A Latino star shines less brightly
Felipe Mares groped for words Thursday morning as he tried to explain his complicated feelings about the mayor he voted for with such high hopes just two years ago.
“I feel like a kid. I’m confused,” said the Boyle Heights jewelry store owner, lamenting recent revelations of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s affair with a Telemundo newscaster.
Villaraigosa is “a person in a very important position,” Mares said. “I think it’s embarrassing. It’s not supposed to be like that. He’s supposed to be pro-family.”
Over the last decade, the city’s government has finally started to reflect its demographics. Los Angeles, with a Latino population of nearly 50%, has a city attorney named Rocky Delgadillo and a City Council on which five of 15 members are of Mexican descent.
But the telegenic Villaraigosa, one of the highest-profile Latino politicians in America and a likely future candidate for governor, has been the undisputed star. Shortly after his election as the first Latino mayor of modern Los Angeles, he made the cover of Newsweek, with the headline: “Latino Power.” Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton bragged in May when she snared his endorsement.
In recent weeks, though, pride has turned to disappointment and wariness among some Latino voters as two promising political stars landed in the headlines at the same time for all the wrong reasons -- Villaraigosa for his infidelity and Delgadillo for a widening scandal that included his wife’s banging up a city car, driving with a suspended license and ignoring a warrant for her arrest.
It is too early to tell whether their troubles will cost the two men allegiance among Latinos, who voted en masse for Villaraigosa in 2005, helping to hand him a landslide victory over Mayor James K. Hahn. Some voters, however, worried Thursday that the City Hall scandals could harm future Latino candidates and other Democrats.
Their misdeeds taken together “are giving more power to Republicans,” said Doris Barrillas, owner of Time 4 You women’s clothing in Boyle Heights, who said she voted for Villaraigosa in his mayoral race but won’t the next time. “Believe me, it’ll have a big effect. It does disillusion you a little.”
Victoria Torres, a member of the executive board of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, said the mayor and the city attorney should have known better: “They are not setting a good example for other Latinos to climb up the ladder.”
Political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said that the current uproar at City Hall is, in a perverse way, proof that Latino politicians have made it to the big time here.
“Latinos have reached a certain level in politics,” Jeffe said. “They are visible, powerful, numerous and open to the kind of media scrutiny they haven’t had to deal with before.”
Mario Hernandez, a 32-year-old administrative assistant in downtown Los Angeles, worried that the extramarital affair the mayor admitted to earlier this week could hurt his image and possibly hurt his political chances -- whether for reelection or a run for governor in 2010.
Hernandez was less forgiving of Delgadillo, whom he called a hypocrite for insisting that socialite Paris Hilton serve her full sentence for driving on a suspended license, even though his wife had also driven without a license and failed to show up in court.
Delgadillo “was going out of his way to make Paris an example, and here he was not being honest about his wife and then having [staffers] baby-sit his kids,” Hernandez said. “He was abusing his power and using city money improperly.”
Hernandez and other Latinos interviewed in the Pico-Union district worried Thursday that the politicians’ ethnicity might become part of the discussion in the scandal. “I mean, I don’t think there’s a politician in office who doesn’t have some sort of bad marks on their record,” he said.
Former City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who left public office after pleading guilty to tax evasion in 2001, was one of the few current or former Latino elected officials willing to talk on the record about the City Hall furor that has riveted Los Angeles. While the recent revelations aren’t unique to Latino politicians, he said, he believes that Latino leaders are held to a higher standard of behavior.
“I don’t think it speaks to a problem of leadership in the Latino community,” Alatorre said. “We all make mistakes.... It just so happens that it happened all in one week.”
Gustavo Arellano, author of the book “Ask a Mexican” and a contributor to the Times Opinion section, said he is angry that the mayor is perpetuating the stereotype of the womanizing Latino.
“He is the most high-profile Latino politician in the United States and this is what he does? Jeesh,” Arellano said. “For somebody who has so carefully crafted his image as this golden boy of Latino politics, I find it astounding that Antonio could be so reckless in his personal life, especially when he campaigns as a family man.”
At the Brooklyn Hair Styler on Cesar Chavez Avenue in Boyle Heights, Delgadillo’s woes didn’t even register with owner Maria Garcia. But she had little patience for the mayor’s problems.
“I can understand human weakness. Anyone can look for something new. But it doesn’t seem like he has any roots,” Garcia said. “He lets himself be blown around by emotion. After 20 years of marriage, to fall in love with another woman like that. It’s crazy.”
And his future? Only time will tell whether Villaraigosa has done himself in, Garcia said.
“Maybe he’ll keep on going as a politician,” she said. “But everything goes hand in hand, the personal and the political.”
Antonio Gonzalez of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project sees the last few painful weeks as a “bump in the road” for two capable politicians and part of the learning curve for Latino voters, whose clout in the region’s politics has been growing for a generation.
“We want heroes,” Gonzalez said. “No one is perfect. When you find out that someone is not perfect, there is a letdown.” But “the voters are forgiving if you do a good job. Latino voters will be more forgiving of Latino leaders if they do a good job.”
Times staff writers Anna Gorman, Steve Hymon, Francisco Vara-Orta and Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.