Ready For Prime Time?

Jenifer Warren is a Times staff writer in the Sacramento bureau. She last wrote about the controversy over mountain biking on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County

The speaker is late. Southwest Airlines has deposited him in Burbank way behind schedule and now the whole damn evening is on the cusp of collapse. As he plows through the crowded terminal, 300 people are settling into auditorium seats over on L.A.'s Westside, where he is due to hold forth at some highbrow forum titled "Visions for the New Millennium." The event begins in 24 minutes. The drive from Burbank will take twice that, at best.

Hopping into his black Ford Explorer, the speaker peeks hopefully at his watch. "I hate to be late," he says. "I hate it, I hate it, I hate it."

His problems don't end there. Foraging through his briefcase, the speaker cannot find his speech. "Visions" is a big-time affair--prominent spectators, TV coverage, hefty topics. He has just become czar of the California State Assembly, and he knows that first impressions count. He wants--and wants very badly--to come off as accomplished, poised. The missing speech is no small concern.

He picks up the car phone and dials his Capitol office.

Speaker: Get me Zeiger, please.

Receptionist: Who's calling?

Speaker: It's me, Antonio Villaraigosa.

Receptionist: Uh, I'm sorry, who's calling?

The speaker's broad brow stiffens, a flash of exasperation shadows his youthful face. He repeats his name, insistently now, but it's no use.

Receptionist: No, really, who is this?

His name is Antonio Villaraigosa, and if you have never heard of him, you are not alone. A child of California's term-limits movement, he is a political greenhorn, a nimble, scrappy but untested lawmaker who won his first legislative election a mere 3 1/2 years ago.

Now, suddenly, Villaraigosa is one of the three mightiest men in state government. One minute, he's dueling with the governor on "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour." The next, he's influencing how California spends its budget of $76 billion a year. Pundits predict that if he shines as speaker, he could become mayor of Los Angeles, his hometown.

An impetuous, charming and unusually frank politician, Villaraigosa came from nothing and is now definitely something. A former student rebel, union organizer and lifelong outsider, he is today very much on the inside, a genuine Establishment guy. His enormous Capitol office brims with antiques. A state driver takes him wherever he wants to go. Society's most powerful players--from Vice President Al Gore to bank presidents and titans of the entertainment world--are clamoring for two minutes of his time.

All this begs the question: Is Antonio Villaraigosa--age 45, the first speaker from Los Angeles in a quarter-century--prepared for the job? Most politicians would toss back an unequivocal yes, emphasizing their tactical brilliance, perhaps, or their leadership prowess. Others would obfuscate, veer

down a side stream into less perilous waters. Not Villaraigosa. Call it a deft use of candor, call it rookie recklessness, but he handles the query this way:

"Am I prepared? Absolutely not," he says without pause. "But we live in the era of term limits, where all of us are amateurs. The fact is, I got the job. And in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."

*

There are some things you should know about Antonio Villaraigosa. He was kicked out of one high school and dropped out of another. His arms bore tattoos--"Born to Raise Hell," "Tony (heart) Arlene"--until his young son showed an alarming interest in the marks, and Villaraigosa paid doctors thousands of dollars to laser them off. He was tried for--and acquitted of--assault after a 1977 fight in an L.A. restaurant. He earned a law degree but failed to pass the state bar exam despite four tries. He fathered two children with two girlfriends before he was 25, and he drank, inhaled and admits to other sins most politicians are too chicken to confess.

There are some other things you should know about Antonio Villaraigosa. His friends would run barefoot over broken glass for him, as he would for them. He is godfather to 10 children. He outworks nearly everyone in a profession where workaholics abound. He is a hugger with a halogen smile and a habit of grasping your hand in both of his.

Oh, and another thing: Antonio Ramon Villaraigosa grew up so poor that he put strips of cardboard in his shoes when the soles wore out.

*

The speaker is angry, positively steamed. It is a bright spring morning and the Assembly is at full boil, brawling over 1,309 bills. The phone rings, and an aide reports that crucial legislation to reform bilingual education is failing in committee. "Jesus Christ!" Villaraigosa roars. "Are these people stupid??!!"

