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Villaraigosa strikes gubernatorial tone in State of the City speech

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Tuesday laid out a second-term agenda weighted heavily toward the creation of environmentally friendly jobs to rescue Los Angeles from its economic malaise but warned of serious pain ahead as the city digs out of a half-billion-dollar budget shortfall.

Delivering his fourth State of the City speech since taking office, Villaraigosa’s remarks struck the tone of a Democratic candidate for governor, with scorching critiques of both Sacramento lawmakers and Washington conservatives.

Villaraigosa denounced the “politics of no” as he called for a green technology hub along the west side of the Los Angeles River to attract new jobs and start-up companies.

“We need to build a future in which clean technology is as synonymous with Los Angeles as motion pictures or aerospace,” said the mayor, appearing at the Harbor City factory of Balqon Corp., which manufactures electric big-rigs for use at the city’s ports.

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During his 33-minute address, Villaraigosa also promised to provide care for families decimated by job losses and foreclosures, to turn over failing L.A. schools to charter operators and to press ahead with his expansion of the Los Angeles Police Department. Portions of his ambitious agenda hinge on the city securing hundreds of millions of dollars from President Obama’s stimulus package.

By focusing so heavily on environmental themes, Villaraigosa delivered an upbeat message to accompany the dire scenario City Hall now faces: an estimated $530-million hole in its upcoming budget, two pension systems severely battered by investment losses and a city workforce that is being asked to choose between wage reductions or layoffs of thousands of employees.

“He found a way to give a realistic speech while still finding opportunities to be optimistic,” said Villaraigosa ally Richard Katz, who serves with the mayor on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Villaraigosa called on the city’s powerful public-employee unions to embrace wage and benefit concessions, saying it was the only path to prevent layoffs and protect city services. The mayor, who will release his 2009-10 budget Monday, called for immediate action and warned residents that the budget shortfall could grow to nearly $1 billion next year.

At least one union leader was cool to the mayor’s suggestion, saying that his members preferred early retirement packages and “no steps backwards” on existing contracts. “The mayor’s proposals are off base,” Bob Schoonover, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 721, said in a statement.

As a centerpiece of his speech, Villaraigosa reintroduced his plan for a “green” industry corridor just east of downtown that would serve as a spawning ground for environmentally conscious businesses. The speech echoed Villaraigosa’s message during his recent reelection campaign, when he promised to make Los Angeles “the greenest big city in America.”

Over the last four years, Villaraigosa has pushed the Port of Los Angeles to replace up to 17,000 diesel trucks with cleaner-burning models. And at the Department of Water and Power, he has pressed officials to expand the utility’s reliance on renewable sources of energy -- primarily wind, solar and geothermal power.

Villaraigosa’s green agenda, combined with his emphasis on public safety and concessions from public employee unions, could broaden his appeal to moderates in California, some political experts said.

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“If you’re going to pick a statewide theme that will afford you safe ground, there’s probably no better topic now than the green movement and the environment,” said San Jose State political scientist Larry Gerston, who is keeping a close watch on the early political maneuvering of potential contenders in the 2010 governor’s race.

Still, Villaraigosa’s drive to create green jobs has hit some roadblocks in recent months. Measure B, the solar initiative that he backed in the March 3 election, narrowly went down to defeat despite the use of television commercials that featured the mayor.

Meanwhile, the union leader who largely conceived of the energy plan has been highly critical of Villaraigosa’s other environmental initiatives at the DWP, including efforts to secure solar power sources in the Mojave Desert and geothermal power in Imperial County. Brian D’Arcy, who heads the union that represents DWP workers, has also criticized some of Villaraigosa’s environmental allies, saying that they are more interested in their clean energy benefactors than they are in the needs of Los Angeles.

Either way, Villaraigosa’s emphasis on job creation and the environment only fueled speculation that he would use similar themes next year in a run for statewide office. “It sounded gubernatorial,” said City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who attended the speech.

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phil.willon@latimes.com

david.zahniser@latimes.com

Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.

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