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A second chance at mayor

Could he have won? That’s not the point. Pundits and pollsters from across the nation will make much of whether Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa still had enough political magic to be elected governor of California next year, and what his real reason was for staying out of the race, a decision he announced on CNN on Monday. More pertinent is whether he could have done anything, if elected, to get California out of the mess it’s in; but that’s not the point either.

The point is that Los Angeles voters just reelected him as mayor, and his job here is unfinished. The Times is pleased that he opted to stay here to try to do it.

Much of the knock on Villaraigosa is that he’s wrapped up in himself and his personal ambitions: He talks a lot, he campaigns a lot, but his eye is always on the next rung up the ladder. His aura -- something Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) once labeled a “special shimmer” -- was based in part on the belief that he was going places. Implicit in that belief was that he was going to places beyond Los Angeles, a city that can’t meet the aspirations of a truly ambitious politician.

Wrong. The job is big and important enough to satisfy the demands of any mayor, as long as he makes it his top priority. Voters elected Villaraigosa in 2005 in the belief that he would do that. They reelected him -- a smattering of them did, anyway -- this year in part because their mayor was so skilled at getting the most viable challengers not to run. The city now wrestles with a palpable disappointment in Villaraigosa, not just because of budget woes or bad schools but because of his failure to live up to expectations that he helped to inflate. That’s a hard way for a mayor to enter a second term. Still, we credit him for deciding to enter it with both feet, instead of one pointed toward Sacramento.

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Conventional wisdom dictates that the mayor is in for a period of political weakness. After all, much of his clout was based on the notion that he was a candidate for higher office, so no one who needs strings pulled in Sacramento will need Villaraigosa’s ear for a while. And with his weakness, the argument goes, Los Angeles too is in for a period off the political map.

That need not be the case. One of the world’s most creative and influential cities simply needs a leader who recognizes its worth and who’s intent on helping it get its act together. It needs more than a political star. It needs someone with plans and follow-through to make its neighborhoods more livable and its people more successful. That’s what this city was looking for when it chose Villaraigosa in the first place. Now both he and Los Angeles get another chance to prove they were right for each other.


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