The bill is not perfect, and if the speaker were following his own political heart he might be inclined to vote against it, too. But he is no longer simply Antonio Villaraigosa, the barrio-bred American Civil Liberties Union board member and unshakeably liberal Democrat from Los Angeles. He is speaker now, leader of legislators from all points on the political spectrum. And he knows this: Bilingual education is in disrepute in California. If the Legislature fails to act, voters would have one more reason to support a ballot initiative seeking to abolish bilingual programs in one fell swoop.

So he moves quickly. First he calls Bill Leonard, the Assembly's Republican leader, and implores him to find some yes votes for the bill. Leonard won't help, so Villaraigosa orders his staff to track down Assemblywoman Martha Escutia, a Democrat from Bell who is AWOL for the committee vote and has expressed distaste for the bill in the past. "Get her in my office in five minutes," he barks.

Escutia shows. They talk. Soon after, the bill gets her vote and passes. (Even so, California voters in June opted to scrap bilingual education by approving Proposition 227.)

Speakers can be extraordinarily powerful figures. Willie Brown was known, fittingly, as the "ayatollah of the Assembly." Jesse Unruh, dubbed "Big Daddy," was legendary for his oratory gifts, legislative repertoire and, in 1963, for locking his colleagues in the Assembly chamber overnight to force a vote on a bill.

But times are different. Term limits have scrambled the Legislature, making it in many ways more difficult to lead. The threats of punishment that nourished Brown's iron-fisted control--like exiling wayward legislators to closet-sized offices or loser committees--aren't as effective anymore. Today's Assembly members are an unruly bunch. One-third of them are on their way out this year, either because of term limits or campaigns for higher office. Conversely, many others will outlast Villaraigosa's speakership, and know it. The age of unswerving loyalty to an almighty ruler is no more.

Though Villaraigosa took over as speaker in late February, he is still settling into the job, still groping for a leadership style. As he searches, he acknowledges his limitations: a lack of experience, of course, and a tendency to be impulsive when deliberation and discipline might be in order.

Indeed, Villaraigosa appears to have just one speed: urgently fast. Even when standing still, he is in motion--bouncing on the balls of his feet, swinging his arms and clapping his hands in front of him. Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) calls him "a hummingbird in flight." Another Democrat suggests he "try decaf once in a while."

Though he can bully with the best of them, Villaraigosa's instinct, reflected during his days as a staff negotiator and organizer with United Teachers-Los Angeles, is to be inclusive, to lead by example, to persuade. He invites all Democrats to meetings of his leadership team, and he gave Assembly Republicans a generous budget--along with the right to choose vice chairs of legislative committees. "I don't believe they should be treated like a vanquished people," he says of his GOP colleagues. "The public hates that partisan, winner-take-all crap."

His staff and some Democrats are skeptical, fretting that Villaraigosa has been too generous. Others fault him for failing to rein in renegades such as Assemblywoman Diane Martinez of Monterey Park, a Democrat who bashed him in the media after he spent $8,000 in taxpayer money on a party to celebrate his swearing-in.

"One thing that stands out about Antonio is that he wants everybody to like him," says Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), who served as speaker in 1996, when Republicans held a majority in the lower house. "To succeed, he's going to have to make the tough decisions and hurt some feelings for the greater good."

*

The speaker is pensive. The question before him is this: Why were you so angry, such a wild kid? What bumped you off the course your mother so meticulously set? A simple answer proves elusive. Perhaps there are many.

Let's start at age 5, with Villaraigosa watching his father, an alcoholic, beat his mother to "a bloody pulp." A laborer and Mexican immigrant, the patriarch walked out on the family when Antonio--who has two sisters and a brother--was in kindergarten. Since then, father and son have seen each other maybe 20 times.

