In a corny old movie, they'd illustrate this bit with pages flying off a calendar:
What's your job at the convention?
The chair bangs the gavel and presides over resolutions and the nomination of the president and the vice president. It's ministerial on one hand; it's also very substantive, in that you are the face and the voice of the party at the convention.
You've just spent a year as head of the nonpartisan
Not at all. When I do any of the
Yet you will be the most visible guy at the
I always say I'm unabashedly a progressive, but I take on stupid wherever it exists. I take it on on the right: I've written the arguments [for] the anti-death penalty [ballot measure]; I'll be [for] reforming "three strikes"; I've been taking on Proposition 13. With the conference of mayors, I got
I think by the time I became [Assembly] speaker, I started seeing a lot more nuance, I had a bigger job than when I was just a legislator. [As whip] I was the Democratic firebrand; I led big fights in that first year when we lost the majority, [and] I couldn't get anything done. I couldn't get Republicans or even moderate Democrats' support. I put Democrats and Republicans together [on the Assembly] floor; I let [Republicans] name every vice chair [of the Assembly committees] for the first time.
Do we still need political conventions? The outcome is determined, everyone stays on script, the balloons come down — what purpose do they serve?
A convention launches the last stage of that campaign. Nobody's really watching [until] around convention time. It does frame the issues, the choices. I agree that over time that could change.
Has leading the conference of mayors changed you politically?
No. But being mayor has. When you've got to sign the check on the front it's a lot different from signing it on the back. Being mayor during the worst economic crisis since the 1930s has given me a perspective that I might not have had had. Having to take on education reform with the teachers union so solidly against even the most minimal of changes — after Miramonte, they killed a bill that said you can expedite the process for dismissing a pedophile [teacher]. I mean, come on! They say no to everything! My [teachers] pension reform proposal, it's still protecting defined benefits — they're completely against it.
Norm Ornstein's [and Thomas Mann's] book, "It's Even Worse Than It Looks," says [the system] is broken on both sides. It's way more broken on the right, that's what I believe, but it's broken on the left [too]. I really want to look at what I call the radical center.
What does that mean? Is that like "the silent majority,"
No, the radical center is a path that moves the country forward, not stays stuck in the ideological morass that we're in.
Let's take pension reform —
It's actually pension security.
Should there still be a defined benefit? Don't those on the left need to make changes before the right makes changes for them?
That's exactly right. Look what I'm proposing [he opens a loose leaf file]. I'm tying the retirement age [of most city employees] to 67; right now it's 55, but most people are retiring at 62. [The plan] caps the maximum retirement allowance at 75% [of salary] instead of 100%. It prevents pension spiking, controls retiree health costs, shares the risk of future increases with employees. That's where you've got to go. That's where San Diego and San Jose are going.
And those aren't radical proposals. I've told the unions I am duty-bound to make sure the city is on a more sustainable path. Some mayors are going further, the more Republican ones. I don't think the [California] Legislature will go this far. They just want to deal with spiking and the high-profile stuff that really won't [save] you money.
Have I told you I've been changing this position over time? I got vilified because [of] what I said [about Proposition 209, California's affirmative action ban]: Mend it, don't end it. My kids shouldn't be able to benefit from affirmative action. I should have. I got into
When you take extreme positions — like no changes in the face of unsustainable [pension] increases going into the future — we can't keep going there. With bilingual education, in the face of all these statistics showing kids weren't learning, [my friends] were still defending bilingual. I just don't buy that. You've got to use data. I think that's the difference between us and the right. They don't use data any more. And on the numbers, it doesn't make sense to protect [unsustainable pensions].
Why are you still regarded in some quarters as a divisive figure?
I don't think I'm a divisive figure. These are really tough times, and almost no elected official is higher than the 50s [in approval ratings].
You've got a lot on your political plate: the city budget, campaigning for extending L.A.'s transit sales tax, Measure R, and for the president. People are going to say you're spreading yourself too thin.
It matters to L.A. who's in the
What is your mission in the Obama campaign?
I expect they'll send me to most swing states. It's not the first time —
Both parties are criticized for treating Latinos as a single voting bloc.
There's no question Latinos will be pivotal to this campaign. If the president is reelected, and I believe he will be, it will be because Latinos supported him above 70%. Not just on immigration. [
Latinos don't have a turnout in keeping with their numbers in the population, certainly not compared to black voters.
We're younger, there's a component that's not eligible, we're less educated, poorer — all those factor in. In L.A. and other places, African Americans [often] vote in almost the same numbers as whites, and that's not true for Latinos. But that's changing. The reason California is a blue state is because of Proposition 187 [the 1994 anti-illegal immigration measure]. [That] registered a million Latinos.
What was the reaction to Yahoo's story about you possibly running for president?
I didn't hear a lot. [The reporter] was saying, "Come on, you're not riding into the sunset?" Then he mentioned governor and I said, "Yeah, I'd like to be governor." I didn't say I was running for governor.
I love this job. Virtually every one of my buddies who has gone from mayor to governor said they loved being mayor more. I want to be mayor; I want to finish this job on a strong note. Like this stuff about a million trees – we're almost at 400,000. We've also done 650 acres of parks, double what they did 12 years ago.
Are you sorry you used that figure, a million?
I'm not. We're doing ten times the number we did before. We hit 20% on [renewable energy for the city]. We're doing 19 times the conservation. We just did the most far reaching action plan to clean up a port in the world.
I don't know what I'm going to do [afterwards]. I want to spend some time reflecting. We have to figure out a way that's not so ideologically rigid. Yes, one day I would like to continue to serve [in politics]. I just don't know when that day is right now.
Will you be around to take a ride when all your transit projects are finished?
With America Fast Forward [Villaraigosa's model for federal-local transit funding] and the extension of Measure R on the November ballot, we're actually going to be able to do this in our lifetimes. That's the magic of this.
In an interview with Fernando Guerra of
My whole life, I've been the kind of guy who, when he falls down, gets up, wipes off the blood and keeps on trucking, as if I never fell in the first place.
You've been upset by persistent questions about your personal life. Don't they come with the territory? Look at the coverage of New York mayors Bloomberg and Giuliani.
People are always going to ask, the press will ask about elected officials' private lives. I think their private lives are their private lives. We've gone way beyond what is reasonable. You don't have to answer, but people are going to ask.
You went to UCLA and your daughter's at USC. Who do you cheer for when they play each other?
[Laughs]. When USC plays UCLA, I'm with UCLA. But when USC plays the world, I'm the mayor of L.A.!