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Mayor spends time on Clinton effort

Times Staff Writer

For more than 2 1/2 years, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been the public face of Los Angeles, appearing in one neighborhood after the next and often leading the nightly news.

But over the last two months, he has devoted noticeable time and energy to a cause outside the city. By today, the mayor will have spent 18 of the last 65 days on the road for presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) -- visiting Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and Texas as the primary election season has intensified.

On Friday, he started what was supposed to be a five-day swing through the Lone Star State to woo Latino voters ahead of Tuesday’s important presidential primary, but he decided to cut the trip short and return home this morning.

Villaraigosa, a national co-chairman of Clinton’s campaign, is one of her leading messengers with Latino voters. But in and around City Hall, political figures and neighborhood activists have begun to notice the mayor’s absences, sometimes quipping “Where’s Antonio?” as they guess where he will turn up next. The critics question whether Villaraigosa is being distracted from pressing city business, including a budget deficit that requires tens of millions of dollars in cuts.

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“I think it’s too much for the mayor to be gone for reasons that have nothing to do with Los Angeles,” said Sandy Brown, president of the Holmby-Westwood Property Owners Assn. “I don’t see a nexus between campaigning on behalf of a candidate and bringing business back.”

Jill Banks Barad, chairwoman of the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils and a Villaraigosa supporter, acknowledged that “We’re almost used to him being somewhere with the [Clinton] campaign. . . . He’s not as visible in the community as he had been.”

But Barad added: “I feel that if there were a crisis, he would catch the next plane and come right back.”

Villaraigosa’s aides said he hasn’t missed any important events at home and that the majority of his Clinton campaign work is on weekends. They said he is tethered to City Hall by his cellphone and a small army of deputies who keep in constant touch and carry out his directives.

Deputy Mayor Sean Clegg said Villaraigosa views the Clinton campaign as an investment in the city’s future. A Democratic president, the mayor believes, would concentrate money and attention on the needs of big cities.

“The mayor said it many times: This is the most important presidential election in his lifetime,” Clegg said. “The outcome is going to have a profound consequence for the city of Los Angeles, from homeland security to transportation to the environment. He believes that by fighting for change in the White House, he is working for the city he loves.”

Villaraigosa is not the first city leader to leave home in support of candidates or other purposes.

City Council President Eric Garcetti -- who is acting mayor when Villaraigosa is away -- spent five days campaigning for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in Iowa during a council recess over the New Year holiday and two more days in Nevada in January, paying for the trips out of his own pocket, according to his press secretary. A member of the Navy Reserve, he spends two weeks training in San Diego each summer.

L.A. Police Chief William J. Bratton also has been a frequent traveler. He drew criticism in 2005 after it was disclosed that he had spent more than one-third of the year -- 125 days -- on business and personal trips out of town.

Villaraigosa has become one of Clinton’s most loyal and effective voices on the stump, a prominent Latino politician who has drawn crowds in Las Vegas, San Antonio and other heavily Latino areas. Since October, he has visited Nevada five times, Iowa three times, Texas twice and New Hampshire once, according to a schedule provided by his office.

His tireless efforts have not gone unnoticed by Clinton, who singled out Villaraigosa after she won Nevada’s Democratic caucuses in January. The mayor has been talked about as a potential Cabinet nominee in a Clinton White House, although he has said privately that he has no interest in such a job.

On the stump, Villaraigosa travels with a press deputy from his City Hall staff and members of the Los Angeles Police Department security detail that accompanies him around the clock whether he is in the city or away.

The mayor’s office said the Clinton campaign covers the cost of flights and hotels for him and his press aide, but the two pick up their food expenses. The city typically pays the travel, hotel and food costs for the LAPD officers, according to police spokeswoman Mary Grady. On three occasions in the fall, the Clinton campaign paid hotel and airfare expenses for the officers before those involved realized that the city covers the costs.

The two press aides who trade off campaign swings -- Matt Szabo and Janelle Erickson -- use their vacation time as well as personal cellphones on the trips because they are barred by city and state law from engaging in political work on the job.

Erickson, who worked in former President Clinton’s congressional affairs office, said she didn’t mind using her vacation time or working on weekends for a cause she believes in. She spent several days in Iowa without the mayor leading up to that state’s Jan. 3 caucuses, volunteering in a Des Moines field office.

“It’s not only my responsibility but an honor to work for someone as smart and talented as Hillary Clinton,” Erickson said.

Clegg said Villaraigosa starts and finishes some of his trips the same day, including one Jan. 12 in which he landed in Las Vegas at 2:40 p.m. and returned to Los Angeles at 9:15 that evening.

“The mayor is sensitive to the balancing that needs to take place,” Clegg said.

But being away, even for a short time, can leave a leadership vacuum, as Villaraigosa discovered last May when a melee erupted between police and immigration protesters in MacArthur Park while he was leading a trade mission to El Salvador and Mexico. Villaraigosa was roundly criticized for not returning immediately.

“There are always critical issues to be addressed,” said Noreen McClendon, executive director of Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles. “I have some critical issues with my organization that I would love the mayor to address.”

Villaraigosa was supposed to return from his Texas trip Wednesday morning but instead is expected home today because he did “as much as he possibly could here” and also because Clinton is scheduled to be in Ohio for the primary election, Szabo said.

Villaraigosa’s office expects his travel to diminish considerably after Tuesday’s balloting in Texas and Ohio, particularly if Obama wins enough delegates to become the presumptive Democratic nominee instead of Clinton. But Clegg said he expected Villaraigosa to return to the stump as the November general election approaches, no matter who wins his party’s nomination.

“The mayor intends to campaign aggressively for a president who is sensitive to the needs of cities like Los Angeles,” Clegg said.

duke.helfand@latimes.com


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