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The Man Who Would Be Mayor

Twice, while Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa and I breakfasted at a downtown political hangout last week, lobbyists approached our table and addressed the Los Angeles Democrat respectfully as, “Mr. Speaker.”

Both times, Villaraigosa, who is the state Assembly’s majority leader, smiled and shook his head as if to say, “don’t jinx me.”

He was flattered that such insiders believe he may be the Assembly’s next presiding officer. But Villaraigosa also understands that politics is a high-risk business where even the brightest prospects can, without warning, plummet into the toilet.

However, if the legality of California’s term limits is upheld and Cruz Bustamante, the current speaker, is forced to retire, Villaraigosa knows he has a solid chance of being elected to the top job.

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On the other hand, if Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez, under fire since his arrest for possession of cocaine, is recalled, Villaraigosa could run for his seat.

Both offices could provide the next step toward an irresistible goal--election as Los Angeles’ first Latino mayor since Cristobal Aguilar, who left office in 1872. “I definitely see my future as someone who could run and win citywide,” Villaraigosa said.

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We talked about his future and its relationship to fast-growing Latino political power during breakfast at the Pacific Dining Car, the venerable business and political eating and drinking spot on Downtown’s western edge.

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Villaraigosa, 44, is a well-dressed, carefully barbered man of great intensity. In his quest for success, he dashes from one appointment to another at a pace that on most days keeps him away from the Mt. Washington home he shares with his wife and children until late in the evening. He makes so many speeches that he worries about his lack of preparation.

He was elected to the Assembly in 1994 and quickly rose to majority leader, thanks to the high turnover imposed by term limits. A onetime Roosevelt High School dropout from a poor, single-mother family, Villaraigosa ultimately returned to secondary school for his diploma, then graduated from East L.A. College and UCLA. Before his election, he was a teachers union organizer, president of the local American Civil Liberties Union branch and an alternate member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board of directors.

Term limits will force Villaraigosa out of the Assembly at the end of 2000. But until then, the voter-imposed limits are opening windows of opportunity. “If I had my druthers, and the people so desire, I’d like to finish out my term . . . and, if term limits are sustained, make a run for speaker,” he said.

But when Villaraigosa discusses just how tough it would be to run for mayor of Los Angeles from Sacramento, he cites the example of the popular and effective Democratic leader, Richard Katz, whose campaign for mayor fizzled in 1993. “What Richard showed is you can’t run from up there,” Villaraigosa has concluded.

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That leaves the possibility of running for the council, if Hernandez is recalled. More than a quarter of Villaraigosa’s 45th Assembly district includes Hernandez’s territory, including vote-heavy Mt. Washington.

When I asked about Hernandez, Villaraigosa danced around the question. “Like anyone else, I was hurt and shocked and disappointed” by Hernandez’s arrest, he said. “But I feel very strongly that alcohol and drug abuse is a sickness and I believe in redemption. So I have not called for his resignation. . . . But I also feel my community has the right to disagree and have a recall effort.”

Then, as if to complete the pirouette, he added, “I want to come back” to Los Angeles.

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If he does come back, you can bet that Hernandez and several other prominent Latino politicians won’t be in the welcoming party. City Councilman Richard Alarcon is ambitious. And veterans such as Councilman Richard Alatorre, County Supervisor Gloria Molina and state Sen. Richard Polanco are unlikely to abandon the field without a fight.

They, like Villaraigosa, know the new math of California politics, a calculus based on the rise of Latino voting, particularly important in Los Angeles,

Nobody knows which of today’s elected Latino leaders can best ride this trend--or how far it will take them.

But the powerful are figuring the odds and placing their bets. That’s why the paid representatives of Los Angeles’ powerful business community are willing to interrupt their expense-account breakfasts at the Pacific Dining Car to pay anticipatory homage to a onetime dropout from Roosevelt High.

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