In a corny old movie, they'd illustrate this bit with pages flying off a calendar: Antonio Villaraigosa has about 10 months left as mayor of Los Angeles, and although his name is bruited about for higher office, City Hall is where he says wants to be. Not that that will keep him from presiding as chairman of the Democratic convention next week in North Carolina, checking out the competition in Florida this week and campaigning for President Obama. But then it's back to pushing toward the goal line in L.A., on transit, trees, parks, education and now the city's unsettling pension crisis. Tick, tick …
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 U.S. Conference of Mayors. Does chairing the convention throw a wrench in the nonpartisan works?
Not at all. When I do any of the talk shows, you never see me speak in a very partisan, vitriolic or polarizing way. I don't do that. I just rejected a couple of national talk shows because they wanted me to go against the RNC chair. I'm mayor of L.A.; that's my job, and that's why I'm being asked to serve my party and my country at other levels. I make it clear that I am not an attack dog.
Yet you will be the most visible guy at the Democrats' biggest party.
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 Republicans and Democrats to vote to accelerate the [troop] withdrawal. On the left, I've taken on pension reform, seniority and tenure among the teachers, CEQA reform. I'm a progressive but I am not knee-jerk. I am a grown-up. I'm not a kid on a college campus seeing everything in black and white anymore; I don't know that I ever did.
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," President Nixon's phrase?
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.