In a corny old movie, they’d illustrate this bit with pages flying off a calendar: Antonio Villaraigosa has about 10 months left as mayor of Los Angeles, and although his name is bruited about for higher office, City Hall is where he says wants to be. Not that that will keep him from presiding as chairman of the Democratic convention next week in North Carolina, checking out the competition in Florida this week and campaigning for President Obama. But then it’s back to pushing toward the goal line in L.A., on transit, trees, parks, education and now the city’s unsettling pension crisis. Tick, tick …
What’s your job at the convention?
The chair bangs the gavel and presides over resolutions and the nomination of the president and the vice president. It’s ministerial on one hand; it’s also very substantive, in that you are the face and the voice of the party at the convention.
You’ve just spent a year as head of the nonpartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors. Does chairing the convention throw a wrench in the nonpartisan works?
Not at all. When I do any of the talk shows, you never see me speak in a very partisan, vitriolic or polarizing way. I don’t do that. I just rejected a couple of national talk shows because they wanted me to go against the RNC chair. I’m mayor of L.A.; that’s my job, and that’s why I’m being asked to serve my party and my country at other levels. I make it clear that I am not an attack dog.
Yet you will be the most visible guy at the Democrats’ biggest party.
I always say I’m unabashedly a progressive, but I take on stupid wherever it exists. I take it on on the right: I’ve written the arguments [for] the anti-death penalty [ballot measure]; I’ll be [for] reforming “three strikes”; I’ve been taking on Proposition 13. With the conference of mayors, I got Republicans and Democrats to vote to accelerate the [troop] withdrawal. On the left, I’ve taken on pension reform, seniority and tenure among the teachers, CEQA reform. I’m a progressive but I am not knee-jerk. I am a grown-up. I’m not a kid on a college campus seeing everything in black and white anymore; I don’t know that I ever did.
I think by the time I became [Assembly] speaker, I started seeing a lot more nuance, I had a bigger job than when I was just a legislator. [As whip] I was the Democratic firebrand; I led big fights in that first year when we lost the majority, [and] I couldn’t get anything done. I couldn’t get Republicans or even moderate Democrats’ support. I put Democrats and Republicans together [on the Assembly] floor; I let [Republicans] name every vice chair [of the Assembly committees] for the first time.
Do we still need political conventions? The outcome is determined, everyone stays on script, the balloons come down — what purpose do they serve?
A convention launches the last stage of that campaign. Nobody’s really watching [until] around convention time. It does frame the issues, the choices. I agree that over time that could change.
Has leading the conference of mayors changed you politically?
No. But being mayor has. When you’ve got to sign the check on the front it’s a lot different from signing it on the back. Being mayor during the worst economic crisis since the 1930s has given me a perspective that I might not have had had. Having to take on education reform with the teachers union so solidly against even the most minimal of changes — after Miramonte, they killed a bill that said you can expedite the process for dismissing a pedophile [teacher]. I mean, come on! They say no to everything! My [teachers] pension reform proposal, it’s still protecting defined benefits — they’re completely against it.
Norm Ornstein’s [and Thomas Mann’s] book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” says [the system] is broken on both sides. It’s way more broken on the right, that’s what I believe, but it’s broken on the left [too]. I really want to look at what I call the radical center.
What does that mean? Is that like “the silent majority,” President Nixon’s phrase?
No, the radical center is a path that moves the country forward, not stays stuck in the ideological morass that we’re in.
Let’s take pension reform —
It’s actually pension security.
Should there still be a defined benefit? Don’t those on the left need to make changes before the right makes changes for them?
That’s exactly right. Look what I’m proposing [he opens a loose leaf file]. I’m tying the retirement age [of most city employees] to 67; right now it’s 55, but most people are retiring at 62. [The plan] caps the maximum retirement allowance at 75% [of salary] instead of 100%. It prevents pension spiking, controls retiree health costs, shares the risk of future increases with employees. That’s where you’ve got to go. That’s where San Diego and San Jose are going.
And those aren’t radical proposals. I’ve told the unions I am duty-bound to make sure the city is on a more sustainable path. Some mayors are going further, the more Republican ones. I don’t think the [California] Legislature will go this far. They just want to deal with spiking and the high-profile stuff that really won’t [save] you money.
Have I told you I’ve been changing this position over time? I got vilified because [of] what I said [about Proposition 209, California’s affirmative action ban]: Mend it, don’t end it. My kids shouldn’t be able to benefit from affirmative action. I should have. I got into UCLA because of affirmative action. [My kids] Antonio and Natalia — they’re on their own. Their mother’s got a master’s degree! I’m saying mend it, don’t end it. That’s the radical center.
