Nothing stands in Villaraigosa’s way

Zahniser and Willon are Times staff writers.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa finishes his first four-year term on a perch that any big-city politician would envy -- no strong opposition, cash in his campaign coffers and a City Hall that is closely in sync with his agenda.

His most formidable potential challenger, billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso, announced Friday that he would not run for the city’s top office this year. While Caruso was explaining that decision, Villaraigosa was in Chicago appearing onstage with President-elect Barack Obama.

A second term would give Villaraigosa the opportunity to make further progress on goals he set out in his 2005 mayoral campaign, some of which have not been achieved. As he seeks reelection March 3, he will be in a position to strengthen his hold even further on L.A.'s political institutions -- ones with the power to shape policy on crime, education, transportation and the environment.


The City Council rarely challenges Villaraigosa’s broader policy wishes. Two of the mayor’s closest allies, council members Jack Weiss and Wendy Greuel, are seen as front runners for city attorney and city controller, respectively.

The mayor now has four allies on the Los Angeles school board and will probably push to get two more elected in March. With the passage of Measure R, the sales tax hike for transit, he has forged a new working relationship with county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, an occasional antagonist on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.

Even though he was a national co-chairman of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Villaraigosa landed a coveted spot Thursday on Obama’s economic transition team. Two days earlier, he helped secure passage of three local ballot measures that will pour up to $50 billion into new transit projects, public schools and community college buildings.

His work on behalf of those tax hikes -- Measures J, Q and R -- drew high praise from business leaders who had said they were critical to rebuilding the area’s infrastructure.

“There is probably no one in the community in a better position to raise money than the mayor. And I think it had a positive result,” said Gary Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. “All three were an investment in the future of Los Angeles.”

The mayor’s strong showing stands in sharp contrast to last year, when he came under fire for engaging in an extramarital affair with a Spanish-language television reporter. By then, he had also drawn criticism for getting bogged down in a fight over control of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Still, some critics are wary of Villaraigosa’s resurgence. Urban historian Joel Kotkin, author of “The City: A Global History,” said the mayor’s expanding influence is resulting in far fewer policy arguments and an overall lack of dissent.

“There is no debate,” Kotkin said. “We have no legitimate institutions with even the slightest opposition, and the same thing is true in Chicago and New York now.”

Villaraigosa’s ability to sway -- and help elect -- other politicians stands in sharp contrast to his two most recent predecessors: James K. Hahn and Richard Riordan.

During his four-year term, Hahn had bitter fights with the council over his plans for hiring new police officers and modernizing Los Angeles International Airport. He avoided school politics and had difficulty getting even his four appointees on the 13-member MTA board to vote his way.

Riordan, a Republican who served from 1993 to 2001, had a famously contentious relationship with the left-leaning City Council. Although he did wade into school board politics, he did not elect a new board majority until his sixth year in office. Four years later, three of those trustees were swept out.

Villaraigosa spent his first 18 months fighting with the school board over his effort to take some control of the district. But last year, he spent $3.5 million on a campaign to elect a new board majority. With two vacant seats now up for grabs, the mayor could soon have six allies on the seven-member board.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a pundit who had urged Caruso to run, said he would like to see the council challenge Villaraigosa on his budget and hiring decisions. And he warned that the addition of two more mayor-friendly school board members could actually undermine Villaraigosa -- by keeping him from hearing opposing views.

“They’re going to tell him what he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear to carry out his school reform project, and that’s what bothers me,” said Hutchinson, who also heads the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable.

Villaraigosa allies have a sharply different view, saying his increased political clout will allow him to accomplish more of his policy goals.

“I also think he has really raised the profile of L.A. A perfect example of that was today,” said Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), referring to the mayor’s appearance with Obama on national television.

Despite his higher profile, Villaraigosa has said he has no interest in serving in an Obama Cabinet. If he changed his mind and took a position after today’s deadline, no additional people would be allowed to run for mayor unless they were write-in candidates.

Still, the mayor has another potential distraction ahead of him: deciding whether to a run for governor in 2010. He remains coy about a possible campaign, saying repeatedly that he is happy being mayor.

For now, Villaraigosa has at least $1.5 million available to use against his 16 likely challengers in the mayoral race, all of whom are running with little or no money. His best-known opponent so far is Walter Moore, a lawyer from the Carthay Circle neighborhood who finished sixth in the 2005 mayoral race. Moore, a regular on local talk radio, has $11,000 available for his bid, according to contribution reports.

Until Friday, the race had the potential to turn lively, with Caruso, the shopping mall magnate who developed the Grove, seen as a serious and well-funded challenger. Caruso had confided to people close to him that he considered Villaraigosa politically vulnerable, in part because of the city’s dire finances and what he considers an inhospitable business climate that has driven companies and jobs out of town.

Instead, the GOP businessman said he believed that a mayoral bid -- and life in public office -- would place too heavy a burden on his family, particularly his two younger children.

“I was very confident that we could mount a winning campaign, and I mean that with all sincerity. He has a lot of weaknesses,” Caruso said. “The good news for Antonio today is that he doesn’t have to worry about a campaign. He gets a free ride.”

Villaraigosa campaign manager Ace Smith had long dismissed the notion that Caruso would run this year. Even if the developer had jumped into the race, Smith contended, the millions Caruso could have poured into it would not have been enough to overcome the mayor’s record on crime, the environment and transportation.