LOS ANGELES (AP) — The famous smile is intact. But there’s a glint of gray in the hair, a hint of melancholy in the voice and a collection of wrinkles he didn’t bring with him when he became mayor of Los Angeles eight years ago.
Antonio Villaraigosa makes his exit July 1 after a seesaw run that saw him celebrated as the city’s first Hispanic mayor since 1872, praised for bulking up the police department and transit services, but often mocked, fairly or not, as a party boy who cared more about nightlife than his day job at City Hall.
Through most of it, he struggled with a sour economy not of his making. Now 60 and talking again about running for governor, the Democrat looks back and ponders how a former labor organizer ended up chopping thousands of government jobs to keep the books in balance, pushed municipal workers for the first time to pay toward their pensions and health care and clashed with the teachers union that once employed him.
What has he learned?
“You have to be able to say no to your friends,” Villaraigosa said during an interview at his soon-to-be former office. “You are making decisions that will have an impact far into the future. Don’t worry about what people say right now.”
As for complaints, he’s heard an earful.
As with any big-city mayor, there’s no pleasing everyone, particularly in a city of nearly 4 million people. And the work is never done. He can fairly claim a string of wins, including historically low crime rates, new rail lines in a metropolis strangled by cars and a citywide move away from polluting, coal-fired power. But those gains get tempered by longstanding gripes that he starts more than he finishes and ignores potholes, cracked sidewalks and other basics while globe-trotting and preening for TV cameras.
He promised to transform the city when he was elected in 2005, but proved a shape-shifter himself. At different times he’s presented himself as the education mayor, the green mayor, the transportation mayor, the law-and-order mayor. He had plenty of setbacks — his plan to seize control of schools flopped, for example — but he also proved resilient, using his political skills to push school improvements even if he wasn’t directly in charge.
“He was slow on deciding which of those maybe five or seven dream points, visionary points, he was going to realistically try to tackle,” notes Jaime Regalado, former executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.
Regalado considers Villaraigosa the most successful mayor since Tom Bradley, who landed the 1984 Olympics and helped shape the city’s modern skyline, but adds that Villaraigosa “dreamed large and delivered far less.”
Don’t tell that to the mayor. “There was a lot more than got done than didn’t. In spades,” Villaraigosa says.
The outline of Villaraigosa’s life is well etched. Son of a Mexican immigrant, barrio tough and high-school dropout, he lifted himself up and eventually became speaker of the California Assembly, city councilman and in 2005, mayor of the nation’s second-most populous city.
His best-known traits remain his energy, charm and quick smile, but those were overmatched during a recession and housing crisis that destroyed jobs and chopped into tax revenues. City Hall shed jobs, many streets were left cracked and pocked, library hours were cut.
Unemployment continues to hover around double-digits, lagging the national recovery. Even with new contributions from workers, a growing bill for pensions and retiree health care threatens money needed for street paving and other services. The freeways remain among the most congested roads in the nation.
Villaraigosa is ready for critics who say the only thing he leaves behind is an empty suit. He’s distributing a glossy, 61-page magazine documenting the city’s safe streets, gains against smog, new park space and his efforts to rescue some of the city’s worst-performing schools. His photo appears more than a dozen times inside.
But you’d have to look elsewhere for details on less flattering episodes, the affair with the newscaster that ended his marriage, the record ethics fine for failing to disclose free tickets to Los Angeles Lakers games and other events and the photo of him with the hard-partying Charlie Sheen in Mexico that surfaced as the mayor’s name was being mentioned for a possible Obama administration job. Later, Villaraigosa said he wasn’t interested in going to Washington.
As his successor, fellow Democrat Eric Garcetti, has made clear he wants to get down to business, not get down and party, Villaraigosa recently marked his departure at a celebration with former President Bill Clinton and Stevie Wonder.
It will also be a generational change at City Hall. Garcetti, 42, is just a few years older than Villaraigosa’s eldest daughter.
The outgoing mayor’s future isn’t clear, though he expects to hook up with a university or think tank and bank some money with paid speeches, a typical route for a celebrity politician. During the interview he waxed about bucking convention and putting the lie to those who have underestimated him over the years.
He’s single, his divorce was quietly settled after a messy split, with four children ranging in age from 38 to 20, the two youngest with his former wife Corina.
“How you are perceived is over a continuum of time,” Villaraigosa said. “So I just keep on working. I’ve kind of always seen that as the antidote. Just keep on working.”