The quiet force

Times Staff Writer

As her husband campaigned relentlessly to become the next mayor of Los Angeles, Corina Villaraigosa found herself surprisingly calm -- at first.

She had been through this before with Antonio -- a successful council race two years ago, a heartbreaking loss for mayor in 2001, a heady win in the state Assembly that launched his political career. Always poised and reserved, Corina, 47, knew the drill. Or at least she thought she did.

The morning after her husband won the election, panic set in.


“I woke up, and that’s when it hit,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God!’ ”

The shy schoolteacher -- a sylph with huge brown eyes -- wanted to stay in the shadow of her husband’s glare. She quickly realized, however, that she was in the spotlight as well.

“When I started thinking about the impact it was going to have on me, it was a little daunting,” she said.

For years she has been her husband’s calming force. She’s attended to their children while working full time across town in Montebello. She filled their home in Mount Washington with colorful folk art and painted the walls a vibrant yellow. She’s kept everything in order, even down to Villaraigosa’s shirts (dozens of them perfectly pressed and hung, according to color, in a small upstairs closet).

She has provided the domestic foundation that allows her husband to endure the chaos that has become his outside life. Her 52-year-old husband, in turn, still awes her with the sweep of his accomplishments and the power of his personality.

“He’s so bubbly, so lively, so happy,” she said.

Corina is well schooled on how to keep the family together. But it is the public demands of her new job that have caught her by surprise.

Unlike presidential first ladies, who are seasoned by years of national attention and coached by large staffs, mayoral spouses are left to figure out their roles largely on their own. There are no guidebooks, no protocols and really no firm expectations.

Each must find her own style.

Ethel Bradley held teas and attended Dodger games with her girlfriends. In the afternoons, she puttered around her garden at the Getty House, the mayor’s mansion in Windsor Square. Once asked by a Times reporter in 1992 about his wife’s low profile, Tom Bradley responded: “Her feeling is she has given her husband to public service. That doesn’t mean that she now has to give herself.”

Nancy Daly, Richard Riordan’s wife, relished her public post. As her husband vowed to fix the city, Daly sought to redecorate it (she raised money to renovate the Getty House and the mayoral office at City Hall).

Monica Hahn shunned almost all public events after her husband was elected four years ago. (She and James K. Hahn separated in 2003 after 20 years of marriage.)

“In New York, mayoral first ladies become great sport, especially on the gossip page, but in Los Angeles it’s a different game,” said UC San Diego political science professor Steve Erie, who recently wrote a book about Los Angeles politics. “Some would argue that there are not very high expectations of the city’s mayors, let alone their spouses.”

But this time it’s different.

Within days of the May 17 election, Antonio Villaraigosa’s face ended up on the cover of Newsweek as he made history by becoming the city’s first Latino mayor in more than a century. In the weeks that followed, the office was deluged with requests for interviews from around the world.

People wanted to know more about Corina and exactly what she planned to accomplish as first lady.

Villaraigosa’s staff struggled to figure out how to respond. One campaign spokesperson tried to argue that Corina was a private person (even though Villaraigosa featured her in election ads). Another handler, hoping to shield Corina from questions about her husband’s previously reported infidelity and the couple’s two-year separation, asked a reporter to give her time to get used to her new position. Nearly a month after the election, the staff finally relented and let Corina give interviews. (Questions about the Villaraigosas’ past marital problems were strictly off-limits, however.)

With the July 1 mayoral inaugural quickly approaching, Corina is still, as one friend put it, trying to “get her sea legs.”

“It’s nerve-racking,” says Corina. “I’ve decided just to enjoy it and make the best of it.”

She stressed that her children, Natalia, 12, and Antonio Jr., 16, are her first priorities. She also said that she plans to keep her job as a bilingual coordinator in the Montebello Unified School District.

“I’m going to do as much as I can, but I want to spend as much time as possible with my own kids,” she said.

Political science professor Erie compared Corina to Laura Bush, who made her husband promise early in his political career that she would never have to give a speech alone.

“Remember how Laura was shy and retiring, she didn’t want the limelight?” Erie said. “But just look at her now.”

