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Villaraigosa tries out the cheap seats at Dodger Stadium

It’s Friday night at Dodger Stadium, and there’s the mayor of Los Angeles way, way up in the nosebleed section, almost to the moon.

What’s wrong with this picture?

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. Antonio Villaraigosa is a box seat, luxury suite, courtside kind of guy, always managing to get his hands on the best tickets in the house, and he doesn’t pay a nickel.

So I offered to take him to the Dodger-Yankee game and let him explain himself, but the deal was that he’d have to sit with the real people for a change. His answer was cause, once more, to question his judgment.

He said yes.

As we made our way to the seats, the mayor passed Dodger owner Frank McCourt’s son, who asked if he was coming down to his usual seats about 2 feet from home plate. The Dodgers, in fact, seem to have been the mayor’s most generous friends over the years, inviting him back again and again.

No, the mayor said. He was going upstairs. The elevator took us to the top of the stadium, and I wondered if the mayor could handle the thin air at that elevation.

“Are you dizzy?” I asked.

He said he was fine.

For the record, I have tickets to 10 games a year down at field level, but unlike the mayor, I pay for mine. On Friday night, I bought the $12 tickets, and the mayor insisted on buying the beer, hot dogs and peanuts.

We were enjoying our dogs when the New Yorker next to us realized Villaraigosa was the mayor. “So,” he asked, “how’d you get stuck with these seats?” In New York, the guy said, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who happens to be rich, would be sitting in $2,500 seats.

Villaraigosa confessed that he was usually down there himself, but this night was different.

To put Ticketgate in perspective, I should say that once upon a time in Los Angeles, we had an aggressively dull mayor who guarded his privacy, seldom emerged from his bunker and took his sister with him on the rare occasions when he stepped out. Jim Hahn was so shy, I set up a service to recruit potential dates for him.

In a big shakeup five years ago, the city made the switch to Villaraigosa, who seemed determined to prove that he didn’t need my help.

In his five-year crusade to prove that mayors just wanna have fun, Villaraigosa has dated two TV news personalities and has been out on the town more than Lindsay Lohan. On Friday, after being pressed by reporters, his staff released records saying he’d been invited to roughly 100 events and attended about 85. But the record-keeping was sloppy and incomplete, answering some questions but raising more.

It’s part of his job to do the town, the mayor told me at the ballgame. And I agree with him, to a point.

Boosterism isn’t nearly as important as running the city well — and he’s had his ups and downs in that regard — but I do agree that it’s part of the job. Unfortunately for Villaraigosa, there are laws about public officials accepting freebies for themselves and friends and family, as Villaraigosa has done, and the city Ethics Commission and L.A. County district attorney’s office are looking into whether the mayor violated them.

Unless a mayor is performing official or ceremonial duties, free passes are counted as gifts. And if they’re gifts, you’re not allowed to accept more than $420 worth in one year from a single source.

And so, since Villaraigosa didn’t report them as gifts, what was the official or ceremonial business at hand when he sat in $2,000 courtside seats at Lakers games with Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, or when he shared a luxury box at 14 or 15 Dodger games?

In some of those cases, Villaraigosa said, he was there to deliver a proclamation and make a quick exit, and yeah, maybe sometimes he was back before long with another nearly identical proclamation.

“Politicians give proclamations all the time,” he said. “If you can give one in front of 15,000 people, come on!”

Well, that’s honest, at least.

Even without a proclamation, the mayor said, being out in public is a legitimate act of boosterism and counts as official or ceremonial business. Actually, the law is not entirely clear on that, and the mayor said if the ruling is that he broke the rules, he’ll pay for the tickets.

But I will say that from the moment he got to Dodger Stadium, Villaraigosa was mobbed by fans who wanted to shake his hand, take pictures and get his autograph. There you go, he said. He’s the city ambassador and, even at a game, he’s on the job.

Maybe so. But the real concern isn’t the value of the freebies, but the access they can buy. The gang that runs Staples Center and L.A. Live, for instance, has gotten millions in tax breaks from City Hall, so the free Lakers tickets they gave him are a problem, no matter how many times he flashed his smile and said, “Go, L.A.”

Don’t worry, the mayor said. He can’t be influenced by freebies from rich and powerful friends.

If he expected me to believe that, maybe the thin air was getting to him, after all.

On our way out, Villaraigosa was swarmed again and got more cheers than the Dodgers did in their 2-1 loss. If he sat in the cheap seats with the hoi polloi a little more often, maybe he wouldn’t be in the fix he’s in.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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