LOCAL

Losing faith in an unfaithful mayor

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Actor Tom Hanks had a great line in the movie "A League of Their Own." Playing the crusty manager of a women's baseball team, he berates one member into tears and shouts: "There's no crying! There's no crying in baseball."

That came to mind when I read last week that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was asking for privacy, after admitting to an affair with a prominent TV reporter. To paraphrase Hanks' character, Jimmy Dugan, there's no privacy in politics.

There's no privacy, at least, that a politician can ever count on, particularly at Villaraigosa's level. He is, after all, mayor of the nation's second-largest city, with his eye on becoming the first Latino to be elected governor of California since statehood. (One Latino, Lt. Gov. Romualdo Pacheco, did briefly ascend to fill a gubernatorial vacancy in 1875.)

Villaraigosa was heralded as a rising star until very recently. Now he's in danger of flaming out.

Early last year, I wrote that Villaraigosa looked like "the best bet to succeed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger" in 2010. He had "the positioning and the pizazz."

That's the problem with premature speculation.

But I also wrote that the mayor would "need to avoid scandal … and rack up a laudable record."

Turns out he lacked the self-discipline to avoid scandal. And there's little laudable so far about his record.

Villaraigosa told me then that "I'm not one of those guys who has a five-year or 10-year plan."

No kidding. He apparently already was cheating on his wife and sleeping with reporter Mirthala Salinas, who was covering him for Telemundo.

Prophetically, the mayor commented: "One thing I know, things can change."

Especially if one exercises reckless, self-destructive behavior. It's all very disappointing because Villaraigosa is talented, energetic, charismatic and potentially inspirational.

And that's one of his problems right now. Those who claim this is nobody's business except for the people directly involved ignore the fact that many Angelenos voted for Villaraigosa believing he'd be an inspirational mayor and someone whom Latino kids could look up to as a role model. This infidelity is these voters' business too. The first Latino mayor of modern L.A. has soiled his image and spoiled their dreams.

Some voters insist that they don't care about a politician's dalliances. Fine, they can click the remote or turn the page. Others do care. They'll factor it into their attitudes about the man.

Outside the Los Angeles Basin, Villaraigosa has been little known. Now, he's being introduced statewide as a serial philanderer who dumped on his wife years ago, sweet-talked her back into the house, used her as a political prop and returned to the pattern of womanizing. The family breakup is especially disturbing because the mayor and his wife have two teen children.

"The voters may decide it doesn't matter," says Garry South, a Democratic strategist for three gubernatorial campaigns. "But when you run for governor of this mega-state and you're put under the microscope, it's never helpful to have junk in your personal life.

"Anyone who thinks any part of your past life doesn't come into play when voters are making a determination about you is pretty foolish. Everything is subject to inquiry and attack."

There is a sense among many political pros and pundits that the voters have been there, seen that and become more tolerant of politicians' sexual misbehavior.

But the Villaraigosa case is different. Here's why:

* President Clinton and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger were supported by their wives, who stood up and vouched for them. Villaraigosa's wife has filed for divorce.

* By the time the public found out that Clinton had been having sex with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, he'd already been reelected and was never going to face voters again. Villaraigosa still must run for reelection in 2009.

* Schwarzenegger was a movie superstar whom voters felt they long had known before he was accused of manhandling women. Anyway, he was running against the very unpopular Gov. Gray Davis.

* New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, following a messy second divorce, had one foot in the political grave until he was resurrected by his uplifting behavior after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

* Arizona Sen. John McCain was a famous POW hero when he cheated on and dumped his first wife 28 years ago. Voters cut him slack.

* In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom was especially despicable when he had an affair with the wife of his good friend and campaign manager. But at least the mayor was divorced.

"Ultimately, Antonio will be judged by voters based on their perception of the job he is doing as mayor," says Democratic strategist Darry Sragow.

That's what many people have told reporters: They don't care what a politician does in private. What counts is what he does for them.

OK, a lot of Angelenos are waiting. The mayor better get crackin'.

Get that subway-to-the-sea moving.

Really bust up some gangs, not just stage photo-ops.

That failed school takeover fiasco was a waste of time and political clout. Why would a new mayor allow himself to make so many enemies in his first major endeavor?

I'm beginning to understand. He was distracted.

It's sad, and incredibly stupid. Villaraigosa frittered away his first two years in office.

This player is close to striking out. He better lay some solid wood on the ball. There won't be a free pass.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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