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‘We Need to Start Thinking Big Again’

Times Staff Writers

In a festive ceremony that drew politicians from across the nation, Antonio Villaraigosa took the oath of office Friday as the 41st mayor of Los Angeles and declared that reforming the city’s troubled schools would be “a central priority of my administration.”

On a platform festooned with red-white-and-blue bunting on the steps of City Hall, the city’s first Latino mayor in 133 years paid tribute to a city and a country that gave the son of an immigrant from Mexico the opportunity to lead the nation’s second-largest city.

“What a beautiful country,” he said in Spanish to an audience of about 3,000. “I am proof that the United States is a country of opportunity and liberty. In what other country of the world could I be in front of you as mayor of a great city?”

In his first official act as mayor, Villaraigosa fulfilled a promise by removing five lobbyists from city commissions. He also appointed three people to the city commission that oversees the Department of Public Works.

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Although the mayor has no direct control over schools, Villaraigosa announced he would create a Council of Education Advisors to draft a comprehensive proposal to fix the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“I can’t say it more clearly: Reforming our public schools is the central challenge facing Los Angeles,” he said.

Villaraigosa did not name the educational leaders who would advise him, but said they would have proposals by the fall. Recent studies have shown that fewer than half of the district’s students graduate from high school.

Schools Supt. Roy Romer, who read a transcript of the mayor’s speech, said he welcomed Villaraigosa’s involvement. “I am very pleased that his primary focus is going to be on education. It’s the right focus,” he said.

School board member Marlene Canter, who was at the inauguration, said she was hopeful that the mayor’s strong comments would translate into cooperation between the school district and City Hall.

“It’s not going to be easy,” said board President Jose Huizar, who is running for Villaraigosa’s City Council seat. “There are huge entrenched interests at the district that are going to fight this. It’s going to be a huge fight.”

The mayor did not mention his proposal to obtain the power to appoint all seven members of the school board.

In his 31-minute speech, Villaraigosa did not talk in detail about the many specific proposals he made during the campaign. But he called on residents to support big investments in the regional transit system to end gridlock and in hiring more police officers to make the city safer.

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“Surely, in this city of boundless creative genius and incalculable wealth, we can find the resources and the political will to hire more police officers,” Villaraigosa said.

Villaraigosa, 52, received a roaring ovation from the crowd spread over the South Lawn of City Hall when he concluded with this exhortation: “Let’s make Los Angeles a city of purpose. Let’s dare to dream together! Let’s dare to work together!”

The former city councilman made history in the May 17 election when he defeated one-term Mayor James K. Hahn to become the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles since Cristobal Aguilar in 1872.

His election was hailed by the national and international media as a sign of emerging Latino power, and the list of dignitaries who attended Friday’s inauguration was an indication that his election is seen as a significant milestone.

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Former Vice President Al Gore; the Rev. Jesse Jackson; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver; and former California Govs. Jerry Brown, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis were there.

When many in the crowd booed Villaraigosa’s introduction of Schwarzenegger, the new mayor brusquely silenced the protesters. “Angelenos, excuse me,” he said. “There will be civility today.”

The mayors of nearly a dozen cities, including Washington, San Francisco, Atlanta and New York, joined high-ranking politicians from Mexico and El Salvador, including Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Carlos de Icaza.

“He is a trailblazer,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

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Davis, the former governor and a Los Angeles resident, was upbeat about Villaraigosa’s prospects. “I think he is just the spark that L.A. needs to get moving again,” he said.

The crowd enthusiastically celebrated Villaraigosa. There were chants of “Si, se puede,” and a few people waved large Mexican flags to show their pride in the new chief executive.

Alexia Teran said she came to City Hall to celebrate the inauguration of a mayor she said she can identify with.

“I am first of all Mexican American,” said Teran, 63, who was born in Mexico and moved to the United States when she was 11. “I am proud of my heritage, and I am proud of Antonio.”

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The retired postal worker and Cypress Park community activist said Villaraigosa’s inauguration signified hope and empowerment to those from poor backgrounds and challenging circumstances.

A handful of young Latinos, whose view of the stage was partly blocked, cheered heartily at nearly every proclamation made by the mayor.

“I came to support the new mayor because he’s representative of our community, but also to hold him accountable,” said Martha Michelle Frias, 22, a recent college graduate from East Los Angeles.

