Villaraigosa Shows He Can Be Mr. Fix-It


Rookie Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa always has talked a good game. Now the L.A. Democrat is showing he also can play a good game--he and other key legislators as well.

Two major education issues now nearing final resolution in the Legislature--charter schools and bilingual ed--illustrate the difference between excelling at the game and just fumbling along, between seizing the lead and awkwardly playing catch-up.

First, listen to the speaker:

“One of my responsibilities is to fix problems,” he tells me. “People want us to fix things. There’s no question that if we don’t start to restore the people’s confidence in our ability to resolve the salient issues facing California, they’re increasingly going to drop out and be frustrated and use the initiative process. The Legislature will become irrelevant to them.


“If we’re going to survive . . . we’ve got to get beyond what we’re against and identify what we’re for.”

Easily said. Hard to do--at least in a term-limited Legislature when leaders are short-timers and their strengths suspect.


Fixing things--getting beyond merely running a demolition derby--requires compromise. Often that means saying no to favorite special interests. And that’s how the game just was played concerning charter schools.

Key legislators--working with the governor’s office, the California Teachers Assn. and Silicon Valley political activists--quickly reached agreement on a bill to allow significant expansion of the number of charter schools in the state. These schools are becoming increasingly popular because government has less control over them, and parents and teachers have more. The bill is expected to win final passage today in both houses and be signed by Gov. Pete Wilson. And that will avoid a bruising initiative fight.

A high-tech coalition, headed by software entrepreneur Reed Hastings, spent $3 million to collect 1.2 million signatures to qualify its initiative for the November ballot. It also gave the Legislature until Friday to negotiate an alternative.

“We’re going to have a big bonfire with the 1.2 million signatures,” Hastings says. “But the $3 million was well spent, because we were planning on a $15-million initiative campaign.”


“Villaraigosa played a very important role,” Hastings adds. “He was a real catalyst. Instead of being angry with us for promoting an initiative, he took the attitude that ‘You guys must really be frustrated.’ ”

Indeed, the high-tech gurus are very frustrated with California’s public school system. They’re now also talking about sponsoring an initiative in 2000 to lower the vote requirement for local school bond issues from two-thirds to a simple majority.

To achieve the compromise, Villaraigosa, a former L.A. teachers union leader, had to deny the CTA what it was demanding: a collective bargaining guarantee for charter school teachers. That issue will be left to each school. But the CTA got the expansion of charter schools limited to 100 a year.

Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren played “a strong, courageous role,” Hastings says, by endorsing the initiative in February. “That helped give us early credibility. If not for Dan Lungren, this bill would not have come together.”

He also credits Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), Sen. Jack O’Connell (D-Santa Barbara) and the bill’s author, Assemblyman Ted Lempert (D-San Carlos).

Notes Lempert: “This is how the process should work.”


Compare that, however, to past Assembly bumbling over a bilingual bill. Granted, bilingual education is a much more emotional issue. But when Democrats--led by Latinos--balked at reform last year, it gave wealthy computer whiz Ron Unz the opening to qualify his Prop. 227 for the June 2 ballot. The measure would virtually eliminate bilingual ed.


Villaraigosa, who wasn’t speaker during last year’s bilingual ed brouhaha, finally rammed an alternative bill through the Assembly on April 20. His message to reluctant Democrats: In the past, they also looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights on illegal immigration and affirmative action--and remember how voters reacted.

The bilingual ed bill, authored by Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), emphasizes local control, in contrast to Unz’s one-size-fits-all approach.

Alpert hopes to win final Senate passage Monday. Wilson may sign the bill and also endorse Prop. 227. But he’s not sure. What the governor really wanted was for the Legislature to waylay the Unz initiative last year. Now it’s a big favorite to pass--bill or no bill.

As Villaraigosa knows, it’s how legislators play the game--not talk it--that instills voter confidence and elicits cheers. Things have to be fixed.