For Antonio Villaraigosa, last week loomed like one big reset button.
On Tuesday, he delivered a speech lambasting the Los Angeles teachers union as a major impediment to school reform. On Wednesday, he defended President Obama’s controversial tax compromise, even as other Democrats bayed in opposition. Later that day, he joined other big-city mayors in Chicago to call for the reform of public employee pensions that have hamstrung city budgets.
The three events may be unrelated, accidents of timing. But in politics almost nothing is accidental, so it was hard to believe that the week was not meant to accomplish something for the Los Angeles mayor. The question is what.
It was all about results, according to Villaraigosa. He said he chose to criticize the union in order to “set a marker” in the debate over school reform. He signed on to the Obama tax deal because it helped the unemployed. He renewed his call for pension reform to help cities like Los Angeles ease the grievous deficits that have defined much of his tenure.
To those more Machiavellian in nature — say, the entire political establishment — other possibilities came to mind: Villaraigosa was angling for an Obama administration job. He was declaring independence from party positions and powers in preparation for a future statewide run. Or he was trying to redefine his mayoralty in a way that could reap benefits down the line, were he to decide to exercise options one or two.
At minimum, last week gave voters a chance to see Villaraigosa in a different light, more like the Energizer Bunny model of his early tenure than like the mayor dragged down by the endless bad news that has bedeviled all elected officials in this dour economy.
For the record, the mayor insisted that last week was business as usual.
“I think you know my politics,” he said in a brief interview Friday. “I’m unabashedly progressive, but I’m also unabashedly practical and pragmatic.”
For a Democratic politician who is presumed to have ambitions once he is termed out of office in 2013, Villaraigosa’s moves were intriguing.
Image-wise, the sharply worded remarks about the United Teachers of Los Angeles were initially the most striking. Emphasizing education reform has become for this generation of Democratic politicians what embracing the death penalty was to the previous generation: the spurning of a key party power — in this case a union — in order to cast one’s lot with the moderate voters who decide elections.
Even if Villaraigosa’s motivation was wholly policy-oriented, the result was to publicly ally himself with reformers, parents and the Obama administration rather than with the union, which he argued was trying to blunt progress. That he did so as a former organizer — for the same union he criticized — gave his argument added potency.
“The time is now for the most powerful defenders of the status quo, and that’s what the teachers’ unions are, to come on board in our effort to reform and transform our schools,” he said Friday. “I don’t think anyone in the United States of America can say I’m anti-union. I worked for the teachers union.... But I also believe, and believe strongly, that we’re going to have to change the oppositional nature of what the teachers’ union has done.”
Villaraigosa is not alone in his support for education reform, so it was his second move of the week — endorsing Obama’s tax-cut compromise — that really put him out on a limb. Since the agreement with Republicans was announced mid-week, the administration has dribbled out a succession of letters of support, but it sent out Villaraigosa’s first.
“The president’s decision to build this bipartisan compromise will give relief for another 13 months to the hundreds of thousands of unemployed Angelenos,” Villaraigosa said in his letter.
Compare that to what state Democratic Party chief John Burton said as he asked Democrats to swamp congressional offices with opposition to a proposal that he insisted would wrongly give billions to the rich.
“Just as we do not negotiate with international terrorists, we must stand up to the political terrorism of the Republicans in the United States Senate,” Burton said.
Villaraigosa said that he and other mayors did object to the proposal’s extension of tax cuts for the rich but that the deal’s defects were outweighed by its benefits: “We decided to stand up with President Obama to say the country is evenly divided, and it’s time to compromise and move forward,” he said Friday.
Part of the difficulty in divining what Villaraigosa was trying to accomplish last week is the parallel difficulty in figuring out where he might be going.
When he first ran for mayor in 2001, Villaraigosa was seen as one of the Democratic Party’s up-and-comers. Now the senior Democrats — Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Gov.-elect Jerry Brown — are in their 70s. Villaraigosa will be pushing 60 when the next big race occurs — Feinstein’s Senate seat is up in 2012, though she has said she plans to run again. Catching up with the mayor is a younger group of Democrats, personified by the incoming lieutenant governor and attorney general, Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris. Both are in their 40s.
For upward momentum, or just a legacy, Villaraigosa has to make good on his basic pledges: to lower crime, improve schools and increase jobs. Crime has been down, but joblessness is high. Voters can cut mayors slack during national downturns, but no such slack is likely when it comes to the state of the schools. Villaraigosa himself said years ago that voters should “absolutely” hold him responsible for reforming schools, and unless he can convince voters that the unions are to blame, they are likely to hold him to it.
“Give him credit for telling it like it is. He may be burning bridges without getting anything political in return” said political strategist Arnold Steinberg. “That is, unless he’s looking to be the next secretary of Education.”
The week began with Villaraigosa straining for notice, and it ended with the kind of local event that sustains a mayor even if it gains little outside attention. On Friday, he journeyed to the grand opening of the Downtown Women’s Center, which serves homeless women.
As he toured the center’s upstairs rooms, a few dozen women danced in the lobby to the accompaniment of a raucous band. The mayor came down the elevator and snaked through the crowd to the center of the mob, the women laughing and joyous as he danced with them.
He made his way to his car a bit later, interrupted every few feet as one Angeleno after another came up to shake his hand, to ask for a picture or to recount an earlier meeting. Everyone, Villaraigosa included, left beaming.
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