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Mayor’s smooth ride has gotten bumpier

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa soared through his first year in office on a wave of public support that made him a daunting political force almost destined for higher office.

But a recent rough patch has raised questions about whether he has lost some of that early luster.

The courts snubbed Villaraigosa’s plan to gain significant control over Los Angeles public schools. Chicago inched out L.A. for a chance to bid for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

A police riot squad beat immigrant-rights marchers and journalists in MacArthur Park last month, prompting the mayor to cut short a highly promoted trip to Central America.

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And last week, Villaraigosa lost an ugly public battle over bus fare increases, and Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials later spoke of delaying several projects because of budget woes, including the mayor’s vaunted subway to the sea beneath Wilshire Boulevard.

Now, as Villaraigosa approaches the midpoint of his four-year term, political observers agree that he is scrambling to maintain his initial momentum and deliver tangible results on numerous promises, even as recent events have opened the door to rare public criticism from at least one prominent elected leader: county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

“It’s not his first year any longer. It’s bound to happen to anybody in a second year,” said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. “But I think the saving grace for Antonio is that he’s still riding extremely high with voters of the city.”

Regalado and other political analysts say Villaraigosa is wounded but that he remains potent, and even feared in some quarters.

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They point to recent political races in which three of his candidates were elected to the Los Angeles Board of Education, making the new majority sympathetic to his goals and appreciative of his support. The shift will be crucial in the coming months as Villaraigosa seeks control of at least a cluster of schools, allowing him to build on the core of his education plan that was rejected by the courts because it had not been put directly before voters.

Those who follow city politics also stress Villaraigosa’s much-publicized endorsement this week of U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who named the mayor one of four national chairmen of her 2008 presidential campaign.

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‘An honest optimist’

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The partnership with Clinton -- who called the mayor “an honest optimist and a practical visionary” -- instantly elevated his national stature and fanned speculation among Democratic faithful about his becoming California’s next governor or landing a Cabinet post in a potential Clinton White House.

Villaraigosa and his senior aides acknowledge the recent disappointments but prefer to see them as minor bumps overshadowed by the mayor’s accomplishments on education, public safety, mass transit, the environment and city budgeting.

They say, for example, that he deserves credit for balancing the city’s books and dramatically reducing a $295-million structural deficit -- by more than $200 million -- amid declining revenues.

They also speak of his successful effort to win an increase in trash collection fees to hire 1,000 additional police officers, saying the city is well on its way to meeting the goal as the rate of violent crime -- including gang homicides -- drops.

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They single out his efforts this year to tackle gang crime by devoting more money to suppression and prevention programs.

And they point to Villaraigosa’s securing billions of dollars in state bond money for mass transit projects -- including carpool lanes on the 405 Freeway -- and an aggressive expansion of the Department of Water and Power’s use of alternative energy sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“The real story here is that we’re on track,” Villaraigosa said Thursday as he signed his second city budget, which, like his first, won unanimous support from the City Council.

Villaraigosa and his senior deputies even claim victory on the education front. They argue that, despite successive legal setbacks to his plan to take control of the schools, the mayor has effectively won by elevating the discussion about reforming the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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With his board majority in hand, Villaraigosa is working behind the scenes to secure many of the reforms he was denied by the courts.

His office is in preliminary talks with Green Dot Public Schools, a prominent charter school operator and a frequent foe of the district, to possibly oversee a high school and the middle and elementary schools that feed it, and to shape a broader reform agenda.

“We anticipate the mayor will have a significant role in low-performing schools as envisioned” in the school district takeover legislation, said Deputy Mayor Sean Clegg.

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Higher expectations

Villaraigosa’s closest allies and associates say he has raised expectations at City Hall and infused local government with a culture that encourages risk taking over fear of failure. He has won praise from many outside of government for his selection of talented general managers and senior staff.

“This mayor moves the needle by taking on big issues,” said City Councilman Jack Weiss, one of his closest allies on the City Council. “Sometimes he succeeds outright.... And other times, he gets results just by taking on the issue itself.”

Other times, however, he alienates fellow leaders in his push to be at the front of the line.

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That was the case last week when Villaraigosa and Yaroslavsky, a fellow MTA board member, clashed publicly over a plan to raise bus fares.

During the heated exchange, Yaroslavsky said that Villaraigosa had indicated his support for a fare increase in a closed session last summer after the board agreed to a new contract with bus drivers and mechanics.

An angry Villaraigosa criticized Yaroslavsky for mischaracterizing closed-door discussions and for failing to offer his own compromise, calling the supervisor a “sheep who walks in wolf’s clothing.”

Yaroslavsky declined Thursday to talk about the dust-up.

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The exchange was a rare moment for Villaraigosa. Few public figures have been willing to openly criticize him, even as they grouse privately about his penchant for grandstanding. As one City Hall veteran put it: If Yaroslavsky opened the door slightly for others to disparage Villaraigosa, few are willing to walk through it just yet.

And that means Villaraigosa will probably retain his unofficial title as the region’s chief political heavyweight heading into the final two years of his first term.

The question, then, is whether he can continue to deliver on his ambitious agenda, given voters’ hunger for concrete results.

“It’s like the end of halftime at a basketball game. He’s had some setbacks at the end of the first half,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton who has written extensively about Los Angeles politics.

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“He’s probably going to be facing harsher evaluations” in the next two years, Sonenshein added. “He’ll get less leeway. That’s normal when you have a popular start.”

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

Times staff writer Steve Hymon contributed to this report.

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