Antonio’s perfect storm
TOO BAD FOR THE philandering mayor. If he’d sold himself as an old-time pol, a hard-charging, foul-mouthed power broker with large appetites, maybe he wouldn’t be getting so much flak for his latest marital infidelity.
But instead, our mayor has packaged himself as a high-minded, principled progressive with the right character and moral vision to lead our city. As much as he insists that his private life is separate from his politics, his very choice of surname suggests that he once believed otherwise. In 1987, when Antonio Villar legally melded his last name with that of his new wife, Corina Raigosa, he was presumably trying to tell the world of his strong commitment to feminism. And remember the feminist slogan of the era? The personal is the political.
But is it really?
Traditional conservative politicians and activists often fall the hardest after marital indiscretions are revealed. Not because their sins are any worse than those of liberals, but because we judge them according to their own standards. That suggests the public cares less about the marital infidelity of politicians than it does about hypocrisy. In other words, it’s all about expectations.
Think of Bill Clinton. He was able to maintain strong public support throughout his impeachment trial not because Americans condoned his indiscretions or considered them irrelevant, but because he had successfully lowered their expectations of his personal behavior. He was aided by an odd combination of a strong economy and previous reports of his moral failures. Together they forged a portrait of a flawed yet effective political leader.
In Villaraigosa’s first run for mayor in 2001, he sought to turn his youthful indiscretions — including an arrest for misdemeanor assault when he was 24 — into a political advantage. (Remember the story of how he erased the “Born To Raise Hell” tattoo from his teenage years off his right arm?) He went around calling himself a high school dropout and selling himself as the “bad barrio kid made good.” But that turned out to be the wrong strategy when running against then-City Atty. Jim Hahn, who wasn’t afraid to run a nasty attack ad suggesting that Villaraigosa consorted with crack dealers. The result was devastating.
The next time around, Villaraigosa buried the bad-boy shtick and sold himself as having put all that so far behind him that “made good” was all there was. He seized on allegations circling around then-Mayor Hahn and ran against the incumbent’s alleged ethical lapses. He became the Boy Scout candidate who promised to “restore trust and confidence in City Hall.”
In both mayoral campaigns, Hahn aides whispered to me and others about having a “nuke bomb” about Villaraigosa’s alleged extramarital lapses. But in 2005, Villaraigosa’s new squeaky clean political persona served as both offense and defense. He took the high road, and his campaign mailers featured sunny pictures of the candidate with wife and kids. And Hahn had reasons not to draw attention to his own marriage, which had disintegrated.
Thus, with both sides pulling punches in a “mutually assured destruction” strategy, Villaraigosa was elected — not as a flawed but effective politician but as a paragon of virtue.
I first sat down with Villaraigosa in 1994, about a week after he was elected to the Assembly. Having followed his career, covered him and talked to countless others about him in the years since, I am not the least bit surprised by his current predicament. I also don’t think that his personal indiscretions disqualify him from being a good mayor. I don’t agree that the personal should always be political.
My problem with Villaraigosa is that as he pretended to be something he was not, he began to believe his own news releases.
He wasn’t alone. The media and his fervent supporters also drank the Kool-Aid, and for the first two years of his mayoralty, Villaraigosa built a cult of personality that, when you think about it, was way over the top. He was the perfect politician, everything to everyone. And boy, was he everywhere. He could do no wrong.
But there’s no evidence that voters require their elected officials to be perfect and holier than thou. Remember our collective disappointment with Jimmy Carter, our sense that he was too good to be an effective president? Particularly in the case of a big-city mayor facing big-city problems, we’d probably appreciate some rough edges and a little street savvy to get things done.
The mayor is getting lots of advice right now from all over. Here’s mine: Stop trying so damned hard to be liked. The ridiculous across-the-board perfection you and your deputies seek to portray ultimately works against you. You don’t have to be Superman. The public is more likely to respect you if they know that you know that you are as flawed as they are.