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Villaraigosa’s future, once bright, now tarnished

Days from the start of his second term, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has earned tepid job approval ratings from city voters, and a plurality opposes his entrance into the upcoming race for governor, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.

Los Angeles’ brooding electorate, battered by job losses and home foreclosures that rise above national and state trends, feels strongly that the city is on the wrong track. And almost half believes the city needs to move in a direction different from that charted by Villaraigosa, rebuking the policies of a mayor they reelected a little more than three months ago.

Although they consider the city’s budget deficit an urgent problem, voters steadfastly oppose raising taxes or fees to stem the deepening fiscal crisis. Even the notion of increasing taxes to improve fire protection, a comparatively easy sell in wildfire-prone Southern California, was rejected handily.

Villaraigosa received a favorable job approval rating from 55% of the registered voters surveyed. The showing is statistically equivalent to the vote he won in the city’s March election against a field of little-known and underfunded candidates. He officially begins his second term July 1.

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For Villaraigosa, who casts himself as a unifying political force in the mold of five-term Mayor Tom Bradley, the survey also indicated some fraying in the broad ethnic coalition that carried him into office in 2005. Almost three-fourths of Latino voters gave the mayor high marks, as did almost two out of three African Americans, but a narrow plurality of white voters gave him negative grades.

The city’s precipitous drop in crime won Villaraigosa his highest praise -- he received a 69% approval rating on handling crime. Voters also approved of his efforts to make Los Angeles a more environmentally friendly city, but scorched him on the city’s budget deficit and the quality of the public schools, which ranked higher among their top concerns.

“I’ve actually been impressed with some of the things they’ve done with crime, to bring crime down. I’ve also been impressed because he’s been so prolific. . . . He’s all over town,” Christopher Knudsen of Van Nuys, an unemployed recruiter for financial firms, said in a follow-up interview.

Michael Ortega of Harbor City, who was among the respondents unhappy with the mayor’s tenure, said Villaraigosa appears to be more concerned about furthering his political career than serving the people of Los Angeles.

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“He’s never going to be focused on the business at hand. To run for governor, you have to traverse the state . . . so he won’t even be around,” said Ortega, 58, a retired Social Security Administration worker. “I’ve never trusted the guy.”

Ortega said his doubts about Villaraigosa deepened after the mayor acknowledged his extramarital affair with a local newscaster, which led to the breakup of his 20-year marriage. However, most of those surveyed -- 70% -- dismissed the affair, saying it would have no effect on whether they vote for Villaraigosa in the future.

The Los Angeles Times survey was conducted by the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research in conjunction with Public Opinion Strategies, which surveys for Republican candidates. The findings are based on a citywide telephone survey of 1,500 registered voters conducted from June 10 to June 16. The survey has a margin of error of 2.6 percentage points in either direction.

The poll was taken as Villaraigosa not only prepares to begin his final term as mayor, but also comes to a decision on whether to run for governor in 2010. Those close to the process have said they expect a public announcement soon.

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Given the nation’s economic upheaval and the overall anger that voters harbor as a result, Villaraigosa’s 55% job approval rating appears “acceptable,” said pollster Stanley Greenberg, one of the poll supervisors. Still, he said, it’s clear that Los Angeles voters are not happy with his policies.

“He’s going into this term with people very distraught with the direction of the city,” Greenberg said. “He’s not coming with a big wind at this back. People want something new from him.”

Villaraigosa’s prospects as a possible gubernatorial candidate, a role that seemed almost preordained after his celebrated 2005 election as Los Angeles’ first Latino mayor in more than a century, also appear to be vulnerable in a city that should be the 56-year-old politician’s strongest base of support.

Among Los Angeles Democrats, Villaraigosa would only narrowly defeat state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown if the Democratic gubernatorial primary were held today, the survey found.

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According to the poll, 38% picked Villaraigosa compared with 32% for former Gov. Brown. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom registered a distant 13%. Newsom has announced his candidacy, while Brown, like Villaraigosa, has demurred when asked his plans.

A Villaraigosa bid for governor would enjoy strong support from Latino and African American voters, as well as voters under age 29. However, voters over 50, who are among the most dependable on election day, favor Brown, as do the city’s white voters. Brown is also a more popular choice on the Westside, a former power base for Villaraigosa. The mayor is favored in the San Fernando Valley, and in South and Central Los Angeles, the survey showed.

“He seems pretty fair. All of us make mistakes and do something wrong. At least he’s trying to help. He’s doing what he can,” said Leola Harrison, 74, a retired truck driver and housekeeper from South Los Angeles who said Villaraigosa should run for governor. “His attitude and his demeanor is, to me, on the meek side. What I mean is the poor and the downtrodden. He doesn’t just look at the people upstairs.”

Larry Bruno of Eagle Rock said he believes Villaraigosa has done well as mayor but that a run for governor would be bad for Los Angeles.

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“There is a big enough job here,” said Bruno, a 50-year-old telephone technician.

The financial troubles facing Los Angeles are clearly a major concern among voters. Topped only by education, jobs and economic development, they far outranked Angelenos’ ubiquitous anxieties about crime and traffic. Three out of four respondents called the deficit a serious problem and blamed it on three main culprits: Sacramento politicians, City Hall politicians and the national recession.

To address the city’s $530-million budget gap, the mayor and City Council approved a budget earlier this month that would lay off 1,200 city workers and impose mandatory furlough days. Officials are still negotiating with the city’s public employee unions for alternatives, as well as an additional $120 million in wage and benefit concessions necessary to balance the 2009-10 budget.

When asked to consider a list of budget-balancing options, more than 70% of those surveyed said they opposed laying off city workers, but 54% would accept worker furloughs.

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Villaraigosa’s proposal to auction off city parking garages and meters, which could potentially raise hundreds of millions of dollars in one-time revenue for the city, also won a narrow endorsement from those polled.

Raising money by increasing taxes and fees received little support, even if the money were devoted to popular programs. Six in 10 of those surveyed said they would oppose any attempt to increase sales or property taxes to pay for improving fire services or for basic city services such as parks, libraries and street repair.

“Right now, I think everyone thinks they’re overtaxed already. If times were better, it might be different,” said David Wong, 47, a healthcare profession from Northridge.

City leaders also don’t help themselves when they raise taxes or fees for one purpose and then spend it on something entirely different, Wong said.

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For example, the mayor pushed through a plan to triple trash fees to expand the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department. But because of declines in city tax revenue, that effort has been temporarily scaled back to replace only officers who leave through attrition.

“They always do that,” Wong said.

Even though crime does not rank as a major concern, respondents were adamant that Villaraigosa’s police hiring program remain untouched. Sixty-five percent said they oppose -- most of them strongly -- halting the program.

Strong voter support for the LAPD was among the most telling results of the Times poll, and included Police Chief William J. Bratton. The chief received high marks from 66% of those surveyed, topping Villaraigosa and falling only 6 points shy of President Obama’s 72% approval rating.

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For California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the numbers weren’t so good. Only 29% approved of the job he was doing; close to half of the respondents strongly disapproved. South Los Angeles’ Harrison was one of them.

“I think I could make a better governor than what we have right now,” she said.

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phil.willon@latimes.com

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Tomorrow: Voters’ views on the LAPD and the city’s quality of life.


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