Turning promises into policies

Four and a half years ago, a Los Angeles city councilman looking to become mayor promised to take the bureaucracy into uncharted territory by helping residents get better access to cheaper prescription drugs.

The LA-Rx program, unveiled in the heat of Antonio Villaraigosa’s campaign, was ambitious. It was innovative. And it took a back seat to other initiatives once he won office.

When Villaraigosa finally unveiled the start of LA-Rx last week, it was one of several signs that the mayor -- now in his second term -- is trying to shed a reputation for being long on promises and short on follow-through.

Over the last three weeks, Villaraigosa has begun reshuffling his cabinet, picking two advisors to track his policy goals more closely. He has vowed to speed up construction of his promised subway to the sea, scheduled to reach Westwood when he turns 83.

Some political experts argue that Villaraigosa would do best by scaling back his goals and focusing on those that would have the biggest effect.


“His team is having trouble coming to grips on what to really focus on; not only what can be focused on but what they can get results from,” said Jaime Regalado, who runs the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute for Public Affairs. “There’s been a sense that the early part of his new administration has been adrift and trying to find its legs, and trying to find a singular policy issue that will resonate.”

Villaraigosa made tangible progress on two expensive goals during his first term: hiring 1,000 police officers and starting the long-debated subway to the sea. More than 800 officers were hired and voters embraced Measure R, a half-cent sales tax for public transit, in November.

Then last month, he won a major victory on public education. Allies on the school board agreed to allow as many as 250 schools to be turned over to outside operators.

And he showed little patience for those who think he should narrow his agenda, saying he always knew it was too big to accomplish in four years.

“Many of the goals that we set, we’re going to meet; some of them we may not,” Villaraigosa said. “But it won’t be from not setting the bar high.”

While it is unclear where Villaraigosa’s political future lies given his recent decision to forgo a run for governor, experts contend that new opportunities -- a possible U.S. Senate run in 2012 or a White House post -- are unlikely to open up unless he achieves more in his second term.

“I think he has got some rehabilitation to do before he goes on to higher office,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Villaraigosa supporters insist that the mayor is not thinking about any job other than his own. But some concede his team struggled to gain traction on key initiatives.

“He wants to build a legacy that puts him in the company” of former Mayor Tom Bradley, said a Villaraigosa supporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the mayor’s office did not grant authorization to comment. “But to do that, he has to put a greater emphasis on execution.”

Villaraigosa first ran into difficulty more than two years ago when his hard-fought bill to gain control at the Los Angeles Unified School District was thrown out by a judge. He also had to retool his plan to plant 1 million trees after The Times discovered that organizers were handing out thousands of seedlings without making sure they were planted.

Then Villaraigosa failed to win passage of a solar energy plan, saw a close ally fail in his bid for city attorney and -- perhaps most significantly -- struggled to get a handle on a $530-million budget shortfall.

Even his push to hire 1,000 police officers has nearly been brought to a standstill, with budget problems forcing the city to hire only enough officers to replace those who leave via retirement or attrition.

Villaraigosa is expected to refocus by relying on his new high-level advisors. Public safety and the budget will be handed to the Rev. Jeff Carr, who was named chief of staff. One of Carr’s most critical tasks will be to replace outgoing Police Chief William J. Bratton, who presided over the LAPD as crime rates plummeted. While the mayor shared Bratton’s spotlight as crime dropped, a rise in crime rates could now reflect more on him.

The mayor’s other hire -- Jay Carson, former press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential run -- will serve as chief deputy mayor over schools, jobs, traffic and the environment. Carson will be responsible for some of the biggest initiatives contained within Villaraigosa’s July 1 inaugural speech, including his promise to reconstitute failing Los Angeles schools.

Villaraigosa has vowed to get the Department of Water and Power to generate 40% of its electricity from renewable fuel sources. Although the deadline for that goal is 2020, one Villaraigosa aide said the mayor wants the renewable energy contracts signed by 2013, when his term expires.

With Carr handling day-to-day matters as well as the expansion of gang and public safety initiatives, Carson will focus on executing the mayor’s big-picture initiatives.

Sources familiar with the dynamics of the mayor’s office say his team is intent on crafting a more aggressive and less-reactive operation in which city department heads and deputies will be held accountable.

Regalado, who runs the policy center at Cal State Los Angeles, said the mayor would be wise to settle for one or two major priorities. If Villaraigosa refuses to scale back his initiatives, “then it sounds like the previous four years, the notion that the administration is all over the map with too many priorities -- and fundamentally having a hard time delivering on any of them,” he said.


Times staff writer Phil Willon contributed to this report.