Ihave finally let the cat out of the bag and publicly confessed that I'm nostalgic for the first years of Antonio Villaraigosa's mayoralty, when His Honor seemed to be everywhere all at once.
I didn't expect to blurt it out quite the way I did, but I was on a panel with former Clinton advisor, Music Center board chairman and investment manager John Emerson, and we were supposed to be talking about the rather vague topic of L.A. in the age of Obama. We chatted about the president's recent visit, the embarrassingly low voter turnout in this month's municipal elections and what kind of job we thought the mayor was doing. And as I thought about the answer to the last question, it occurred to me that L.A. needs the old Villaraigosa back, the man in the center of the public eye. "I miss Antonio," I said. "I think he should come back."
Now, I'm no friend of the mayor, and, if asked, I think he'd say he's no friend of mine. I have even told the world I had doubts about the value of his penchant for the spotlight.
In fact, in October 2006, when I covered the mayor on his trade mission through Asia, I asked Villaraigosa point-blank whether being in our faces all the time couldn't ultimately backfire. We were on a bus outside Beijing, and Villaraigosa was exulting -- "Did you see that? Did you?" he asked me, standing in the aisle -- because some tourists had recognized him as he hiked a portion of the Great Wall. Perhaps because of my own annoyance at his preening, I couldn't help but ask back: "Aren't you worried that we're all going to get sick of you?"
But that was back when our mayor was omnipresent and crisscrossing the city at lightning speed. In 2005, after his first 100 days in office, the mayor estimated that he had already traveled, in his official capacity, 24,000 miles, according to the odometer in his city-issued SUV. Taking a page from Depression-era New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor seemed to pop up at every urban tragedy. He joined citizens in cleaning up school campuses. One local gadfly joked to me that Antonio would show up at a refrigerator-door opening.
As I think back, that charm offensive gave the illusion that our enormous city was a small town. Using the media as his vehicle, Villaraigosa did to the entire city what Councilman Tom LaBonge does in his city-issued Ford Crown Victoria -- everyday retail politics, you-and-me politics. The old Villaraigosa made L.A. feel a bit like Mayberry caffeinated -- connected, capable of great things, engaged.
A lot of that seemed to end when his extramarital affair became public in the summer of 2007. There was a distinct Villaraigosa hiatus, although the people in the mayor's office swear to me that, after what might be called a decent interval, his agenda has been just as crowded as it used to be.
I don't feel it. Oh, I know he hasn't disappeared completely. He stumped for Hillary Clinton during the primary -- and then had to eat that endorsement and switch to Barack Obama. He jumped into gridlocked traffic on the 405 and handed out leaflets to shocked motorists, a publicity stunt to persuade the state to widen the freeway. He went to Israel, he raised money with fat cats, he did his bit with the rest of the mayors -- is it just me, or was he tooting his own horn instead of L.A.'s?
Before reelection, this paper's editorial page listed Villaraigosa's smart moves: backing Police Chief William Bratton, expanding the LAPD, pushing transit "to the sea." He brought Ramon Cortines back to head his scaled-back school program when the courts stopped his district takeover in its tracks. That put the well-regarded Cortines in position to fill the LAUSD vacuum when Supt. David Brewer was moved out.
But in our "weak mayor, strong council" system, isn't His Honor's real power the bully pulpit, and isn't that what Villaraigosa did best? Maybe he
still glad-handing like before, and the media just aren't as interested in his every move. But I think if he had been out there all along, he would have won reelection with a tad bit more than 55% of the vote, don't you?
Villaraigosa isn't making it a secret that he is prepping for a run at governor. That alone could explain why the mayor doesn't seem quite as interested in L.A.'s potholes and in creating a "city of boulevards" as he used to be. And of course, gubernatorial bid or not, the force of his personality can't fix the city's current crisis: its huge budget deficit.
But once upon a time, an unavoidably charismatic mayor showed that he could give Los Angeles a sense of direction and spread the feeling that we're all in it together. In these hard times, who knows how much that could help?
Come back, Antonio, the city needs you.