Skip forward to age 15, to Cathedral High School, a small Catholic boys' school near Dodger Stadium. Brother James Meegan, the school's principal, remembers Villaraigosa as a "vibrant, friendly boy." Fellow students remember him as a smart-mouthed leader of student protests--one challenging a school ban on T-shirts, another demanding classes in Mexican-American studies.

"He was as rebellious as they come, always in the middle of something," classmate Aurelio Rojas says of Villaraigosa, who worked as a janitor and rectory dishwasher to offset Cathedral's tuition costs.

One day in his sophomore year, Villaraigosa's blossoming life went into a tailspin. It started with a modest tingle in his legs. Figuring he'd strained a muscle running high hurdles, he paid little heed. Soon, however, he was unable to urinate. The next day, he could not walk.

For three weeks, the terrified teenager lay in a hospital, paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors poked, prodded, scanned and finally found a tumor encircling the base of his spine. Surgery was scheduled, but no one could say whether Villaraigosa would ever take another step. A priest read him his last rites.

The surgery was a success, but it left more than a nasty scar. No longer would Villaraigosa serve Cathedral as a tenacious (if undersized) linebacker on the football team. No longer would he run track. A portion of the tumor remains embedded in his spine, and experts say it could regrow at any time.

His sisters say he fought off self-pity, but the experience left him angry and frustrated. The following year, he was expelled from Cathedral after a brawl at a football game. Though the fight ostensibly was the reason, Antonio's 1.4 grade point average and role in student walkouts hadn't helped his cause.

His mother was devastated, and so was he: "I had blown it; I had let her down."

Villaraigosa's mother had been abandoned and raised in a Los Angeles orphanage. She understood the value of hard work and ambition, and she struggled to prepare her offspring for a life beyond their grim childhood world. Three years after Villaraigosa's father left, she remarried but kept her full-time clerical job at Caltrans, commuting by bus to downtown L.A.

Though Spartan, the family's tiny stucco duplex two blocks from the freeway in City Terrace was abuzz with ideas, crowded with books. The girls took grooming classes and learned ballet. Villaraigosa worked--shining shoes, stocking grocery shelves--and spent hours at the library, poring over the world atlas, dreaming of all the places he would visit.

The neighborhood--now mostly Latino--was then a mix of Jews, blacks and Japanese Americans. "Our mother, our upbringing, taught us to appreciate and respect all kinds of people," says Villaraigosa's younger sister, Deborah Villar, who runs several nonprofit health clinics.

When Villaraigosa was expelled from Cathedral, his mother gave him hell. But she did not lose faith in him. "I just want you to know I haven't given up on you," she wrote in a letter to him. For a time, however, Villaraigosa seemed to have given up on himself. Enrolled at a public school, Roosevelt High, he was put "with all the other Mexicans" in upholstery class and other courses channeling him toward a vocational life. It all seemed a waste of time. "I was alienated," he says, "mad at the world."

He marked up his arms with tattoos, began ditching class and eventually dropped out. For months he wallowed in what he calls "the nut period"--fighting, brooding. There were happy times--like cruising Whittier Boulevard in his root-beer brown Malibu Super Sport with the 8-track tape deck. But inside he felt lost.

Ultimately, Villaraigosa regained his footing, spurred, he says, by his mother, friends and the allure of the civil rights movement blazing all around him. He returned to Roosevelt, and, by attending night classes, was able to graduate on time. After that, he spent a year at East L.A. College and then earned degrees from UCLA and the unaccredited People's College of Law in Los Angeles. He attributes the successes largely to a Roosevelt counselor named Herman Katz. Now semi-retired, Katz reached out to the bright, if academically indifferent, boy, nudging him toward college--even paying his SAT fee.

"He's one of those wise people who made a tremendous difference in my life," Villaraigosa says, emotional at the thought. "He and, of course, my mother. She always knew what I was capable of. She let me flower."

Natalia Delgado died of liver cancer in 1991, three years before her son became an assemblyman.