There are many in Los Angeles who believe that Corina will rise to the challenge in a similar way. “She carries herself with great dignity,” said Bill Wardlaw, who chaired Hahn’s re-election campaign but has been friends with the Villaraigosas for years. “She’s a great mother and she’s been extremely supportive of Antonio, in good times and in bad.”

The daughter of Mexican immigrants with working-class roots, Corina -- whose maiden name is Raigosa -- grew up in Pico Rivera.

Her father was a worker at a furniture factory. (He lost his retirement after the business fell into bankruptcy.)

Her mother held odd jobs but mostly stayed home to care for Corina and her older brother.

Educated in Catholic schools, Corina pursued a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, with an emphasis in English, from Cal State Long Beach.

While earning her degree, she took a job as a teacher’s assistant, working with lower-income children.

“That’s when I decided I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “The kids were wonderful, but they weren’t very well off. They needed so much. They just inspired me.”

She sought a job in the Montebello schools 21 years ago and in the evenings studied for her master’s degree. Somehow she also found time to get involved in the 1985 campaign of a friend -- Antonio Rodriguez -- who was running for Los Angeles City Council. That’s how she met her future husband, known then as Antonio Villar.

Antonio, then a labor leader who was also working on the campaign, spotted Corina at a news conference. He asked one of his friends for her number. He called her a week later.

Their first date was Antonio’s graduation ceremony from the People’s College of Law.

He wrote her long notes on cards, winning her heart. (Although she sometimes found it difficult to read his handwriting. “It wasn’t the neatest,” she said.)

One day, while Corina was attending a night class at Long Beach State, Antonio combed several large university parking lots to find her car. He left a note on the windshield. It said: “Meet me down the street at Marie Callender’s, I’ll be waiting for you.”

She found him there, as promised. He had waited for well over an hour, and at one point he wondered if she would come.

“She was so classy, and graceful and humble,” Villaraigosa said.

He asked her to marry him three weeks after they started dating. She agreed but said she wanted to wait awhile. He had joint custody of his two daughters from previous relationships. Corina wanted to make sure that the girls, then ages 6 and 9, had time to adjust.

The couple married three years later.

Antonio was the one who came up with the idea of combining their last names.

“I was planning to take his name, I was planning to become Corina Villar,” she said. “He said, ‘Really? You’re going to take my name? But Raigosa is your name.’ ”

She said she thought about it and decided that she would keep her name, but hyphenate it with his. “I figured he was right,” she said. “This was my name. I had it for 30 years. This is who I am.”

A week later, Antonio came up with another proposal.

“He said, ‘I’ve been thinking about it and why don’t we combine our names to make one name? If you are willing to take my name, I should be willing to take yours.’ ”

She added: “I was pleased.”

More than 600 people attended the wedding and reception. “It was just a big party,” Corina said.

The couple spent 3 1/2 weeks traveling through South America. After returning home, they fixed up a house near Cal State L.A. It wasn’t long before Corina was pregnant with Antonio Jr.

Then crisis struck: Corina found a lump on her neck three months after her son was born. It turned out to be thyroid cancer, in its early stages. “They treated it with radioactive iodine,” she said.

Four years later, she had Natalia. And in 1994, Antonio began his bid for state Assembly, representing the 45th District.

During the race, she learned that her husband had an affair, something Antonio would later describe in a 1998 interview as one of the lowest times in his life.

The day after he won his Assembly seat, Corina filed for divorce. Two years later, they agreed to reconcile. (Neither will discuss the matter.)

Strong bonds

Corina said she believes now that their family is stronger than ever. She said she was surprised recently to find that her husband still has the ability to move her with his charisma.

“We had gone to a fundraiser and he spoke,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Wow, I’ve seen him grow.’ I was impressed again, and you wouldn’t think that I would be. I was impressed and very proud.”

Villaraigosa said he is urging his wife to go at her own pace in adjusting to her new job as first lady.

Like many other modern mothers, she’s trying to balance the needs of her family and a full-time job, along with the extraordinary demands of being the wife of the mayor and media star. When she has time, she hopes to take on city initiatives that focus on literacy. Both she and Antonio know that their former life is over.

“I may be the outside guy, but she runs the show,” he said. “She’s very even-tempered. She realizes that our lives are going to change.”