandal alike. His political resume and hardscrabble childhood give wonks endless material to draw from and it’s difficult to believe L.A.’s former mayor will ever fade from the public eye. But did his two terms in office make him less or more suited to the gubernatorial seat (or any seat closer to Chesapeake Bay)?

A Man of the People, by the People (for the People?)

Unlike his predecessor James Hahn, Villaraigosa was not born to city office. L.A.’s first Mexican-American mayor in 137 years hails from Eastside, his given name Villar.

His early life was a series of depressing incidents: His father left his family at a young age; when he was sixteen a tumor in his spine temporarily paralyzed him; he was expelled from Cathedral High School; and after attending Peoples College of Law he failed the Bar Exam four times. Like Keats’ famous epitaph, Antonio Villar, Jr. seemed to be “one whose name was writ in water.”

But all those hard knocks must have made him hungry to punch back. After he graduated from PCL, Villar wrangled a job as a field rep for the United Teachers Los Angeles union. He would then go on to become president of the Los Angeles chapter of the ACLU and the American Federation of Government Employees.

In 1987, Antonio Villar, Jr. married Corina Raigosa. As a testament to their fidelity, they combined their surnames to Villaraigosa. This would make it awkward in 1994 after Antonio had won election to the California State Assembly and admitted to an affair with a friend’s wife. Corina, who was suffering from thyroid cancer at the time, considered filing for divorce. The couple separated for over two years but later reconciled.

From that point Villaraigosa went on to bigger and better seats in public office, from member to Speaker of the State Assembly and then as a member of the L.A. City Council.

After his election to mayor in 2005, Villaraigosa simultaneously served as the national co-chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, as a member of Obama’s transitional Economic Advisory Board and then as Chairman of the 2012 Democratic Convention.

After more than twenty years in politics Villaraigosa’s clout is undeniable. He was elected to mayor on the three seamless planks of his experience, his charisma and his passion. At one point it looked like a run for governor and even President was inevitable. But the mayor hit some bumps along the way, some very political and some very personal.

Photo via Wikipedia
Photo via Wikipedia

The Good

No journalist summed it up better than the New York TimesAdam Nagourney. Villaraigosa is “a mayor whom this city loves to love and loves to hate.” Even when he’s bad he seems to be doing good.

The Jewish Journal published an extensive ode to the man, praising him for improving traffic flow in the city, creating new bus routes, lowering the crime rate and adding over 10,000 new summer jobs for the young.

Placing himself in the “radical middle” of politics, he made strides with both businesses and progressive causes, using the Community Redevelopment Agency to grant municipal subsidies to companies that offer solid careers and adopt green technology.

The Bad

Los Angeles is the birthplace of celebrity, and Villaraigosa is its native son. His most merciless critic, Ed Leibowitz, listed the mayor’s failures for Los Angeles Magazine and foremost among them? Spending the majority of his time in office “chasing photo ops around the world and doing whatever it takes to get [his] face in front of TV cameras.”

The mayor was on a permanent campaign, Leibowitz wrote, more concerned with his political future than running his city. Others also criticized Villaraigosa for vanity press conferences and his heavy involvement in non-local politics.

His glad-handing would eventually get him into legal trouble, as the mayor was fined an unprecedented $123,500 for his numerous ethics violations. These were all in the form of gifts given to Villaraigosa while in office.

The Fair Political Practice Commission and the L.A. Ethics Commission cited him for failing to report tickets to more than thirty events (including Lakers games, the Oscars and the 2009 finale for “American Idol”) and twenty-one gifts valued at $100 or more.

His glad-handing would also pull him out of trouble, however. Billionaire Haim Saban, Rob Reiner, Assemblyman Fabian Nunez and State Senator Kevin de Leon all contributed to the three legal defense funds Villaraigosa set up to pay for the violations. He ended up with a surplus.

As for his actual governing, the mayor lost a long battle with the L.A. Unified School district that won him no friends among the city’s unions. Of the million trees he promised to plant, 380,000 were actually seeded (to the mayor’s credit, that’s six times as many as the last two administrations combined). His Clean Trucks program was challenged by the American Trucking Association, kicked up to the Supreme Court, partially overruled and then kicked down to the lower courts for further dissection.

The “Carbon Tax” that was supposed to green the city was not popular amongst taxpayers and succeeded only in forming a new Office of Public Accountability for the DWP. And I have already detailed Villaraigosa’s militant crackdown on the Occupy Los Angeles movement, a socially reprehensible but ultimately insignificant blip on the political radar.

But the most notorious of the mayor’s sins was his very public affair with Telemundo reporter Mirthala Salinas. The relationship was confirmed in July 2007 after Villaraigosa announced that he and his wife Corina were separating.

The whirlwind of infidelity and celebrity was so consuming the Los Angeles Times has an entire archive devoted to it. The Daily News points out that James Hahn’s marriage also collapsed during his mayorship, but of course Villaraigosa was always more interesting to watch. He’d made a career of pointing the camera at himself and it was certainly not going to turn away when he got too hot under the collar.

The Villaraigosas were officially divorced in 2010, their shared name and children the last surviving vestiges of their twenty year bond. In the aftermath Salinas was relocated to Riverside and quietly resigned. Villaraigosa subsequently began a relationship with Lu Parker, another television anchor in 2009 (though they would split before Villaraigosa left office).

Just as President Clinton’s second term was overshadowed by his own infidelity, so too were Villaraigosa’s political prospects thrown into question. “Even in a tolerant city such as Los Angeles,” said political scientist John Pitney, “extramarital affairs are not good for one’s career.”

Joe Cerrell, a political consultant and the “dean of city politics,” took a much rosier view of Villaraigosa’s future: “People love gossip, but I don’t know that it hurts.” He pointed out that despite Clinton’s near-impeachment, his popularity was enough to give Hillary a significant boost in her Iowa campaign. Villaraigosa, as Ed Leibowitz would attest, “fights for his image,” and it certainly hasn’t hampered his post-mayoral career.

Antonio Villaraigosa speaking at a ACLU event. (Photo via Wikipedia)
Antonio Villaraigosa speaking at a ACLU event.
(Photo via Wikipedia)

“The Future’s So Bright…?”

The last day of June was far from Villaraigosa’s last day of business. Since leaving office he has snagged no less than four consulting jobs with various organizations, first as an advisor to Banc of California, then as a Senior Advisor to Herbalife and as a visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He has also been named to the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and as a part-time professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy.

Villaraigosa still has a long career ahead of him, but will Californians accept him as governor? The former mayor is still popular amongst Latinos and the young, but he has lost support from whites and older voters.

The truth is, like a certain fellow politician with an equally formidable name and personality, Villaraigosa may be too fascinating to deny. Schwarzenegger had an even worse reputation as a womanizer and far less policy chops. Both have taken their personal and political hits and keep on swinging.

But perhaps it’s less of a battle than a dance. Villaraigosa explained his philosophy to the New York Times: “I love life. And I get beaten up about the fact that I love life, from time to time. If there’s a concert, I’ll get up and I’ll dance with Aretha Franklin. Yes I will.”

California’s longtime dance partner may just be cooling his heels while we catch our breath. We’ll see if he intends to sweep us off our feet in November.