*

The speaker is vain. So says his sister Deborah, with the sort of adoring reproach only a sibling can pull off. Just look at him! Always perfect--his hair corporate-short and gleaming with gel, his shirts a blinding white, his suits of black and charcoal gray never creased. For Villaraigosa, image counts, and has since his youth. He may have been poor, but he always worked--two, even three jobs at times--to scrape up enough cash to look sharp.

And now, of course, the world is watching. They know he was a high school dropout, a rogue kid. "Everyone's looking, wondering if I can put two words together." So he keeps his suit coat on, stands up soldier-straight and pays careful attention to what's written and said. Take a recent profile in the magazine California Journal. The story was glowing, but the cover photo?

"The picture looks angry and hard, and I don't want to look hard, I want to look soft," he confides. "I know I have a strong message, and when you have a strong message and you look strong, that can scare people."

His message is strong, always has been. In college, there were boycotts on behalf of farm workers, protests over Vietnam and the fight for "Chicano" rights. At United Teachers-Los Angeles, there was the bitter 1989 strike, which showcased his talents for organizing rip-roaring rallies and drawing parents to the teachers' cause. As a member of the RTD and MTA boards, he spoke fervently for bus riders, opposing fare hikes, demanding tighter security and launching a war on graffiti.

In Sacramento, Villaraigosa quickly became known for fiery speeches and politically risky stands. At a time when the public was in a law-and-order mood, he was opposed to the death penalty. In an era of tax-cut fever, he tried to raise levies on oil and rich people.

Last year, he stood up as champion for two of society's least popular groups--prison inmates and immigrants. One bill allowed terminally ill prisoners to be released to their families' care. For legal immigrants, he pressured the governor to preserve food stamps eliminated under federal welfare reform. "He has always, always defended the underdog," says Villaraigosa's half-brother, Rob Delgado, a financial consultant in Malibu. "That's who he is."

Perhaps his most visible legislative victory is a law ensuring a woman's right to breast-feed in public. While the bill made him a hero among women and children's advocates, it subjected him to merciless teasing from some male colleagues. Yet others were impressed. Assemblyman Scott Baugh, an Orange County Republican whose conservative philosophy could not be more different than the speaker's, said he had planned to oppose the bill but melted in the face of Villaraigosa's passion: "His arguments were so sincere and persuasive that I had to give him my vote."

Since becoming speaker, Villaraigosa has marched briskly toward the political center. He still talks of "an agenda of opportunity," of "making California a place where all boats rise with the tide." Yet he is mindful that he now represents all Californians--the garment manufacturers as well as those who stitch the clothes. More and more, his agenda reflects that.

As he tempers his personal convictions to find solutions that work, Villaraigosa is wary of the land mines. "They say politicians always lose their values, become corrupt, and he's very conscious of that," says his wife, Corina, a schoolteacher in Montebello. "He'll sit down, think things through and make sure he is not letting go of his ideals."

But the pressure is mounting. As his sister Deborah puts it: "The higher you rise, the harder it gets to stay who you really are."

*

The speaker is wistful. He has just telephoned his family from the road, and the call has reminded him of the constituents who count the most and sometimes receive the least. His 5-year-old daughter, Natalia, was in the bath; young Antonio, 9, wanted to know when Dad would be coming home.

Success in politics requires trade-offs on the family front. Villaraigosa is gone Sunday through Thursday nights. He misses many of his son's baseball games, plus the ordinary moments that enrich everyday life. Even during a rare vacation with his wife and two youngest kids--five days at Disney World--he had a phone clamped to his ear half the time. (He has two older daughters, Marisela, 23, and Prisila, 20.)

The demands on Villaraigosa are enormous. On top of baby-sitting 79 Assemblymates and defining the Democrats' agenda, the speaker is the key player in elections. That means raising money--truckloads of it--and devising tactics to keep the party's fragile majority in November. If Villaraigosa fails to do that and fails to win reelection himself, which is all but impossible given his district's political tendencies, one result is that he will be speaker no more.

