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Op-Ed

Newton: L.A.'s mayor under the microscope

Politically, is Villaraigosa risen from the dead, or is he stuck on zero? Actually, he's somewhere in between.

Jim Newton

March 5, 2012

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Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is playing well to the nation: The New York Times recently declared that he had compiled a record that "is substantial and is positioning him for advancement." And Time magazine, proclaiming the mayor's "resurrection," compared his run to a "practically scripted" tale that once threatened to be a "box-office bomb" but now, because of his selection as chairman of the upcoming Democratic National Convention, was back on top (one predictable fact of national coverage of Los Angeles is its rote reliance on Hollywood metaphor).

That's the view from far away. Up close, it looks a bit different. Mark Lacter, the insightful business columnist at LA Observed, considered the national pieces on Villaraigosa and countered by asking whether the mayor had done anything to deserve it. His blunt answer: "Well, no."

And a private poll conducted last week confirms that Villaraigosa may be charming national pundits, but he hasn't turned many heads at home. That poll of Los Angeles County residents, conducted by political consultant John Thomas for a candidate in an unrelated race, found that 8% of those interviewed regarded Villaraigosa's performance in office as "excellent," compared with 31% who considered it "poor." Overall, 40% viewed the mayor favorably, while 56% had an unfavorable view (the poll reached 500 respondents and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points).

So, which is it? Is Villaraigosa risen from the dead, recovered from the messy breakup of his marriage and the meandering middle years of his tenure? Or is he stuck on zero, a disappointment to his supporters and a fulfillment of his critics' most scathing predictions?

The answer: He's somewhere in between. He is not suddenly clear of trouble. Nor is he without accomplishment or mission.

Last week, I sat down at Getty House with the mayor to discuss some of his recent initiatives. We spoke in the same room where, in 2007, he admitted to me that his marriage was in trouble. This time, during the hour we spent together, he was rambling and unfocused, hopping from topic to topic and complimenting himself, frequently. He displayed, in short, much of what has so tried the patience of even his most ardent admirers.

And yet, he showed his better self too. The mayor has long reached for ambitious targets, and during our meeting, even as he fought off a flu, he was laying plans to advance his education agenda and his innovative transportation and jobs program, known as America Fast Forward. If approved, it would allow the federal government to advance money to cities and counties to pay for transportation improvements. In the case of Los Angeles, that would mean that the county could use its half-cent sales tax, which voters approved largely because of Villaraigosa's persuasive campaign, to launch projects now that would be funded by the tax rather than spreading them out over 30 years as the sales tax money was collected. The federal government would chip in the money today, and Los Angeles would pay it back over time.

The measure, which is embedded in the larger transportation bill, is scheduled for votes later this month, and it has opposition. Conservatives are generally averse to federal support for public transportation, and in this election year, the Republican-led House in particular is reluctant to endorse anything that might boost support for President Obama. But the concept has picked up broad support across the center, in part because Villaraigosa has indefatigably stumped for it, collecting endorsements from more than 150 mayors of both parties.

That, incidentally, was no small challenge, as Republicans initially resisted a plan they feared meant more spending, and Democrats balked at one that required local taxes to repay federal money. Villaraigosa successfully forged a bipartisan base that is remarkable in today's America — both the House and Senate transportation bills include his initiative.

Villaraigosa may not get this bill, though he deserves to. He may not live up to Time's cliche of the "inspirational tale of a troubled boy from the gang-infested Boyle Heights neighborhood of East L.A. who makes good" (really, that's a quote).

Villaraigosa may look best to those who appraise him from far away. But give him credit where it's due. He will keep working, he said as we wound down, "to the last day." "Can I guarantee that we're going to succeed? No, but A for trying."

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at jim.newton@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.