Private life may cost mayor publicly

Times Staff Writer

With the collapse of his 20-year marriage spilling into public view this week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is fighting to keep private the most intimate details of his life.

Rumors persist about Villaraigosa and other relationships, but he and his staff have so far refused to address the buzz.

In this era of nonstop campaigning and 24-hour news cycles, experts say the voting public may be indifferent to a politician’s personal foibles and marital transgressions. But pundits and even some of Villaraigosa’s closest friends say they do not expect him to emerge unscathed, particularly if more damaging revelations emerge.


Some of Villaraigosa’s most ardent allies voiced disappointment and anger with him Friday, saying that he has played into a stereotype about macho Latino males and that some of his public comments about his wife, Corina, have appeared disingenuous.

Others say they remain mystified by a news conference the mayor called Monday, during which he said he felt a “personal sense of failure” for the end of his marriage but balked at questions about reasons behind the split.

Villaraigosa spoke of his wife as an “exceptional human being” and a “vibrant woman,” comments that some interpreted as patronizing.

The fallout from Villaraigosa’s separation has eroded some of his support.

“I think it removes some of the sheen that I’ve had for him,” said one prominent state leader who has known Villaraigosa and his wife for years but would not be quoted by name for fear of embarrassing them. “You can’t fool the people with a big smile. This is the playground of men in politics.”

Part of Villaraigosa’s problem in the current predicament, many say, arises from past behavior.

He has two adult daughters born out of wedlock, and he publicly acknowledged being unfaithful to his wife in the 1990s. That episode led to an extended separation and alienated for a time many ardent supporters, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who declined to comment for this report.

If, as expected, Villaraigosa runs eventually for governor, he can be sure that reporters and bloggers will scrutinize him in minute detail.

“In these kinds of situations, you can always expect a certain amount of prurient interest about what actually caused the split,” said Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist who ran former Gov. Gray Davis’ 1998 and 2002 campaigns. “But to someone with a high political profile like the mayor, the more telling thing is what comes afterward, in the long run.”

Few in Villaraigosa’s inner circle would speak on the record about his marital woes. But at least one person who has helped guide some of the mayor’s most important public policies said he had lost enthusiasm for him.

“You’re not as motivated,” said the friend. “You don’t do the extra thing that you used to do before. Everybody is holding their breath to find out what’s next.”

Others who are close to Villaraigosa praised him for being willing to speak publicly about his failed marriage and for showing deference to his wife during one of the most difficult periods of their lives.

“I have full faith and confidence in him as a friend, as a leader,” said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles). “My friendship is not going to change in any way, shape or form. I’m there for him 150%. He’s a better man than most to have the decency to say, ‘I have made mistakes.’

“People need to leave him alone and leave his family alone,” Nunez added. “Those who want to judge him should not do so unless they have a perfect life themselves.”

Nunez and others said they believe that Villaraigosa worked hard at his marriage, despite the strains of public life, observing a Latin American cultural norm that holds marriage sacred.

One of Villaraigosa’s mentors, former Councilman Richard Alatorre, said the mayor is entitled to privacy even though he is perhaps Los Angeles’ most visible figure.

“Divorce is not easy for anyone. It makes it even more difficult when you’re a public servant,” said Alatorre, who weathered his own divorce while in office. “There are rumors about what caused it and the like. I don’t even want to begin to speculate. It’s a personal decision that was made by both of them. To me, it’s just a tragedy.”

The Villaraigosas’ marriage, long rumored to be in trouble, ended officially a week ago when the mayor issued a brief statement saying he and his wife were separating.

The news was largely overshadowed by the unfolding Paris Hilton jail saga. Villaraigosa called his Monday news conference to further explain himself and to head off reporters who might trail him with questions at his public appearances.

One day later, Corina Villaraigosa filed for divorce.

The mayor’s aides insist that interest in the Villaraigosa split has fallen off precipitously in the days since the news conference. Only one television program mentioned the issue Thursday, according to a media-tracking system used by his office, suggesting that the worst may be over, one of his deputies said.

Political analysts agree, to a point. Few see any signs of lasting damage to Villaraigosa just yet.

Other political leaders whose personal failings have made front-page news have emerged with their careers largely intact, or enhanced, even if their behavior cost them political points in the short run.

The list of such cases reads like a Who’s Who of modern American politics: -- former President Clinton, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart.

Time is a politician’s best friend, campaign professionals say. And that bodes well for Villaraigosa, who faces reelection in two years and a possible run for governor in three, an eternity by the political calendar.

“It’s not a good day, it’s not a good week, but is it the end of his gubernatorial ambitions?” asked Roy Behr, a media consultant who has worked for U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and several other prominent politicians. “Certainly not. Every candidate is going to have worst days and worst weeks before this is over.”