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.
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."