He loves his work, but his upbeat demeanor masks a lot. The long days have exacerbated a degenerative disc in his back, a painful condition that also makes his arm and hand numb much of the time. But mostly he just misses his family, going about their lives without him in their two-story home atop Mt. Washington.

"The job, all the attention I'm getting--it feels good, I can't deny it," he says. "But I know that after this is over, all you have left are your integrity, your principles and your family."

He and Corina met in 1985, at a press conference on immigrant rights. They married three years later and promptly created a family stir. Born Antonio Villar, he suggested they blend their last names--hers was Raigosa--to create one uniquely their own. The result is a mouthful, frequently butchered by newscasters, and his mother and sisters were horrified. But "he's a progressive man and he thought it was an important thing to do," his wife explains.

Six years later, the name Villaraigosa appeared on a ballot for the first time, in the Assembly race to represent the 45th district, a diverse territory that includes Mt. Washington, Boyle Heights, Silver Lake and Hollywood. A gifted organizer, he put together a massive ground operation fueled by hundreds of volunteers. He also enjoyed the support of L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, an old friend and neighbor at whose wedding he had served as best man.

It was a rough campaign, largely because the rival candidate was endorsed by another neighbor, the king of L.A.'s other Latino political faction, state Sen. Richard Polanco. Villaraigosa won, but the days that followed were among the most anguished of his life.

When rumors about his marital infidelity proved true, Molina shunned him, as did other disillusioned friends. Soon after, he and his wife separated. "Yes, I was unfaithful," he says now, and "I was very disappointed in myself during that time. I lost friends, I lostsupport. I had never been so low in my life."

Aside from his personal crisis, he found Sacramento a cold place--chilled by Polanco, a powerful figure in town. Determined to rebound, Villaraigosa attacked his legislative work with zeal and gradually reached detente with Polanco. He befriended Republicans as well,popping up at GOP events, where he was often the only Democrat in the crowd.

After two years apart, he and his wife reconciled. "He did some serious introspective work," his sister Deborah says. "Now I believe he's as driven in his personal life as he is in his professional life."

"It's too easy to give up," says Villaraigosa, whose open self-analysis is remarkable in a profession where most clam up when touchy topics arise. "Marriage is work, but remember I'm the son of an alcoholic father who left. It's important to break the cycle."

*

The speaker is in peak form. It is Thursday night, after 9, the end of a grueling legislative week. Most lawmakers are home, savoring a rare break from the grind. Villaraigosa is still going, still smiling. He looks as fresh as a March tulip.

Tonight his audience is 23 USC undergraduates, students in a political science course. As he is introduced, they munch Chee-tos, sip Cokes and look terminally bored. Then the speaker takes off his coat and walks amid the desks, holding one student's gaze, asking the name of another. The kids smell someone real. They perk up.

He is asked how life has changed now that he is speaker. Villaraigosa laughs, then marvels at how important he's become, this son of an immigrant and an orphan from East L.A. "It's a bit overwhelming--how people focus on you, want your opinion in a way they didn't before. It's a big adjustment."

And along with the good, of course, comes the bad--the columnists and other know-it-alls jumping on you for every perceived stumble. "Villaraigosa's Rookie Errors," read one headline. Another columnist opined that in Villaraigosa's first test of leadership, an attempt to pass a school bond bill, "he flunked."

"The one thing you need in this business is a thick skin," he tells the students. Later, he elaborates: "One minute you're Mohammed up on the mountain, appreciating the panoramic view. And then, the next thing you know, the mountain is on top of you."

Another question allows Villaraigosa to sprint off onto one of his favorite topics--the death of affirmative action via the 1996 ballot initiative, Proposition 209. It is one of his strongest subjects, permitting him to tap his compelling personal experiences to enliven public-policy talk.

"Make no mistake," he says in a sober tone. "Without affirmative action, I would not be standing here before you today. I was a kid with a 1.4 G.P.A. Somebody took a chance on me, somebody held open the door."

And then, in a neat trick that drives the point home for this class of mostly privileged youths, he adds this:

"Without affirmative action, I'd be outside stealing your hubcaps."

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