Seeking to repair image

Times Staff Writer

After ducking public appearances for nearly a week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa returned to the limelight Monday only to be pummeled with indelicate questions about his affair with a television newscaster.

At two events staged by his staff to demonstrate the mayor’s business-as-usual resolve, Villaraigosa strove to stay composed as he faced relentless television and newspaper reporters pressing for him to reveal the most intimate details of his love life.

Was Villaraigosa still seeing his girlfriend, Mirthala Salinas, one reporter wanted to know. Another asked: Should she keep her job as an anchor at Telemundo Channel 52, even though she covered the mayor while the two secretly dated?


What about rumors of a relationship between Villaraigosa and yet another woman?

“Mr. Mayor, since you took office July 1 of ’05, have you had any other romantic relationships other than with Ms. Salinas?” one reporter asked at a news conference in Eagle Rock ostensibly to tout Villaraigosa’s plan for filling 350,000 potholes next year.

“No,” Villaraigosa replied curtly as the news conference devolved into a chaotic free-for-all with reporters shoving their microphones in his face and shouting questions in English and Spanish.

It was the kind of persistent media coverage usually reserved for Hollywood royalty hunted by paparazzi in search of a money shot.

At a separate downtown news conference earlier in the day to announce a $7.8-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for Green Dot Public Schools, nearly two dozen journalists turned a frenzied question-and-answer session into a near-National Enquirer moment.

Ignoring teachers and parents standing a few feet away, journalists zeroed in on Villaraigosa, with one wanting to know what kind of example he had set for “thousands of people of color.”

“I obviously have caused a great deal of pain to my family, to many people involved here,” Villaraigosa said. “Some people feel let down and I understand that. I’m going to focus on my job, do the best job I can for the city of Los Angeles and the people will have to evaluate me based on that.”

Last week, the mayor confirmed that he had been unfaithful to his wife, Corina, who filed for divorce last month after nearly 20 years of marriage. Villaraigosa was seen at Salinas’ condominium complex at least 18 months ago, according a Sherman Oaks resident who met him in an elevator there. The mayor was carrying takeout food and a bottle of wine.

While Villaraigosa, 54, was fending off the media, Salinas, 35, was awaiting word of her professional fate. She has been placed on paid leave while the management at Telemundo decides whether to discipline her further for what media analysts see as a conflict of interest.

A Telemundo spokesman said the review was being conducted by “a group of qualified internal professionals.” But at least one person familiar with KVEA-TV Channel 52 operations questioned whether station managers could conduct a thorough and honest investigation.

On June 8 and June 11, Salinas reported from the anchor’s chair about the Villaraigosas’ separation. But Salinas allegedly told managers at the time that she did not want to go on the air because she was close to the family; she has said that she was told to deliver the news anyway.

“They can’t investigate themselves,” said the Telemundo source. “It’s a joke. It should be some people who are independent. Otherwise, they will cover themselves.”

Asked to comment on whether Salinas could lose her job over their affair, Villaraigosa reiterated his support for her.

“I’ll say it again. I believe that she’s a consummate professional,” the mayor said. “I also believe that there’s a process that needs to take place. My hope and my expectation is that process will vindicate her, so she and I can move on.”

Villaraigosa’s strategists feel certain that interest in the scandal will diminish once Telemundo makes its decision on Salinas. Meanwhile, aides are working to limit damage to his public and political image. Villaraigosa will be making numerous appearances in the coming days to show that he is once again engaged in his job. Today, he is scheduled to hold a news conference to discuss summer jobs for youths. The rest of the week will include events on energy conservation, education and voter registration.

Villaraigosa tried to kick-start that campaign Monday by appearing with Green Dot founder Steve Barr for the announcement of the Gates foundation grant to open 10 high schools in Watts.

Then he appeared in Eagle Rock to announce an expansion of a city paving program, promising to fix 350,000 potholes in the coming year.

At the pothole news conference, Villaraigosa removed his tie, donned rubber boots and a neon-green public works vest, grabbed a rake and spread hot black tar over a divot on El Rio Avenue.

But even as Villaraigosa demonstrated his pothole-filling technique, television reporters were hovering in the background, waiting for their opportunity. “This is going to be a lively session,” one of them said.

When Villaraigosa strode to the podium and asked for questions, it didn’t take long for the journalists to pull the mayor back to the scandal.

Did Salinas get special access to stories because of their relationship? It was a question he did not answer.

Asked if he thought the media had overplayed the story of his affair, Villaraigosa offered a surprising response.

“You have a responsibility to the people of this city to ask the tough questions,” he said. “So I’m not going to complain about this situation.”

Villaraigosa managed to display some humor during Monday’s sometimes tense appearances.

As he raked the hot asphalt in Eagle Rock, he issued a polite warning to cameramen kneeling close to the work. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said.

“Now’s your chance,” the cameraman responded.

“Nah, you’re just doing your job.”

After he finished the pothole, one of the workers yelled out: “You’re hired.”

Villaraigosa responded: “Hey, who knows?”

And so went Villaraigosa’s first day in post-affair Los Angeles.