The day began with Villaraigosa and more than 1,000 others attending an interfaith service at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, where the mayor wore beads presented to him by members of the Gabrieleno-Tongva tribe, descendants of the area’s original inhabitants.

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When he arrived at the cathedral, the mayor and his family, who are Roman Catholics, went to St. Vibiana’s Chapel for a private prayer with Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

The service featured an ecumenical slate of readings by Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu leaders.

Villaraigosa then led a procession of hundreds down Temple Street to City Hall. Heavy security, some of it by union activists, kept more than a dozen anti-abortion protesters from getting close to Villaraigosa. They followed on the sidewalk chanting, “You can’t be a Catholic and pro-abortion.”

Before the inauguration, Villaraigosa grabbed a few minutes in his new office at City Hall, a wood-paneled suite that aides had decorated with photographs documenting his political ascent. The mayor and his wife, Corina, toured the ornate rooms together.

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Back out in the bright morning sun, Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals administered the oath. Villaraigosa placed his hand on a Bible held by his wife as two of his children, Antonio Jr. and Natalia Fe, and granddaughter, Isela, stood by.

Reinhardt confessed that, years ago, when he first met Villaraigosa, he did not pronounce his name properly. “Today, people across America and throughout the world know the name Villaraigosa,” he said, drawing a cheer from the crowd, which began chanting “Viva!”

City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, City Controller Laura Chick and several City Council members also took the oath of office in a ceremony that featured Grammy-winning vocalist Natalie Cole singing the National Anthem and “God Bless America.”

Villaraigosa clapped and swayed along with the choir from the First African Methodist Episcopal Church as it sang gospel songs during the 70-minute ceremony.

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With Gore on his left and Schwarzenegger on his right, Villaraigosa gazed out at a gathering of the city’s many ethnicities, including a large number of beaming Latino admirers.

The broad steps of City Hall were covered in red carpets, with boxes of red and pink geraniums in front of the podium. A four-level platform was filled to capacity with about 40 television cameras, along with reporters from around the world.

Villaraigosa and his two sisters were raised by a single mother in the City Terrace neighborhood just east of downtown. His father, an immigrant from Mexico, left the family when Villaraigosa was in kindergarten.

The young Villaraigosa frequently got into scrapes. He was kicked out of one school and dropped out of another.

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But Villaraigosa overcame his troubled youth to graduate from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights and then UCLA. A union activist, Villaraigosa won a seat in the state Assembly in 1994 and served as speaker from 1998 to 2000.

He lost his first bid to become mayor in 2001 to Hahn, who was then the city attorney. In 2003, Villaraigosa was elected to the City Council, representing northeast Los Angeles.

Friday, he singled out his deceased mother, Natalia Delgado, for helping him turn his life around. “I will never forget where I came from,” he said in his inaugural speech. “It may be a short way from City Terrace to City Hall, but fellow Angelenos, we all know what a vast distance it truly is.”

He said the city needs to come to grips with homelessness, street gangs and an ethnic diversity that has recently given rise to tensions. “Angelenos, we need to start thinking big again, and facing up to our biggest challenges,” Villaraigosa said.

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To emphasize the power of big dreams, he cited the example of Simon Rodia, the Italian immigrant who devoted 33 years to his “work of love,” the Watts Towers.

Villaraigosa suggested that the towers are a metaphor for Los Angeles: Thousands of objects of “every imaginable color, shape, texture and form,” he said, “make up that beautiful whole,” demonstrating “the awesome power of disparate elements working together to achieve such dazzling harmony.”

He quoted Rodia as saying, “I had in mind to do something big, and I did it.”

“Let’s heed Mr. Rodia’s words today,” Villaraigosa said. “Let’s do something big for Los Angeles.”

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After the inauguration ceremony, Villaraigosa mingled with residents at a public reception on a closed-off section of Main Street. Afterward, he greeted political, religious and business luminaries at a private reception on the top floor of City Hall.

He also met separately with Bloomberg, a Republican, and his chief mayoral opponent, Fernando Ferrer, a Democrat and former Bronx borough president. The two men made the trip to Los Angeles for the inauguration, trailed by reporters from New York City. Both are seeking Latino votes in New York and hoped to bask in Villaraigosa’s reflected glory.

Villaraigosa, who began his day with an early morning workout, spent much of the afternoon in meetings with his senior staff. He left City Hall just before 5 p.m., stopping by his home in Mount Washington before going to Getty House, the official mayoral residence in Windsor Square, for a private celebration.


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