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Villaraigosa's next race

Whoa, there. Don't let the inauguration lull you into a false sense of ease. You're not finished with voting yet.

The Los Angeles city election is only six weeks away. It's not a state contest, so you won't face one of those "Moby-Dick" mega-ballots. But there are 10 candidates running for mayor, one of them named Antonio Villaraigosa.

Villaraigosa is one lucky guy. In political terms, his toast seems to fall butter-side-up at least seven out of 10 times.

He backed Hillary Clinton for president, vigorously, but a couple of days after the November election, there he was on Barack Obama's economic advisor team, among the likes of former SEC and Fed honchos, and former Cabinet members. At the least, it's lemonade out of lemons with, maybe, the yummy hint of a stimulus check in it for us.

The nine men arrayed against Villaraigosa in the mayor's race don't include the one who could have given him a serious run. Rick Caruso, the developer behind the Grove and Americana shopping centers, and former Police Commission head, decided not to take on Villaraigosa.

The courts said "no way" to Villaraigosa's ambitions to essentially take charge of the Los Angeles Unified School District. But his allies are now ascendant on the board, and David L. Brewer, never the mayor's man, has tanked. The new superintendent is Ray Cortines, Villaraigosa's handpicked education deputy.

The mayor rightfully gets to say "I'm with him" when LAPD Chief Bill Bratton tells Angelenos that, by many measures, crime rates here are the lowest they've been since Ike was president.

Villaraigosa led the cheering section for a half-cent county sales tax for transit projects that passed in November, when gas prices were still high enough to make solo commuting seem like a loser's game. He looks like a winner to the mass-transit crowd, though he'll be long gone when the long-term transit projects eventually succeed, or don't.

The cards also have cut his way on another front. With other Democrats already jostling to replace Arnold Schwarzenegger, Villaraigosa can use the mayor's race as a reason not to start up his own formal candidacy (voters don't like you angling for two jobs at once). If he wins another term, he can wait a decent interval and then start raising money. In the meantime, if Sen. Dianne Feinstein decides to come home and run -- which would clear the Democratic field -- an undeclared Villaraigosa would come out looking like a loyal Democrat.

What about the miasma of bad economic news? The city's got a gut-wrenching deficit but, now, so does everybody else. So voters might not hold the city's fiscal problems against Villaraigosa, even if they are partly of the city's making. The extramarital girlfriend scandal of 2007 will read like old news for many voters frightened of losing their jobs and their homes in the economic lava flow of 2009.

Property values have tanked, and tax revenues along with them. But the flip side of lower home prices and rents is that more people could get into houses and apartments in L.A., and that's something Villaraigosa has tried to make happen for years.

It doesn't hurt that the liberals' Voldemort, Rush Limbaugh, fatheadedly told the world that when Bill Clinton introduced him to Villaraigosa in a restaurant, "I thought it was a Secret Service agent, maybe a shoeshine guy." There's a campaign flier right there.

Of course, when Villaraigosa's toast does fall butter-side-down, it's messy.

Villaraigosa has a penchant for announcing big, exciting projects that get nudged offstage by other, later big, exciting projects. Remember the Million Trees project? How many of those trees haven't been planted? How many potholes aren't getting fixed?

Residents do hold a mayor responsible for the spreading pox of billboards, the constant annoyance of traffic, higher fees and offices and services closed for budget reasons.

With big bucks and a big lead, the mayor owes us at least a stab at a competitive election. There's plenty of time left for mayoral debates.

Why should the lucky incumbent give the measly opposition a shot at him? Because we voters deserve it. Because it looks cocky and arrogant for Villaraigosa not to. If he's tough enough to turn L.A. around -- oops, sorry, Richard Riordan flashback there -- he should be tough enough to stand up and mix it up with his opponents. The mayor needs to show L.A. voters he isn't just putting them on hold while he takes a more important call, maybe one about the governor's race.

patt.morrison@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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