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 UCLA because of affirmative action. [My kids] Antonio and Natalia — they're on their own. Their mother's got a master's degree! I'm saying mend it, don't end it. That's the radical center.
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 White House. The times I went to D.C., I brought home the bacon. I brought home a $546-million loan for the Crenshaw line. Going to Sacramento and supporting high-speed rail, I got about $900 million for the regional connector. Being able to call the president, the majority leader, and get them to respond — I'm not going to D.C. to watch the cherry blossoms bloom. So yes, I'm going to campaign for the president and the Democratic majority, because it's great to have a partner in the White House and Congress who understand the needs of cities and particularly this city.
What is your mission in the Obama campaign?
I expect they'll send me to most swing states. It's not the first time — Hillary [Clinton] [whom he backed in the 2008 presidential primaries] sent me to all those states. I went [on the road] for [John] Kerry. I've been doing this now since [the 2000 campaign of Al] Gore.
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. [New York Times op-ed columnist] David Brooks said, speaking of Latinos, that [Republicans] are losing the demographics. I say, losing Latinos? They're losing women, they're losing young people, they're losing demographics across the board. Latinos are going to be pivotal in the 12 or 13 swing states.
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 Loyola Marymount University, you said, "Never count me out." Is that your motto?
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.!
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.