A confident Villaraigosa still thinking big for L.A.

Antonio Villaraigosa has reigned over Los Angeles for four years with the same guile and keen political instincts he used to dethrone the sitting mayor in 2005.

Those skills have won him national attention and allowed him to recover from what he refers to as "the mistake that looms over all others": the self-inflicted humiliation two years ago of an affair with a television news anchor that ended his 20-year marriage and damaged his standing with many voters.

He is now cruising toward what supporters see as an all-but-certain reelection March 3. The political figures who might have mounted a serious race against him backed away, leaving a group of opponents with little name recognition or support and virtually no money to address those shortcomings.

But he has not silenced doubts about his ability to follow through when the excitement subsides and the TV cameras are gone. For instance, Villaraigosa has boasted for years of his promise to plant 1 million trees across Los Angeles, calling it a cornerstone of his environment agenda. Yet only 200,000 trees have made it into the ground.

After four years, Villaraigosa says he has laid a foundation to alleviate traffic, create jobs and turn L.A. into the greenest big city in America, but his detractors -- and even some influential supporters -- still wonder if he can match his ability to campaign with a sustained effort to complete a major project.

That concern is heightened by Villaraigosa's flirtation with yet another campaign -- this time for governor in 2010. He offers no guarantee that if elected he would complete a second term as mayor.

'We were bold'

Villaraigosa's political achievements are substantial. Crime is down and hundreds of new police officers patrol the streets. And last fall, he helped win passage of a half-percentage point sales tax that will generate billions of dollars for mass transit projects, including the Subway to the Sea that he promised in his 2005 campaign.

"If you were to say to anybody that we would have passed a half-penny sales tax in the middle of a recession with a two-thirds vote, with opposition from across the county, most people would have said you were crazy," Villaraigosa said in a recent interview. "We weren't crazy, we were bold."

Early in his term, he failed to bring the Los Angeles Unified School District under his control. But then he rebounded with an orchestrated political coup: He tapped an array of companies that do business with City Hall to raise a record $3.5 million and get three favored candidates elected to the board so he would control the majority. In December, that majority replaced the superintendent with Villaraigosa's deputy mayor for education.

Villaraigosa has gained enough influence over the board that he says voters should "absolutely" hold him responsible for reforming the schools.

And he has enacted policies to rid L.A.'s port of smog-belching trucks and replace the city's controversial anti-gang program.

But the ultimate payoffs for those political victories -- less traffic, better-performing schools, cleaner air and fewer street gangs -- are still years away at best. Under current plans, the subway would not reach Westwood until 2032. By then, the 56-year-old mayor would be 79 and long out of office.

One measure of Villaraigosa's political strength is that city figures voice doubts about him in private. Few are willing to criticize him publicly.

Eli Broad, the billionaire philanthropist and civic activist, couches a criticism in a half-compliment, urging Villaraigosa to set aside aspirations for higher office and focus on his work in Los Angeles.

"I think he can become a great mayor. He has it in him. I sure hope so," he said.

During an interview in his spacious third-floor City Hall office, Villaraigosa acknowledged that many of his far-reaching promises, such as making Los Angeles the greenest big city in America and fixing a school district with 50% dropout rates at many high schools, will take more time.

"I asked the city to dream with me, and I've been bold," Villaraigosa said. "We have focused our efforts to build a foundation . . . and made a lot of progress."

He dismissed any suggestion of underachievement, reciting a list of accomplishments that he said already have made Los Angeles a better place to live. Among them: a 24% drop in violent crime; traffic improvements that include more left-turn signals and 1 million repaired potholes; the expansion of city after-school programs; and the construction of 1,044 housing units for the homeless.

And he is unapologetic about the campaign promises he has not fulfilled, including establishment of a low-cost prescription drug program for residents or installation of reversible lanes on major streets. Voters elected him to tackle big challenges, he said, even if that meant pursuing many goals at once.

"I don't think you have the luxury when you're mayor of a global city like Los Angeles to tinker around the edges or just focus on a couple of areas," he said. "You've got to address the broad spectrum of issues and challenges."

Inside the mayor's office, Villaraigosa can be impatient and occasionally short-tempered. He's been known to scold staffers in public or in front of their colleagues.

"The mayor has impatience for results and has a sense of urgency," said Robin Kramer, his chief of staff, adding that Villaraigosa expects creative thinking from those who work for him. "He starts with the ethos, 'Well, that was good. We can do better.' "

His strongest and most politically advantageous success as mayor has been a steady drop in crime. When he was sworn in on the steps of City Hall in the summer of 2005, Villaraigosa promised that his first priority would be to lead the "fight to make our neighborhoods safer."

Last year, New York, Chicago and other urban centers saw an increase in the telltale marker of violent crime: homicides. Los Angeles had a 4% decline, led in part by a drop in gang killings.

The LAPD recorded 381 slayings in 2008, down from 517 five years ago and a far cry from the city's bloodiest year, 1992, when more than 1,000 people were slain. The drop in crime came despite a worsening economy that some thought would push crime rates up.

How much credit the mayor deserves for that improvement is debatable.