When you take extreme positions — like no changes in the face of unsustainable [pension] increases going into the future — we can’t keep going there. With bilingual education, in the face of all these statistics showing kids weren’t learning, [my friends] were still defending bilingual. I just don’t buy that. You’ve got to use data. I think that’s the difference between us and the right. They don’t use data any more. And on the numbers, it doesn’t make sense to protect [unsustainable pensions].
Why are you still regarded in some quarters as a divisive figure?
I don’t think I’m a divisive figure. These are really tough times, and almost no elected official is higher than the 50s [in approval ratings].
You’ve got a lot on your political plate: the city budget, campaigning for extending L.A.'s transit sales tax, Measure R, and for the president. People are going to say you’re spreading yourself too thin.
It matters to L.A. who’s in the White House. The times I went to D.C., I brought home the bacon. I brought home a $546-million loan for the Crenshaw line. Going to Sacramento and supporting high-speed rail, I got about $900 million for the regional connector. Being able to call the president, the majority leader, and get them to respond — I’m not going to D.C. to watch the cherry blossoms bloom. So yes, I’m going to campaign for the president and the Democratic majority, because it’s great to have a partner in the White House and Congress who understand the needs of cities and particularly this city.
What is your mission in the Obama campaign?
I expect they’ll send me to most swing states. It’s not the first time — Hillary [Clinton] [whom he backed in the 2008 presidential primaries] sent me to all those states. I went [on the road] for [John] Kerry. I’ve been doing this now since [the 2000 campaign of Al] Gore.
Both parties are criticized for treating Latinos as a single voting bloc.
There’s no question Latinos will be pivotal to this campaign. If the president is reelected, and I believe he will be, it will be because Latinos supported him above 70%. Not just on immigration. [New York Times op-ed columnist] David Brooks said, speaking of Latinos, that [Republicans] are losing the demographics. I say, losing Latinos? They’re losing women, they’re losing young people, they’re losing demographics across the board. Latinos are going to be pivotal in the 12 or 13 swing states.
Latinos don’t have a turnout in keeping with their numbers in the population, certainly not compared to black voters.
We’re younger, there’s a component that’s not eligible, we’re less educated, poorer — all those factor in. In L.A. and other places, African Americans [often] vote in almost the same numbers as whites, and that’s not true for Latinos. But that’s changing. The reason California is a blue state is because of Proposition 187 [the 1994 anti-illegal immigration measure]. [That] registered a million Latinos.
What was the reaction to Yahoo’s story about you possibly running for president?
I didn’t hear a lot. [The reporter] was saying, “Come on, you’re not riding into the sunset?” Then he mentioned governor and I said, “Yeah, I’d like to be governor.” I didn’t say I was running for governor.
I love this job. Virtually every one of my buddies who has gone from mayor to governor said they loved being mayor more. I want to be mayor; I want to finish this job on a strong note. Like this stuff about a million trees – we’re almost at 400,000. We’ve also done 650 acres of parks, double what they did 12 years ago.
Are you sorry you used that figure, a million?
I’m not. We’re doing ten times the number we did before. We hit 20% on [renewable energy for the city]. We’re doing 19 times the conservation. We just did the most far reaching action plan to clean up a port in the world.
I don’t know what I’m going to do [afterwards]. I want to spend some time reflecting. We have to figure out a way that’s not so ideologically rigid. Yes, one day I would like to continue to serve [in politics]. I just don’t know when that day is right now.
Will you be around to take a ride when all your transit projects are finished?
With America Fast Forward [Villaraigosa’s model for federal-local transit funding] and the extension of Measure R on the November ballot, we’re actually going to be able to do this in our lifetimes. That’s the magic of this.
In an interview with Fernando Guerra of Loyola Marymount University, you said, “Never count me out.” Is that your motto?
My whole life, I’ve been the kind of guy who, when he falls down, gets up, wipes off the blood and keeps on trucking, as if I never fell in the first place.
You’ve been upset by persistent questions about your personal life. Don’t they come with the territory? Look at the coverage of New York mayors Bloomberg and Giuliani.
People are always going to ask, the press will ask about elected officials’ private lives. I think their private lives are their private lives. We’ve gone way beyond what is reasonable. You don’t have to answer, but people are going to ask.
You went to UCLA and your daughter’s at USC. Who do you cheer for when they play each other?
[Laughs]. When USC plays UCLA, I’m with UCLA. But when USC plays the world, I’m the mayor of L.A.!
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.