Villaraigosa says the decline is "in no small part" due to the priority he has given to increasing the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department. Initially, he vowed to hire 1,300 additional officers within five years. After taking office, he reduced that to 1,000, which he says will be achieved by July 2010.

As of early February, the force had a net gain of 694 officers. Villaraigosa raised trash collection fees to pay for the extra officers, a step that previous administrations had avoided for fear of angering homeowners.

A centrist appeal

The underlying political calculus is obvious: Los Angeles' previous two mayors failed to deliver on pledges for major expansions of the LAPD and were criticized because of it. In a city infamous for riots, gangs and police beatings, the drop in crime has emerged as the hallmark of Villaraigosa's administration. It also broadens the centrist appeal of Villaraigosa, a former teachers union organizer, past head of the local American Civil Liberties Union and the city's first Latino mayor in 133 years.

Rick Caruso, the shopping mall developer and former head of the city Police Commission, chafes at the mayor's claiming credit for improved public safety. He points out that crime in Los Angeles began to decline in 2002, when Chief William J. Bratton took over the LAPD and James K. Hahn was mayor.

"I think if you ask people in the city, 'Has the livability of the city increased?' . . . I think the answer is that there hasn't been a hell of a lot of progress," he said.

But Caruso backed away from a chance to make that argument in a campaign, deciding not to run against Villaraigosa. And Bratton, who could claim the credit the mayor seeks, has instead become a key ally.

This month, the chief appeared in a Villaraigosa campaign ad, asserting that crime, measured against the city's population, is down to levels not seen since the 1950s.

"The credit goes first to our brave men and women in uniform, but also to a mayor who gave us leadership," he said.

Villaraigosa has stuck to the goal of expanding the police force despite what has become his biggest problem in office: the city's precarious financial situation. Los Angeles faces a shortfall of $400 million to $500 million in the next budget year, its biggest fiscal challenge since at least the early 1990s. A likely consequence will be reduced services and employee layoffs or buyouts.

When Villaraigosa took office, he cast himself as a fiscal conservative, vowing to eliminate the $295-million "structural deficit" -- the difference between the cost of services and the revenue the city receives to pay for them. He ended the city's practice of dipping into its emergency reserve fund, and he estimates he was able to trim $200 million off the deficit before the deepening recession reduced tax revenue.

Some City Council members have pushed to slow the increase in the number of police officers, saying the city cannot afford them. And some council members say -- though seldom in public -- that Villaraigosa's budget proposals have focused too much on short-term fixes.

Last year the mayor proposed delaying an $81-million payment to the city's employee pension fund. The move would have saved money that year but ultimately would have cost $85 million after penalties and a rearranged payment schedule. The council rejected the idea.

In late 2007, months after the city's top financial expert warned of "some serious threats on the horizon," the Villaraigosa administration negotiated employee pay increases that will cost more than $200 million by 2012.

"Someone needs to explain to me how that made sense," said attorney and mayoral candidate Walter Moore, who is the best known among the nine underfunded hopefuls running against the mayor. Moore has raised a little over $208,000, compared with Villaraigosa's $2.9 million.

Strong union ties

Villaraigosa said that predicting the recent financial collapse would have required clairvoyance beyond even that of the best economic forecasters. As recently as a year ago, the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. was still predicting a slight increase in city tax revenue in 2008.

"Nobody foresaw this level of crisis," he said.

One major reason for Villaraigosa's political dominance has been his strong relations with the most powerful force in Los Angeles politics: the city's labor unions.

Villaraigosa has challenged labor in some cases. For instance, he refused demands by the Engineers and Architects Assn., a city employees union, for a large pay raise.

But he has repeatedly acted in ways that have helped the city's large private-sector unions. Shortly after taking office, he helped settle a threatened hotel workers' strike on terms favorable to the employees.

He later brokered a long-running dispute between downtown Los Angeles' largest commercial property owner and 10,000 security guards who wanted to unionize.

His proposal for reducing air pollution from the thousands of trucks that serve the city's huge port would also make it easier for the Teamsters to unionize drivers. And a solar-power initiative he has pushed, Measure B on the March 3 ballot, was written in a way that would guarantee work to unionized electricians.

"The role that he's played has been extremely important . . . and in key industries in which we could not afford to have strikes and disputes," said Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and one of the mayor's closest confidants. "Labor obviously feels. . . that with the mayor, just as with President Obama, we have a seat at the table."

Ultimately, observers say, Villaraigosa's political future will not turn on his ability to appease allies or even unify a fractious city, as essential as those political skills are for any mayor of Los Angeles. He need only examine the failed gubernatorial bids of former mayors Tom Bradley and Richard Riordan.

Villaraigosa must demonstrate that he can effectively govern and produce tangible results in a city government that's notoriously complex and unwieldy. That opportunity will present itself again in the coming months, when Villaraigosa must address the city's dire budget crisis and negotiate new contracts with the city's police and fire unions.

"I would say, for a mayor to run for higher office, his record for mayor is tremendously important and will be significantly scrutinized," said Cal State Fullerton political scientist Raphael Sonenshein, an expert on L.A. government. "In politics, the best recommendation for your next job is your current job."